We recently reported on Epic Games suing individuals for cheating in Fortnite. You can read about those cases here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Recently the Northern District of California declined to grant a motion for default judgment against one of the defendants, Konstantin Vladimirovich Rak. In its complaint, Epic claimed that a YouTube video Mr. Rak had posted violated its exclusive right of public performance. Epic filed for a default judgment after Mr. Rak failed to respond to any court motions. The Court denied the motion for default judgment on several grounds, one of which was the public performance claim was insufficient. The District Court’s denial was noteworthy because, in its opinion, the Court questioned whether posting gameplay footage to YouTube constituted a public performance.
Epic contends that Mr. Rak publicly performed Fortnite when he posted to YouTube a video about how to hack the game. Under 17 USC 101, to publicly perform means to transmit or communicate a performance of a work to a substantial number of people. The same statute defines a performance of an audiovisual work as showing its images in any sequence. Even though video games are classified as audiovisual works, there are not many cases explaining what constitutes a public performance of a video game. Epic cites Valve Corp. v. Sierra Entertainment, Inc., F. Supp. 2d 1091 (W.D. Wash. 2004) to support its claim of public performance. The NDCA did not find this citation helpful because the Valve case was primarily a contract dispute, which briefly discussed what constitutes a public performance of a video game.
The District Court also discussed Allen v. Academic Games League of America, Inc., 89 F.3d 614 (9th Cir. 1996), a case briefly discussed in Valve. Allen involved people playing board games in a tournament. The Ninth Circuit held that “playing” is different than “performing,” therefore there was no public performance. However, Allen involved board games, not video games. In Red Baron-Franklin Park, Inc. v. Taito Corp., 888 F.2d 275 (4th Cir. 1989), the Fourth Circuit held a video game arcade publicly performed Double Dragon because the game images were being reproduced. For many, this would seem to indicate that playing a game would be a performance because playing requires the reproduction of game images. Neither Epic nor the NDCA mentioned the Red Baron-Franklin Park case. It could be possible the NDCA agrees with this thinking, but it did reiterate the Allen Court’s hesitation on granting copyright owners the power to “control when and where purchasers of games may play the game.” Ultimately, the NDCA declined to decide the issue because the motion was only for a default judgment and neither side fully briefed the issue. The Court also warned Epic that the sole citation of Valve was not enough to establish a public performance.
The primary focus of Epic’s lawsuits is to prevent hackers from cheating in Fortnite. Epic asked the Court for a default judgment because Mr. Rak did not respond. The goal of the public performance claim was to remove a video by Mr. Rak showing others how to hack Fortnite. The Northern District of California felt that Epic had not done enough to establish a public performance claim, but in the Court’s analysis, it questioned what it means to preform a video game. The denial order does not change any current laws, but it does indicate the Court’s willingness to address the issue of gamers posting videos on YouTube. The Court’s interest in the topic may be the result of how popular “Let’s Play” videos and streams have become. It will probably be awhile before there is an actual ruling, but Epic has a chance to amend its complaint, so it will be interesting to see Epic’s response to the Court’s public performance analysis. We will continue to follow this case and provide updates when available.