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Mod an Xbox, Go to Jail?

In the UK, a 22 year-old graduate student has been sentenced to 140 hours of community service for selling modified Xbox systems containing pirated games. he was also required to pay £750 in court costs and had various computing and gaming equipment seized by authorities. According to the BBC, this is the first such conviction since the UK adopted the EU Copyright Directive in October 2003; under that directive, it is illegal to circumvent copy protection systems, including those in console games.

The unidentified Cambridge student was tracked down by an investigator from the Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), a UK games industry trade group. He had been selling modified Xbox consoles for £380 via his Web site; the consoles had been modified to include a 200 MB hard drive and 80 pre-installed games. Articles covering the case report that the man also installed modification chips in the Xbox consoles to bypass copy protection schemes.

In July 2004 the UK High Court ruled it illegal to sell modified PlayStation 2 systems which included so-called "mod-chips." The High Court’s ruling would seem to illegalize the sale or advertisement of mod chips or systems explicitly modified to bypass copy protection mechanisms; similarly, it illegalized possession or use of these chips or systems for a commercial purpose.

Some anti-piracy activists are touting the Cambridge student’s conviction as a victory, but questions remain whether users may legally modify their own systems for personal and/or non-commercial purposes under UK and European law. Mod chips typically enable users to bypass copy protection or play bootleg games—activities which in many cases infringe on copyrights—but they also enable hobbyists to develop and play homebrew games, run backup copies of legally purchased games, run games purchased in other countries, or convert their consoles to different purposes (such as running Linux on an Xbox). Although law enforcement authorities are unlikely to prosecute users who privately modify their own systems without commercial intent or benefit, console makers and trade associations such as ELSPA would undoubtedly welcome decisions which extend copyright protection to (or even criminalize) modification of console systems for any purpose.

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