NERD RAGE: Blizzard hits the (World of) Warpath

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On Monday, Blizzard—the triple-A game studio that gave the world titles such as World of Warcraft, Diablo III, and Heroes of the Storm—quietly filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court for the Central District of California. In it, they accused a player who goes by the handle “Apoc” of a broad range of copyright, contract, and contractual interference violations. Apoc’s crime? Building a bot. 

A bit of explanation for non-gamers: World of Warcraft is an enormously successful game, the exemplar of a genre of games known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMOs for short. Players create characters represented by colorful avatars, and then log into a fantasy world where they fight, trade, and chat with other live players around the globe. Players can make their characters more powerful by completing tasks and collecting gold, and as they progress in power, more and more gameplay opens up to them in the form of high-level spells and quests.

Bots short-circuit the process by letting characters play the game on autopilot. A well-programmed bot knows the rules of the game, where to go, what to do, and how to fly under the radar of bot-detection software, all without the player having to lift a finger. Game designers are involved in a never-ending arms race against enterprising coders to catch and ban the newest bots. The standard End User License Agreement (EULA) in Blizzard contains a clause that bans bots, but that only provides a legal hammer once admins actually find the bot, and so they use automated scans to detect bot behavior. 

Apoc was one of those enterprising coders that gave Blizzard admins a headache. For about 25 euros, players could purchase a bot script that would automate their characters while simultaneously flying under the radar of the current detection software. Blizzard eventually caught wise, and brought the hammer down—hard.

The complaint is an interesting read. In short, it alleges three things:

  1. That Apoc ran afoul of copyright law by violating the EULA to make the bots;
  2. That he violated the contract he agreed to when he accepted the EULA; and
  3. That he caused others to violate their EULAs by interacting with bot software.

The second and third claims are relatively straightforward; the EULA says “no bots,” and he made bots (and then persuaded others to use them). The first claim takes a bit of explaining, of both the law and what he did.

In order to make the bots, Blizzard alleges, Apoc agreed to the EULA, downloaded and used the game engine, and then made copies of the engine so that he could tinker with them. He then deconstructed and reverse-engineered the copies to understand how the game engine worked, and what kinds of detection software the engine used to spot bots. Finally, he designed and built bots that contained snippets of the engine’s source code, a kind of digital DNA that allowed the bots to work with the game itself.

There’s a lot going on there, but there are a few important points. First, making copies for the purpose of reverse engineering or creating interoperability is totally kosher under a string of court cases. However, in order to use the product legally, Apoc had to agree to a license—i.e. the EULA. When he violated the EULA, Blizzard argues that he invalidated his license to use the game engine in the first instance. By breaking the contract, Apoc—according to Blizzard—“de-authorized” all of his uses of the software, and was no longer allowed to use the software in any form. Thus, all subsequent use was unlicensed, and running the program on his computer—let alone copying or modifying it—was an unauthorized, illegal use under copyright law.

Also worth mentioning is that this isn’t Blizzard’s first rodeo; they’ve been here before, and under very similar circumstances. In that case, Public Knowledge supported users against Blizzard’s enormously broad and overreaching copyright claims. This case, however, is still new, and Apoc hasn’t yet filed a response. We’ll be back to update you as the case progresses.

 

Image credit: Deviant Art user UmbreonFreak24

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