The legality of privately owned servers is a much-discussed topic with large grey areas and varying laws in different countries.
In general, that legality is determined by a sample amendment, similar to this one: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In other words, this means that the government and other institutions, organizations, and people, in general, do not have the right to search or control privately owned servers. They should not check what the servers store, except that there is reasonable evidence of illegal content.
A warrant to search a privately owned server would not be issued out of false claims because a judge has to examine whether the given evidence is sufficient. However, web servers are usually quite transparent, and illegal content on them is easily detected.
How is that a grey area then, and how liable are those individuals owning servers?
In the case of illegal content linked to a specific web server, people on the internet can see the server’s content and report it if they deem it inappropriate. If many people do this, it will eventually get removed in many cases.
However, if it is not a web server, then people would have no real reason to examine it without evidence of illegal content. Responding to other people reporting illegal content on one’s server by instantly removing it can make the server owner less liable.
Private Game Servers – Legal or Not?
One interesting legal case is the video gaming industry. Online games usually connect to a central server. That presents the issue of the game being unplayable once the online game and its server are gone.
Many people have chosen to counter this issue by setting up their game servers. That also allows them to change the game, revive old games for nostalgia’s sake or change aspects about it to meet their own needs, and so on.
But how legal is it to set up a private server without the game developer’s permission? Usually, this can happen through leaked or stolen codes, which is illegal in itself as it breaches copyright.
Furthermore, private server hosts often take donations to keep the server running. Emulating current servers is more troublesome than bringing back old games that no longer exist.
More Grey Areas
Another grey zone is whether you are the one hosting the server or playing on it. While hosting may easily be illegal, playing on private servers is not. People doing it can still get in trouble, in any case.
There is a difference between official laws and license agreements that the user has with the gaming company and developer. Playing on private servers can infringe the contract you have entered into with the game developer.
Since copyright is usually concerned with distribution issues rather than private use, it is unlikely you will get fined. Still, if you want to support the game developer because you love the game and want to see more of it coming to life, you should play on the official servers instead. Not to mention connecting to a not official game server can expose your machine to cyber attacks. Most of these not official game servers do not have proper cybersecurity defenses.
The only reason and grey zone that would warrant playing on private servers is if the game’s developers abandoned it with no official server left.