On 29 June 2023, the Kunshan Primary People’s Court in Jiangsu Province (“Kunshan Court”) reported the “Public Sentencing of the First Instance of China’s Largest ‘Chicken Leg’ Cheat Game Plug-in Criminal Case”. The two defendants, He Mouliang and Wang Mouduan were both sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of copyright infringement, fined RMB 20 million, and required to recover the illegal proceeds and fruits thereof.
Cheat game plug-ins usually refer to plug-ins that achieve cheating functions by tampering with the online game client code, and reading or modifying data during the running of the online game. According to the news report, from September 2018 to January 2021, for profits, the defendants contacted overseas game plug-in operation teams through overseas chat software and then sold “Chicken Leg” cheat game plug-ins for the games of “GAME FOR PEACE” and “PUBG MOBILE”, published by Shenzhen Tencent Computer System Co., Ltd (“Tencent”), to domestic and foreign players by the methods including setting up a website and adopting bitcoin transaction settlement. The defendant He Mouliang is responsible for sales and connecting with overseas teams, while the other defendant Wang Mouduan is responsible for fund settlement. During the period from February 2020 to January 2021, the illegal incomes of the two defendants were RMB 19.56 million and RMB 9.78 million respectively.
The Kunshan Court held that the “Chicken Leg” cheat game plug-ins obtained and modified the memory data of Tencent’s online games without authorization by the methods such as deciphering and using the communication protocol of the online games, increasing and modifying the number and path of the dynamic library recorded in the online games, reading and writing the memory data of the online games. Its purpose is to realize several functions that online games do not have, including “self-aiming”, “character perspective” and “displaying materials”. It destroys the normal operation process and normal operation of Tencent’s online games and damages the interests and reputation of Tencent as well as the normal market order of the online games. The Kunshan Court found that both of the defendants had constituted the crime of copyright infringement.
There are many types of cheat game plug-ins, and their cheating functions are numerous and complicated. The debate about what kind of crime the act of manufacturing and selling cheat game plug-ins constitutes has never stopped. The judiciary’s convictions for this kind of act include the crime of illegal business operations, the crime of copyright infringement and the crime of providing programs and tools for intrusion and illegal control of computer information systems. According to Articles 225, 217 and 285 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China amended on 26 December 2020 (“Criminal Law”), illegal business activities that seriously disrupt the market order may constitute the crime of illegal business operations; the crime of copyright infringement include reproducing and distributing or communicating any work to the public through an information network for profits or intentionally evading or disrupting the technical measures taken by a copyright owner to protect its copyright in a work for profits and without authorization; providing special programs or tools specially used for intruding into or illegally controlling computer information systems, or providing programs or tools for other person committing the crime of intruding into or illegally controlling a computer information system may constitute the crime of providing programs and tools for intrusion and illegal control of computer information system.
The crime of providing programs and tools for intrusion and illegal control of computer information systems used to be most applicable in judicial precedents involving cheat game plug-ins for some reasons. Usually, this kind of cases require technical experts to determine certain technical facts, and the technical experts tend to issue appraisal opinions with a conclusion such as “illegal data acquisition”, “destruction of data”, and “destructive programs” as it is often difficult to judge whether a cheat game plug-in is substantially similar to the client program of the target game. Of course, once a substantial approximation is found, the court is likely to consider that it constitutes a crime of copyright infringement.
According to the findings of the Kunshan Court, the “Chicken Leg” cheat game plug-ins involved in this case could modify the memory data of Tencent’s online games without authorization. It should be an act of intrusion or control that constitutes the crime of providing programs and tools for intrusion and illegal control of computer information systems according to Article 285 of the Criminal Law. Different from the choice of most cases, the Kunshan Court’s determination of copyright infringement may be due to an appraisal opinion with a finding of proximity, more likely because of the new provisions in Article 217 of the Criminal Law (“New Provisions in Article 217”), according to which intentionally evading or disrupting the technical measures taken by a copyright owner to protect its copyright in a work for profits and without authorization may constitute of the crime of copyright infringement.
After the implementation of the Criminal Law on 3 January 2021, more and more experts believe that in the future, the crime of copyright infringement should be used as the basic crime for cases involving cheat game plug-ins because the cheat game plug-ins are cheating programs which basic operation principle is to achieve the purpose of cheating by destroying the corresponding technical protection measures. “Breakthrough technical protection measures” is its essential attribute. Because of the New Provisions in Article 217, the key issue for the application of crimes in the cases involving cheat game plug-ins is no longer whether the relevant cheat game plug-ins and the programs of the target games meet the relatively high similarity requirement for “copying and distribution” provided in Article 217 (1) of the Criminal Law, but whether the programs deliberately avoiding or destroying the protective technical measures taken by the right holder for its works without authorization.
The Kunshan Court’s judgment on China’s largest “Chicken Leg” cheat game plug-in criminal case has not been published, so it is not yet possible to determine the grounds for the Kunshan Court to determine that it constitutes a crime of copyright infringement. However, theoretically, the opinions of experts on the crime of copyright infringement as the basic crime in cheat game plug-in cases are becoming more and more unified.