Justin Koo LLB, LLM
PhD student, Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London
For the avid gamers out there, you would no doubt be aware that playing video games can be quite an expensive hobby. On average one video game costs about £30-£45, whereas, the cost of buying a mod chip to ‘modify’ your console is about £70-£100. Therefore, one can see the obvious allure in purchasing a mod chip as it provides a cheap albeit illegal alternative to buying new games. However, the legality of mod chips for video game consoles has always been in question because its usage normally implies the playing of unauthorised or illegitimate copies of video games.
Without a mod chip these illegitimate copies of games will not work given that video game hardware and software are both encoded with technological protection measures (TPM) in order to prevent such acts. Regardless of this major purpose, there are other ways in which mod chips can be used. Mod chips also allow the use of ‘homebrew’ software, which in lay-man terms, allows users to run applications and processes that ordinarily are not available on a non-modified console. For example, homebrew software would allow: emulator programs to run – these enable the playing of video games from other platforms (normally older discontinued consoles), playing licensed video games from other regions and playing other non-video game media such as DVDs and MP3s (where previously unavailable).
These very mod chips are the subject of dispute in the Nintendo v PC Box case that has been referred by the Tribunale di Milano to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). In short, Nintendo argued that PC Box’s mod chips circumvent the TPMs designed to prevent the playing of unauthorised video games on their Wii and DS consoles. However, PC Box argues that the true purpose of Nintendo’s TPMs is to prevent the use of independent software and to geographically segment markets by restricting the use of games according to region. Therefore, the Italian district court referred two questions to the CJEU concerning the circumvention of Nintendo’s TPMs on their Wii and DS video game consoles by PC Box’s mod chips:
1) The first question concerns the application of Article 6(1) of the Information Society Directive 2001 to the TPMs contained in Nintendo’s hardware and software. Basically, the first part of the question asks whether Article 6(1) is applicable to Nintendo’s consoles (hardware) that have TPMs although they are not copyright works but merely facilitate the use of them. Secondly, it asks whether Article 6(1) still applies even though the purpose of Nintendo’s TPMs is not only to restrict the infringement of their copyright works (namely reproduction of their video games) but also to preclude interoperability.
2) The second question focuses on the application of Article 6(2) to the supply of PC Box’s mod chips. The district court asks the question of how the purpose of a device (mod chip) is to be decided in determining whether there are any other commercially significant uses.
In a more general sense there are two major issues that can be inferred from the above questions. In the first place, the validity of video game mod chips is in the spotlight as it is being questioned whether they have any other commercially legitimate purposes that do not involve the infringement of copyright works. And secondly, to what extent will Article 6(1) protect TPMs that go further than merely preventing the infringement of copyright works especially in instances that involve the prevention of acts that do not require the authorisation of the copyright owner.
Advocate General Sharpston in her opinion suggested that the CJEU should answer the first part of the first question in the affirmative. Article 6(1) should be applicable to Nintendo’s hardware on the grounds that Article 6(3) details a wide range of access controls or protection processes including copy control mechanisms. If TPMs not contained in the copyright material itself were exempted from protection, then a broad range of TPMs would be excluded contrary to the objective of the provision. However, the TPM used must be proportional. It will be a matter for the domestic court to determine whether the acts requiring authorisation can be restricted without also restricting acts that do not require authorisation based on the current state of technology. What this means is that TPMs that are disproportionate to the purpose of preventing copyright infringement will not be protected under Article 6(1) as it will not be an ‘effective technological measure’.
Regarding the second question, AG Sharpston suggested that the relevant criteria for determining whether Nintendo should gain protection against the supply of PC Box’s mod chips was Article 6(2)(b). In other words, if the mod chips have no other commercially significant purpose than infringing copyright in video games then its supply will be subject to legal repercussions. However, in reaching this conclusion she did note that if the mod chip can be used for legitimate purposes, then it should influence the decision regarding whether Nintendo’s TPMs are proportional. As such if the mod chips can be used for commercially significant legitimate means, then there is the possibility that Nintendo’s TPMs are overly (and unnecessarily) broad and as such may not qualify as ‘effective’. The consequence of this is that Nintendo’s TPMs may fall outside the scope of protection provided by Article 6(1).
Considering all the evidence at hand and the opinion of AG Sharpston it would seem that the decision of the case turns on the finding of any other commercially significant purposes for the mod chip. However, it is this writer’s opinion that even in the instance of other legitimate uses being found, the primary purpose of the mod chip to facilitate the playing of unauthorised or illegitimate video games outweighs any other use. Therefore, Nintendo should receive protection for its TPMs as well as protection against the supply of PC Box’s mod chips.
Although the Nintendo v PC Box case is interesting in its own right, it does raise some further issues and questions which are as interesting as the case itself. One of the first issues discussed in the case at the domestic level concerned what the applicable law should be, that is the Computer Programs Directive 2009 or the Information Society Directive 2001. The decision to choose the Information Society Directive as the applicable law is a significant one because it meant categorising video games as more than software. In fact, the court held that video games cannot simply be regarded as computer programs but instead are “complex multimedia works.” The implication of this is that video games are afforded a broader range of protection than it would be entitled to if were categorised as a mere computer program.
A second interesting point to note is the manner in which the referring court addressed the second question in Nintendo v PC Box. In applying Article 6(2) the court was only concerned with subsection (b), ignoring subsections (a) and (c). It would be desirable to apply Article 6(2) in a cumulative manner for the purpose of determining whether the supply of a device should be protected against opposed to singling out an individual criterion. The consequence of this is that the Italian district court could have avoided the hard question of determining whether PC Box’s mod chips had any other commercially significant purposes by merely looking at the reason the device was designed and its marketing. The rationale behind this criticism is that the marketing and design of PC Box’s mod chips would give insight into the primary purpose of the mod chips as well as any other commercially significant purposes. Thus, answering the question posed by the district court anyway.
But more generally, this case raises the issue of whether TPMs belong in copyright law. Although there is virtue in protecting TPMs given that they serve the purpose of preventing copyright infringements, the reality is that there is nothing inherently copyright-esque about TPMs or anti-circumvention protection. It can be argued that Article 6(1) is a black sheep in the copyright flock.
 This price range is based on my own research of websites selling such devices.
 The illegitimate copies of video games are normally downloaded from torrent sites and then copied to DVDs or mass storage devices such as external hard drives.
 Note this would most likely also involve copyright infringement – reproduction of video games
 Case C-355/12
 Directive 2001/29
 Of course the opposite applies, in that, if the mod chip has no other commercially legitimate purpose(s) then the TPM used by Nintendo will likely be proportional and subject to protection under Article 6(1).
 Directive 2009/24
 Case C-355/12 para 25
 Article 6(1) (a), (b) and (c) should be considered together.