Epic Games, the game developer of the massively popular Fortnite survival shooter, now finds itself at the center of a heated debate around the ethics of punishing cheaters after filing a lawsuit against a 14-year-old boy. In response, the boy’s mother filed a legal note tearing down Epic’s lawsuit and calling for it to be thrown out. The ensuing debate has been fierce, with some praising Epic and others decrying the legal measures as excessive and heartless, suggesting this case could become a touchstone for how game developers of highly competitive online titles handle cheaters and licensing agreement violations in the future.
Fortnite, which contains a a multiplayer mode heavily borrowing elements of the breakout game Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, has become a huge hit on both console and PC. The game involves a contest between a large number of human players, with as many as 100 people facing off in a single round. That makes it one of the most competitive games on the market, which attracts the attention of malicious PC players who use game modifications to develop cheating software and then subscription services to digitally distribute that software for money. This software typically makes it easier to aim guns, allowing players to automate the act of defeating opponents.
Epic, which has banned cheaters only to see them develop more robust workarounds, has responded by suing both distributors of the software and, now it seems, at least one user of it. Suing an individual user instead of simply banning them is an unorthodox and controversial move because it echoes the misguided actions of the music recording industry in its attempt to crackdown on piracy. That parallel was only further cemented by the note submitted by the 14-year-old’s mother in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The mother — who appears to be either a lawyer, a friend or family member of one, or a very dedicated researcher — lays out an impressive case for why the suit against her son should be thrown out. Her argument boils down to the fact that her son did not develop the cheats, nor did he distribute them. Instead, he simply downloaded them from a popular cheating website and streamed himself using the cheats.
Not only that, but the mother makes a convincing argument that it would be difficult for Epic to prove in court that her underage son was bound by its end user licensing agreement (EULA) given that Fortnite is a free-to-play game and its EULA did not contain an option for underage users to obtain parental consent, which she says she never gave. It would also be difficult for Epic to prove that the act of cheating harmed its ability to make a profit considering the game’s revenue stream is restricted to microtransaction purchases of cosmetic in-game items. She also cites potential disclosure violations on Epic’s part, including the company naming the boy and directly suing a minor, both of which are illegal in some states.
However, this is where it starts to get really tricky. Epic says it’s in the right because the lawsuit isn’t about the use of cheating software, but the promotion of said software on YouTube. In a statement, the company explained that the 14-year-old cheater refused to take down a video Epic says is effectively a how-to guide for using the cheating software.
“This particular lawsuit arose as a result of the defendant filing a DMCA counterclaim to a takedown notice on a YouTube video that exposed and promoted Fortnite Battle Royale cheats and exploits,” Epic told The Verge in a statement. “Under these circumstances, the law requires that we file suit or drop the claim. Epic is not okay with ongoing cheating or copyright infringement from anyone at any age. As stated previously, we take cheating seriously, and we’ll pursue all available options to make sure our games are fun, fair, and competitive for players.”
In other words, the 14-year-old cheater contested Epic’s DMCA takedown notice on YouTube, seemingly pushing the company to file a lawsuit to ensure others Fortnite players couldn’t do the same. In fact, the boy even made a second YouTube video in which he admitted to using the software, live streaming himself cheating, and refusing to take the initial video down.
So it looks like the boy really did take some foolish steps that make Epic’s case appear more reasonable. On the other hand, Epic is suing a 14-year-old over a YouTube dispute, a territory that’s already a lightning rod for controversy in the game community because of how corporations have misused DMCA takedowns in the past. Because Epic is claiming the boy violated its EULA by using and broadcasting the cheat and refusing to take down the YouTube video, it can seek a fine of up to $150,000, meaning a large and powerful game corporation could bankrupt a family for the naive actions of a young teenager. It’s unclear the company even knew the boy’s age at the time it filed suit. It’s also up in the air right now whether Epic really plans on following through. More understandably, the company may just want the threat of a lawsuit hanging in the air to deter future cheaters from making YouTube or Twitch live streams of the behavior and encouraging others to do the same.
On a grander scale, the lawsuit speaks to the contentious debate around the legal enforcement of licensing agreements and terms of service contracts. Nearly every piece of technology, including both hardware and software, carries with it some type of murky agreement regulating the behavior of consumers, whether it’s to prevent them from modding a video game, jailbreaking a smartphone, or using a product in some way its creators never intended. We agree to these contracts without reading them or even understanding what types of behavior scale from prohibited to illegal. For children with unfettered access to the internet, this is an especially troublesome gray area resulting in a minefield for parents and corporations alike.
Cheating at a video game may not be as serious as using Facebook or Twitter to harass or threaten someone, or using programming scripts to participate in a distributed denial of service attack against a government website. But these hacks do have a harmful effect on an online game community by undermining the integrity of a title’s fair and level playing field. Remarkably, even in 2017, the extent to which a company will use legal means to crackdown on this behavior is still being worked out on a case-by-case basis, with Fortnite just the latest and most visible example.
How Epic plans to handle it will be telling, not just because it illustrates how far a company might go to take a YouTube video down, but because it shines a spotlight on the rights and responsibilities of minors. These are players who, increasingly, are playing games that are given out for free online that involve interacting with other human beings — all with little rules, protections, or guardrails to regulate their behavior. Cheating may be something developers have a legitimate interest in stamping out, but doing so by using their formidable resources to crush a 14-year-old would appear to be a step too far.