Just Blizzard Being Blizzard

Blizzard Entertainment, the company that develops hit video game franchises and licenses forgettable movies that squander directional talent, is back to its favorite pastime—filing and threatening gratuitous copyright lawsuits. Before detailing the latest litigation, it's worth revisiting the company's greatest hits. They include:

  • Suing the developers of bnetd, an open source matchmaking server in 2002. Although bnetd didn't copy any Blizzard code, the developers reverse engineered Blizzard's Battle.net service to discover and implement the protocols that allowed games like Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo to interoperate with Blizzard's servers. In 2005, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court opinion holding that bnetd violated the DMCA's anticircumvention provisions.
  • Using the DMCA to shut down private World of Warcraft servers in 2008. 
  • Suing the developers of Glider, a program that allowed gamers to automate some of the monotonous drudgery required to level up in Blizzard games. Here, Blizzard wasn't content to offer one damaging misreading of copyright law; it had two. First, Blizzard—like Autodesk, Amazon, and John Deere—argued that its customers don't actually own their copies of World of Warcraft, they merely license them. And applying its disastrous precedent from Vernor v. Autodesk, the Ninth Circuit agreed in 2010. Second, Blizzard argued that by using the game in ways it didn't like, users were infringing the game's copyright. Specifically, Blizzard pointed to its terms of use, which prohibited the use of "cheats, bots, mods, and/or hacks." Despite that prohibition, the court correctly held that breaking a rule is not the same thing as copyright infringement, even if you don't own the copy in question.
  • Apparently unwilling to give up on the "cheating is infringement" argument, suing ten anonymous developers—one of whom was almost certainly Angelina Jolie—for creating the ValiantChaos MapHack, which gave players the advantage of seeing obscured areas of the game map and tracking the movements of opponents.
  • Shutting down the popular Nostalrius server, which gave 150,000 users the chance to play a classic version of World of Warcraft earlier this year. 

But Blizzard has another hit on its hands, Overwatch. Which apparently means more litigation is in the offing. This time Blizzard is suing a German company that sells Overwatch cheats. Again, Blizzard argues that gamers who use these cheats are committing copyright infringement, and Bossland, the company offering them, is contributing to that infringement.

To see the absurdity of this position, consider an analog analog. Some players of Hasbro's classic Monopoly often find the standard set of rules that accompany the game lacking. Maybe you think they are needlessly complex and lead to interminable gameplay. Maybe you are a lunatic and don't think they are complex enough as is. In either case, users come up with their own variations on the rules. There are two approaches to respond to these house rules. One approach is the one Hasbro has adopted. Embrace them. The other is the approach Blizzard has pursued. Insist your rules are the best rules. The only rules. And that anyone who modifies, alters, or breaks them is not only a cheater, but a copyright infringer. Imagine if Hasbro went around suing players for deciding you shouldn't receive rent while your game piece is in jail. Of course, you own your Monopoly set, so you can do what you damn well please with it. As a matter of copyright law, the same should be true of software-based games.