Lone Kiwi Developer Stands Up To Grand Theft Auto DMCA Claim, Wins

Lone Kiwi Developer Stands Up To Grand Theft Auto DMCA Claim, Wins
Image: Rockstar Games

Earlier this year fans reversed engineered the source code to Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. They released it to the web, but Grand Theft Auto copyright holder Take-Two pulled it offline via a DMCA claim. But now one fan’s stood up to the publisher and succeeded in getting the fan-derived source code back online.

Deriving the source code through reverse-engineering was a huge milestone for the GTA hacking scene. Players would still need the original game assets to run either classic GTA title, but with accessible source code, modders and devs could begin porting the game to new platforms or adding new features. That’s exactly what’s happened this past year with Super Mario 64.

A week after the code went public on GitHub, Rockstar’s parent company, Take-Two Interactive, issued a DMCA takedown claiming that the reversed-engineered source code contained “copyrighted materials owned by Take-Two.” GitHub pulled the fan-derived code and all its related forks.

However, as TorrentFreak reports, a New Zealand-based developer named Theo, who maintained a fork of the removed code, didn’t agree with Take-Two’s claims and pushed back, filing their own counter-notice with GitHub last month. This counter-claim seems to have succeeded, as GitHub’s made the fan-derived source code available to download once more.

Theo explained in their counter-claim that the code didn’t, in fact, contain any original work created or owned by Take-Two Interactive, so it should not have been removed. They filed their claim last month after Take-Two removed over 200 forks of the reversed source, all built off of the original reversed-engineered code. That original repository and all the rest remain unavailable, as only Theo’s fork was restored by the DMCA counter-claim.

Grand Theft Auto III (Screenshot: Rockstar Games)Grand Theft Auto III (Screenshot: Rockstar Games)

In an interview with TorrentFreak, the dev explained that he believes Take-Two’s DCMA claim is “wholly incorrect” and that the publisher has “no claim to the code” because while it functions like the original source code that went into GTA III and Vice City, it is not identical.

While it might seem like GitHub has taken a side and decided that Take-Two was wrong, this isn’t accurate. DMCA rules state that content that is disputed must be restored within 14 days of a counter-notice being received. At this point, if Take-Two wants the source code removed again, it would become a legal battle. Theo says he understands the legal risk he faces, but doesn’t expect the publisher to pursue this to court any time soon.

While it’s possible Take-Two could challenge Theo’s counter-claim in court at a later date, this is still a nice win for the Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City modding scene. It’s also another reminder that modders, pirates, and fan developers are often the only ones doing the work to keep old games around in an easily playable form.


  • Good! Screw companies cocking up clean room reverse engineering for everyone else. They can follow the law like everyone else and deal with their engines being remade with dignity.

    • clean room? so the idea being it’s purely based on observing and recreating the final product with no decompiling or reference to actual source or anything?

      i guess that’s a lot better than what i was imagining. companies do have a right to control their source.

      • Exactly. These guys and the Mario 64 guys (as far as I’m aware) never looked at the code, nor decompiled it, which is what makes these DMCAs so egregious. There is no code from the original engines inside these projects and nor does there seem to be any evidence of disassembly. It’s the big boys using their money and the law to bully people when their claim has no grounds.

        • Nothing in the coverage of this story would lead me to believe this (or the Mario 64 case) was done clean room.

          Clean room reverse engineering would involve one team writing a spec that describes how the program behaves, and a second team to write something that conforms to that spec. There’s no evidence that this kind of separation happened here.

          All indications point to it being one group who used the executable code and accidentally published debug symbols to reverse individual functions until they had a full replacement for the original executable.

          • I’ve done some more digging and it does seem like it was decompiled, but there’s still no copyright code in their implementation from what I can tell. Even if they’re dragged off to court, it’d be the usual BS with the American court system and Fair Use instead of the smoother sailing instant dismissal if it was clean room.

          • @louie: how do you figure that it contains no copyrighted code?

            As a thought experiment, imagine I did the following:
            1. passed the text of a novel through an English to Japanese machine translation.
            2. passed the result through a Japanese to English machine translation.
            3. manually edited the result to fix the grammar.

            The result may contain little to none of the original text, but is clearly a derivative of the original. It would also share far more structure with the original than if I was just trying to retell the story from memory.

  • This is what should happen with YouTube and Twitch copyright strikes for folks who encounter clips of music in the course of reacting to/reviewing media.

    The counter-claim should see the content restored, and then the claimant should either proceed with legal action (which should by a rough reading of the law, fail, establishing a precedent that they are full of shit) or ideally just fuck off.

  • It’s a bit premature to call this a “win”: his claim hasn’t been tested in court.

    Github has put his repository back online because the counter-claim indemnifies them from damages. They don’t really care about whether the claim or counter-claim is valid, since the issue is now between Rockstar and Theo.

    If Theo’s counter-claim is based on the idea that decompiled source code is not a derivative work of the executable it’s created from, then he’ll almost certainly lose and would have been better off not contesting the take-down.

  • IP laws as they are severely hinder the progress of the human race. Fair cost recovery timelines need to be considered to encourage business investment but to also encourage innovation because your old IP will not be locked to your name forever.

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