Are Private Game Servers Legal?

Online games that are hosted on a central server are quite common. Unfortunately, they have a unique flaw as time goes on. Unlike other games which can replayed long after they’re released, online games lose their servers when they die off. This then makes the entire game unplayable, as nobody has a server to connect to.

The Private Server

Some people, however, take it upon themselves to host their own server for the game. This is known as a “private server,” and it involves a lot of work to get one running. If the developer is successful, they can revive a game that has since been forgotten.

Some people go a step further and make private servers of games that are still running. This is usually to “take control” of the game and implement features that the server owner wants to see in the game. This can include rolling back the game to a “classic” state for nostalgia’s sake. It also allows people to play the game without paying for the main game. Regardless of the intent of the private server owner, how legal is it to make or play on one?

It’s worth noting at this stage that we’re covering servers made without the developer’s explicit permission. Some games allow users to host a server on their own hardware, and this is obviously very much legal!

Is It Legal to Own a Private Server?

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The problem with owning a private server is that the owners need to emulate the server somehow. This is typically done with server code that has been leaked, cracked, or stolen. If players don’t have a way to connect to the server, the owner also needs to distribute a client so people can connect. Both of these actions are illegal and breach copyright, as you’re making a copy of someone else’s work.

Some private server owners will take donations from players in order to keep the game running. This counts as turning the private server into a profitable venture and will often result in the game’s developer coming down hard.

Things get a little murkier when the private server is emulating an old game that has since passed on. Despite the game moving on, it’s still illegal to host a server and distribute a client. Unlike emulating an active game, however, nobody is losing any revenue because the game has long since died. The studio that made the game may not even exist anymore!

As such, it’s more likely that a server emulating an old game will stick around, while servers emulating current ones will be hit with cease and desists.

Is It Legal to Play on a Private Server?

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Hosting one may be illegal, but playing on one isn’t. Because all the legal issues are bundled up on emulating a server and distributing the client, actually playing on one won’t get you into legal trouble.

However, it’s worth noting that many online games come with an End User’s License Agreement (EULA) that specifically states that you won’t play on private servers. If you violate the EULA, the developers could ban you from playing on the main servers.

Should You Play on a Private Server?

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Ideally, no! If the game is still running, you should support the developer and play on their official servers. By downloading a private client and playing the game for free instead, you’re depriving the people who made it of much-needed income.

Things get a little grey when the game has been abandoned by its developer, and there’s no official server to play on. As such, it’s become somewhat socially acceptable to play on a private server emulating a closed-down game.

Private No More

People make private servers for a wide range of reasons. Whatever the cause, creating a private server breaches copyright; whether or not the server owners will be met with legal action, however, depends entirely on a case-by-case basis.

Do you think people should be able to legally host a private server for an abandoned game? Let us know below.

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