updated 9/2/2005 7:08:59 PM ET 2005-09-02T23:08:59

Three men illegally bypassed anti-piracy controls when they developed free technology to let computer users play some games against each other online without using the gamemaker's own system, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Attorneys for Tim Jung, Ross Combs and Rob Crittenden had argued that the trio engaged in allowable "fair use" because they had legally bought the games and were not profiting from the bypass technology, called BnetD.

Although the trio could have used Blizzard Entertainment Inc.'s Battle.net game service for free, they found it frustrating and preferred the dozens of additional features available through the BnetD technology they had developed, their lawyers said.

Blizzard claimed that BnetD, which the trio also distributed to others over the Internet, disabled controls meant to ensure that players used a non-pirated copy of the game.

Thursday's ruling by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here upholds a lower court's finding that the trio violated the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well as software license agreements by helping people bypass Blizzard's system for playing multiplayer games like Diablo and StarCraft online.

The defendants were barred from further distributing the technology.

Combs and Crittenden are identified in the ruling as computer programmers, and Jung was listed as a systems administrator who also heads Internet Gateway, an Internet service provider based in the suburb of St. Peters.

According to the ruling, the Battle.net service has nearly 12 million active users who spend more than 2.1 million hours online per day.

Blizzard, which did not return messages Friday seeking comment, had lauded the earlier ruling last October by U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw for "sending a clear message that creating unauthorized servers which emulate Blizzard's Battle.net servers is without question illegal."

"We have worked hard to provide gamers with a free, safe, secure, reliable environment on Battle.net, and this ruling is a strong validation that we are justified in protecting and ensuring the integrity of our game service," said Mike Morhaime, Blizzard's president and co-founder.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group that helped represent the trio, said the ruling could dampen the market for performance-enhancing innovations called "add-ons" and limit the consumer to whatever the manufacturer of the purchased item decides to provide.

"This ruling threatens competition to offer new services, new features," said Jason Schultz, an attorney for EFF.

Schultz said the foundation would talk to his clients before deciding whether to appeal.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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