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The Lawbringer: Questions and answers from the mailbag

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

Welcome, friends. Take a seat. Your journey must have been long and difficult. Fear not, we are a house of respite here at The Lawbringer, where you get to kick your feet up on the chair in front of you before going back to the drudgery of Friday afterno -- Oh. Well, then.

Answering mail is fun. In fact, it's something I do a lot of. As WoW Insider's addon and UI columnist, I get many questions a day about all sorts of user interface problems, concerns, and opinions. After writing The Lawbringer, I began to get a new brand of email that was all about readers having awesome thoughts and questions about Blizzard policy, types of decision-making criteria, and issues all over the board. I love it! So this week, I'm dedicating some time to answering a few questions from my email that I think are worthy topics.

And, just a reminder: If you've got a question for The Lawbringer column or me, please drop me an email at mat@wowinsider.com. I love taking questions, and they make some pretty great article-fodder for columns such as the one you are about to read.

Machinima, take 2

Our first email question/topic comes from Spíder on the Saurfang (EU) server. He wants to know about Blizzard's machinima policies.
G'day Mat!

After having gone through one of my periodic "Bored with the game" phases that I suppose everyone who has plated WoW since the launch of vanilla gets from time to time, I have decided to turn my hand to machinima making.

Now I was sitting thinking about the whole thing, while simultaneously waiting for Sony Vegas to render a video, and for a separate video to upload to Youtube. Just how legal IS using the games graphics, music, characters, sound effects and any other number of things ripped from the MPQ archives on your hard drive, mixing them all up and producing a movie from them? Surely that is technically breaching all sorts of copyrights? After all, it must take hundreds, if not THOUSANDS of people a very considerable number of hours to create those items in the first place. And of course it all amounts to, in the end, all falling under the umbrella of Blizzard's intellectual property yet Blizzard seem to take a "We'll look the other way" approach on the matter.

I really have no idea where you would begin on this one, it's a huge can of worms. Unless of course Blizzard has stated publicly that all of it's assets are free to be used etc.

I hope you decide to accept this particular challenge. I believe it would be most interesting to see the results.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you for your awesome and informative columns.

Spíder - Saurfang (EU)

Back a few months ago, I wrote an entire Lawbringer on Blizzard and machinima, coming to the conclusion that Blizzard was one of the most open and fair entities when it came to using its intellectual property and assets in fan-made movies. That is all still true to this day.

Blizzard is very up front about its machinima policies for two very good reasons. First, by being up front and precise with machinima rules, you illustrate the value that the machinima community brings to the World of Warcraft experience. Much like the way machinima creators expanded and added to the value of the Halo universe with stuff like Red vs. Blue, WoW's machinima community has added untold value to the World of Warcraft brand name with original works, songs, movies, episodic content, and a host of other interesting projects. Blizzard knows it, and by spelling out clearly and precisely its aims, it sets up a situation in which machinima artists don't have to be afraid of Blizzard's lawyers knocking down their doors or takedown notices becoming all too commonplace. Basically, clear rules tell the public, "Here's our end of the bargain."

The second reason Blizzard's machinima rules and licensing are clear-cut is because it benefits Blizzard to have clear-cut rules in its favor. If Blizzard were stingy with its machinima rights to creators, machinima artists would always be toeing some kind of line. The most important aspect of the legal world is predictability. By having predictable rules and consequences, people can continue to make value judgments and risk assessments with the best information available. We are, after all, beings that make the best decisions (for the most part) based on potential risk and potential reward. Clear policies allow creators to be more relaxed about the lines they can't cross, opening up possibilities to explore.


Abuse of economy
Hey Mat,

I had a question for you, and possibly The Lawbringer column. Recently a friend of mine who has been playing WoW since release had his account banned for "Terms of Use Violation -- Exploitative Activity: Abuse of the Economy." He has been a very active person on our realm economy and has amassed quite a bit of gold (somewhere in the hundred thousand range). He has said that he never used or is using any program that is against the ToS or EULA, including bots, and that the recent ban is probably because he has bought goods that were likely obtained by people using bots or other programs that violate EULA or ToS. My questions is this: Is it a violation of the ToS or EULA to purchase goods that were obtained illegally? If so, how are players supposed to know who has obtained goods legally and who has not?

Thanks much

Rudolph - Tichondrius (US
)
The last thing Blizzard wants to do is punish members of its vast community for offenses they didn't even know they committed. Because of the innate knowledge barrier of what items are gained through perfectly "game legal" mechanics and which are bought with gold from a seller or hacked items, you'll probably never be banned over buying an item from an unknown person that was gained in an unscrupulous fashion. It just isn't good business. Going after the customer for gold buying doesn't get rid of the gold buying -- it only works to strike a little bit of fear into the gold-buying community. It is much more effective, rather, to devise strategies to combat the gold sellers and make gold buying a less attractive option or not an option at all.

That being said, Blizzard does use the Exploitative Activity - Abuse of the Economy closure reason for large amounts of gold selling and/or buying for sellers and players alike. It is rare in a player's case, however. Your email didn't provide the entire email sent to your friend, but the large amounts of gold being shoveled back and forth might have set off a false positive for some type of real money transaction. The full text of the "abuse of the economy" emails usually reads something like this:
Reason for Closure: Terms of Use Violation -- Exploitative Activity: Abuse of the Economy

This account was closed because one or more characters were identified exchanging, or contributing to the exchange of, in-game property (items or gold) for "real-world" currency. This exchange process negatively impacts the World of Warcraft game environment by detracting from the value of the in-game economy.

Even if this behavior is the result of a third party accessing the account instead of the registered user (for example, a friend, family member, or leveling service) then the account can still be held responsible for the penalty because of the impact it had on the game environment.

We've found the above behavior is many times directly related to groups responsible for compromising World of Warcraft accounts; we take these issues very seriously. To better understand our position against exploitative activity and the risks involved, please review this article: http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/info/basics/antigold.html

The exploitative activity that took place on this account violates the World of Warcraft Terms of Use. We ask you take a moment to review these terms at http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/legal/termsofuse.html. Any recurring subscriptions on this account have been suspended to prevent further monetary charges.
Your friend's best bet is to ask Blizzard what happened, maybe get a little bit more information, and see if the ban was the result of some kind of gold selling deal. The bots or illegal program explanation probably doesn't fly, as that would show up as something different with Warden. Buying goods from someone who did exploit would not necessarily be cause for a ban because there is a gap in knowledge -- how do you know, as a player, what is safe to buy and what isn't within the game world? There is no way to guarantee, since the item doesn't say.

Exalted no more
Hey Lawbringer,

I don't know if you are following the drama involved with the Exalted Title and patch 4.06. It's some interesting reading and can be found on their forum including the blue post
here:

I thought this would make an interesting article for you. The long and the short of it is that Blizzard removed the title from all players and upgraded the requirements.

I know that according to the TOS they can certianly do this. I certainly feel though, that there is a kind of social contract with
expectations here that they appear to breach. Is there any recourse for this activity or are we best served by quitting if we disagree?

Thanks for your time.

Andrew

MMO Terms of Use (like World of Warcraft's) always have a clause in them that grants the operator of the MMO license to do whatever it wants to its game world, including making additions and taking out pieces whenever it feels like it. It is the company's world, after all, and you are basically licensing its content and databases. In fact, here it is:
Changes to the Terms of Use or the Game.

Blizzard reserves the right, at its sole and absolute discretion, to change, modify, add to, supplement or delete, at any time, any of the terms and conditions of this Agreement, any feature of the Game or the Service, hours of availability, content, data, software or equipment needed to access the Game or the Service, effective with or without prior notice; provided, however, that material changes to this Terms of Use Agreement will not be applied retroactively. If any future changes to this Agreement are unacceptable to you or cause you to no longer be in compliance with this Agreement, you must terminate, and immediately stop using, the Game. Your continued use of the Game following any revision to this Agreement constitutes your complete and irrevocable acceptance of any and all such changes. Blizzard may change, modify, suspend, or discontinue any aspect of the Game at any time. Blizzard may also impose limits on certain features or restrict your access to parts or all of the Game without notice or liability.

Basically, Blizzard does what it wants to because it is Blizzard's game world. Frankly, rules like this have to be implemented for a million and one reasons, but the biggest of them all is a little thing called liability.

When you begin to gain some kind of stake in the World of Warcraft, your rights change. Blizzard's aim is not to force you out of the loop -- that's just the ultimate conclusion. Issues arise when you are owed something. The last thing that Blizzard wants (and couldn't ever afford) would be treating 12 million players like 12 million employees or 12 million potential lawsuits. That's the crux of liability with a company that is providing you such a fun game with a friendly aura of community -- you have to be kept close for the purposes of community involvement, but you have to be kept as legally far away from any types of rights or ownership, or else someone will find a way in, so to speak.

Don't take that as a slight against you, the player, though. It's just business. In terms of WoW, a little business goes a long way, especially for a virtual world. Blizzard protects its ass so as to continue to stay in operation. You know that adage that one spoiled apple ruins the bushel ... or something. I'm not even that big of a fan of apples.

Nonetheless, issues like The Exalted title and gameplay concerns are best left to discussion out of the "what am I owed" in a contract sense, and more to the "what am I owed" from a community standpoint. Blizzard has every right to change the way The Exalted title works, but don't protest on a social contract platform -- protest on a platform of information. The community is owed timely information about decisions that effect the virtual world, not necessarily that changes should be implemented by the whims of the vocal minority/majority. Expectations are a very interesting topic, aren't they?

The best way to show any company, really, that you disagree with its policies is to stop buying its products or services. If The Exalted title change is quit-worthy for you, the thing that gets to the heart of the problem is your continued support of something you don't, in fact, support.

Speaking of the whole social contract thing, I wouldn't bring that up.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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