The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) has submitted its latest overview of “Notorious Markets” to the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR).
These submissions serve as input for the USTR’s yearly overview of piracy ‘markets’ which helps to shape the Government’s global copyright enforcement agenda going forward.
The ESA, which represents video game companies including Activision Blizzard, EA, Epic Games, Nintendo, Sony, Square Enix, and Ubisoft, hopes that the interests of its members will be taken into account. In the report, the group lists various pirate sites that allow the public to download games for free.
Cyberlockers, Linking and Torrent Sites
Download sites remain a key problem for the video games industry and these exist in various forms. In the cyberlocker category 1fichier.com and megaup.net are mentioned specifically. The former has also been the target of Nintendo legal action in France.
Megaup hasn’t been sued, but ESA views the platform as a growing concern. Over the past year, the number of estimated game downloads rose 135% according to the report. While Megaup processes takedown notices, most are never followed up. Files that are taken down only disappear after a considerable delay, according to ESA.
“Megaup hosts hundreds of unauthorized copies of copyright protected video game titles and only has a 33% response rate to ESA’s takedown notices despite receiving numerous removal notices,” ESA writes.
“Linking websites that index and manage the links to content hosted on Megaup also benefit from the platform’s low compliance rate as these websites derive more traffic, and thus more advertising revenue, due to the durability of the Megaup links.”
These linking sites also remain a threat and the same applies to torrent indexers. ESA lists nsw2u.com, Game3rb.com, Solidtorrents.to, and 1337x.to in its submission. Interestingly, the game companies write that 1337x was launched in 2014, which is seven years after its actual founding date.
Cheats and Marketplaces
The game companies continue by listing various sites that offer cheats and related information. These include mpgh.net and unknowncheats.me. The latter claims to have over four million users and has been in operation for more than two decades.
“[Unknowncheats.me] offers cheats and tutorials for 100+ titles as well as information and links to anti-cheat software and how to circumvent their protocols. It does not charge for cheats, instead relying on advertisements to
“All cheats are created by the community and the site encourages users to develop and distribute these illegal goods,” ESA adds.
Unauthorized marketplaces make up the final category of sites. ESA specifically mentions playerauctions.com and G2G.com, which sell in-game items such as skins, virtual game currency, and various boosting options. Both sites have millions of monthly visits, according to recent SimilarWeb estimates.
Scene Groups, Crackers and Repackers
ESA has called out many of the above-mentioned sites and services in previous submissions, but the group also points out problems that it hasn’t discussed in detail before. They include Scene release groups, crackers, and repackers.
While the game-cracking scene has been thriving for roughly four decades, the game companies describe the “warez scene” or “Scene release groups” as an “emerging” threat.
“Scene release groups facilitate commercial scale piracy by circumventing technological protection measures and ‘packaging’ illegal downloads to be more easily accessed by the general public,” ESA writes.
Scene releases are indeed a problem but ESA appears to confuse some terms. The Scene doesn’t release any content to the public; it’s actually frowned upon and contrary to their rules. There are, however, non-Scene release groups and repackers that do upload content to the public.
Whether a Scene label is appropriate or not, ESA believes that “highly skilled” crackers and repackers pose a major threat to the gaming industry.
“Especially critical to this illicit supply chain are highly skilled hackers – also known as ‘crackers’ and ‘repackers’,” ESA writes.
Crackers are typically the people who remove DRM restrictions. These can be from the Scene but others operate more openly. Regardless, ESA notes that crackers violate Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Cracked games usually appear on Scene topsites and private or public pirate sites, through which they are distributed to the broader public. In many cases, these pirated games are then picked up by ‘repackers’, who create slimmed-down versions that are easier to distribute.
“These ‘repacked’ files are very popular with individuals with slower internet speeds and/or data limits, as they will download faster and utilize less bandwidth,” ESA writes.
ESA doesn’t mention any crackers or repackers by name but notes that information on their whereabouts and operations is often shared through websites such as cs.rin.ru.
Cryptocurrency and Malware
Finally, the game companies mention malware and use of cryptocurrencies as growing trends. Many illicit marketplaces accept payments in cryptocurrencies, which are often harder to seize or track than regular bank accounts.
“With the growth of this oftentimes nonrestricted payment system, bad actors are using cryptocurrency as a way of purchasing or selling illicit products without using regulated financial institutions,” ESA writes.
Malware can also be used to generate revenue. In some cases, bad actors monetize pirated games by automatically installing cryptocurrency miners while adware also remains a problem.
“Distributors of pirated video games often lace their downloads with these various forms of malware in order to exploit users downloading ostensibly ‘free’ games,” ESA notes.
The gaming association hopes that by pointing out these threats, some will appear on the radars of law enforcement, policymakers, and foreign governments, then dealt with via appropriate action.
A copy of ESA’s submission for the 2023 Special 301 Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets is available here (pdf). An overview of the (online) threats is listed below.
Hyperlinking Websites (“Linking Sites” or “Link Sites”)
Hosting Websites (“Cyberlockers”)
Torrent Indexing Websites
Unauthorized Online Marketplaces
Scene Release Groups