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Australian High Court rules PlayStation mod chips legal

Court finds against Sony.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

The latest twist in a four-year legal battle over the legality of mod chips in Australia has ruled the devices legal once more, with the country's highest court finding against Sony in an appeal case which could have wide-reaching consequences.

The High Court's decision found that the PlayStation chips whose functions are circumvented by mod chips to allow unauthorised (pirate or import) games to be played are not primarily copy protection devices, and thus not covered by copyright laws which prevent the circumvention of such devices.

The ruling overturns a previous judgement by Australia's Full Court, which found that the PlayStation's copy protection mechanisms provide a general deterrent to copyright infringement.

That argument wasn't good enough for the High Court, which noted that since no full copy of the game being played is made in the PlayStation's memory when an unauthorised game is inserted in the machine, there's no actual unauthorised copying taking place.

Of course, it's still illegal to duplicate PlayStation games - that's never been in question, and continues to fall under the same regulations about piracy and copyright protection which have always been in place. But the simple act of playing an "unauthorised" disc - which can, remember, also include an imported game - is not illegal.

Although Sony has been ruled against on what may seem like a technicality, there's a strong feeling that the company's region protection system helped to deliver the killing blow to its legal arguments, since not only does it show up a legitimate use of mod chips, but it also rankled with many Australian officials who saw it as an artificial trade barrier which was hurting competition and consumers.

The actual case at the heart of the whole affair is that of Eddy Stevens, who was taken to court by Sony four years ago for chipping PlayStation consoles.

"It's a victory for consumers, but also for business people," a lawyer for Stevens commented after the judgement. "It will likely increase competition in the market and possibly reduce the prices in the market for gaming."

What effect the ruling will have outside Australia remains to be seen, although the legal arguments used by Stevens' team will no doubt be examined closely by firms involved in mod chipping or import gaming all around the world.

Not all consoles sport the same region coding protection which is used in the PlayStation; all of Nintendo's handheld consoles, and now the PSP as well, are region free, while Microsoft made region-coding into an optional feature for Xbox publishers.

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