Copyright Conflicts Between World of Warcraft and Its Players

By: Jamie Burchette *| Guest Writer

By Kuba Bożanowski from Warsaw, Poland (World of Warcraft card game) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kuba Bożanowski from Warsaw, Poland (World of Warcraft card game) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

World of Warcraft (WoW) is an extremely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) which boasts over 100 million accounts created and over 12.5 million subscribers at its peak. With so many players, Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. (Blizzard) faces countless copyright issues from profit-seekers and players who take their appreciation too far. Protecting their copyright requires constant vigilance, but there is a fuzzy line when it comes to the player community.

Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a game that started out as a player-created map for Warcraft 3, has created numerous copyright issues for Blizzard. In 2012, Blizzard settled with Valve for creating DOTA 2 based on the Warcraft 3 map. But, even now in 2017, Blizzard continues to fight over copyright ownership with a recent lawsuit against Lilith Games and uCool which created a game called “Dota Legends” based on DotA. Lilith Games and uCool claim that Blizzard and Valve have no copyright in DotA since it was created and owned by the player community.

WoW fans even host their own private servers where the players can do things that are impossible in the regular game. WoW’s Terms of Use explicitly bans any “unauthorized servers that emulates” WoW as a copyright violation. Blizzard allows players to host patches and demos and to create their own “home-made” maps and campaigns for WoW so long as it is not for profit, but it refuses to allow any private servers. The difference is clear. A private server allows a player to play WoW without any interaction with or payment to Blizzard, while hosting patches merely allows easier access and home-made maps allow the player community to add to WoW.

One notable incident involved Nostalrius, a WoW server that copied the original version of WoW from 2004, also known as a legacy server or “vanilla” version. The legacy server, which had over 150,000 active players and 800,000 accounts, was sent a cease and desist order by Blizzard in 2016. Yet, Blizzard has not completely rejected the idea of a legacy server. After a petition reached over 250,000 signatures, Blizzard agreed to meet with the Nostalrius team to discuss the legacy server. Currently, the Nostalrius team has created another legacy server, Elysium, which Blizzard has neither endorsed nor forced to shut down at this point. With Blizzard currently unwilling to provide a service that WoW’s players demand themselves, allowing private servers may be the only option to meet the player community’s demands.

Several WoW fans utilize “bots” which will act in the player’s stead while they are away from the keyboard. Blizzard strictly prohibits bots in their Terms of Use, but they have taken it a step further. In MDY Industries, LLC v. Blizzard Entertainment, Inc., Blizzard contended that creating bots was a copyright infringement. The basis for this was that creating bots violated the Terms of Use, thus causing the license to use the WoW software to be revoked. Without this license, the copy of the software created on the player’s RAM directly violated Blizzard’s copyright.

Another copyright issue comes from Let’s Players who record themselves playing games and commentating on it for viewers on the internet. Doing so requires the Let’s Player to record and display the game’s copyrighted material for profit. Yet, Let’s Plays can serve as good advertising for a game and attract more players. Blizzard understands this and seems to unofficially endorse Let’s Plays. When a change in Youtube’s method of preventing copyright infringement caused several Let’s Play Youtube channels to receive copyright claims, Blizzard and other video game companies said they would approve the videos.

Even with constant vigilance, protecting WoW’s copyrights is not a simple matter. A thriving player community can lead to unintended consequences for WoW’s copyright. There is a delicate balance between protecting copyright and allowing the community to grow and express itself.

Jamie Burchette is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Law with a minor in Computer Science from Western Carolina University. Upon graduation, he intends to practice business law.