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The Lawbringer: Account management and you

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?

Writing The Lawbringer has taught me a lesson in trends. Over the past few months, specific questions are sent to me in topical batches. Sometimes it is a few emails about selling accounts. Other times, I get four to five emails about account security or compromise. May's email topic of choice was transferring accounts to family members.

Blizzard is very restrictive about what you can and cannot change regarding your account information. On the one hand, it is your account, right? Shouldn't you have ultimate control over the information you provide for the facilitation of a service you pay for? On the other hand, there is a certain degree of problem mitigation that comes with restrictive change. If Blizzard can control certain aspects of what you do with your account and the information it is all filed under, problems can get mitigated before they appear. Today's topic is really all about damage mitigation.

As we usually have to do, we must get the first point of fact out of the way. Your account isn't really your account. You don't own the account, but you do possess the rights to access the games that you've purchased associated with your account. The World of Warcraft characters bound to your account are owned by Blizzard, and that is pretty well-worn territory at this point in the discussion. You don't have the rights to sell your character or your account because, for what it's worth, you don't really own anything attached to it.

The question

Here's one of the emails that I received that sums up today's issue fairly well:
Hi Mat,

After your answer about selling accounts here is my issue. I have an account for my teenage son that he plays on. When he turn 18 is there anyway to legally transfer ownership of this account to him? I would like to remove my credit card information and let him start paying for his own WoW. Is there any way to do this without him starting over on a new account?

Signed,

Dad who plays WoW too.
The short answer to any account transfer question is, sadly, "no, except for kids." There are a few pieces of information that Blizzard wants to lock in as, well, account-bound. By keeping tight control over the name on the account, for instance, Blizzard can stop a good amount of account selling and Terms of Service-breaking account transfers. Children reaching maturity, however, is a different story.

But why? Most of it has to do with damage mitigation. WoW is already the target of a huge amount of fraud and hacking, which fuels a gray market that revels in account and gold sales. Selling accounts is harmless until someone gets robbed or defrauded out of their money and runs to Blizzard for recompense. By mandating that you cannot transfer accounts or even change the owner's name on the account, Blizzard draws the line at selling or transferring accounts -- the only person who has access to the account is the person whose name is on it. With one name and no changes available or allowable, there is no dispute over who is allowed access.

The system is set up in such a way that even account transfers between family members is specifically prohibited. One would think that this type of transfer would or should be fine, considering there is little to no chance of fraud. Well, the whole point of a hard-and-fast rule is that the line is clear. We call those "bright line" rules. Even if something seems fine or logical on one side of the line, it still exists on the wrong side of the line.

Let's talk hypotheticals. One of the more common fraud situations I describe is someone selling an account and then calling up Blizzard to get it "restored" to the original owner even after it's been "sold." It's scary because ignorant or naive buyers have no idea what they are getting into when they fork over money to a seller. On the other side of the coin, if your account was ever stolen or compromised, you're pretty much the only one who can make changes to it or control its future.

Alternatives to a transfer

There are ways around transferring your account as the only way to get your son to pay for the game. In fact, there are a few good ones that you might want to consider. First, at least from the email, it seems like the only issue would be the payment on the account and not the name on it. You wouldn't be able to transfer the account to your son, but if he knows the password and the account information, you could pull off your credit card information and let him add game cards to continue playing. The issue remains -- you are still technically against the terms of use, unless the wording of the Terms of Use allows your son to play with your permission.

Of all of the things Blizzard is looking for with account sharing, however, this is probably not high on the list. If your IP keeps changing and the location that the account is accessed from jumps around from place to place, the account will be closed until reactivated. If your son is staying still, you will probably never have an issue. The only real problem is if your son needs access to Blizzard for an account issue. You would need to manage the account, as it is still connected to your name.

Here's Blizzard's own FAQ statement on why it is so restrictive with the name on the account and transfers:
Why is it set up that way?

Blizzard takes the integrity of its game and the matter of account ownership very seriously. For this reason, the sale of characters and accounts is expressly against the World of Warcraft Terms of Use, and the transfer of characters from one account owner to another is prohibited.
No sharing (except with your kid)

One of the big exceptions to the ban on account sharing is parents and their child. Blizzard sends out false-positives for hacking when you log into your account from "new" IP addresses, which is one reason why you get those account compromise emails when using an SSH tunneling service like Smooth Ping. Since you're logging in from a "new" IP, the game detects the changes and throws up its hands in alarm.

Blizzard's Terms of Service allows for a parent or guardian to authorize access to one child. Looks like little Donna doesn't get to play WoW when big brother Jimmy has access to the account! (Don't feel bad for Donna. She stands in fire, keyboard turns, clicks action bars, and won't stop talking on Mumble. She's terrible at WoW for a 5-year-old.)
Our Terms of Use prohibits the sharing of accounts except in the situation where a parent or guardian authorizes access to one child.
Kids are obviously not going to have the credit card available, in their name at least, to pay for World of Warcraft's subscription fee. Parents must create a kid's account and supervise play for the most part, and the account stays in the parent's name. When the child hits 18 and legal, adult maturity, he or she could create their own WoW and/or Battle.net account and would have to purchase new licenses for the games as well as create new characters from scratch.

Upon reaching the age of maturity

Here's the big exception: once a child reaches the age of maturity, a parent can fill out a specific form and relinquish rights to the account over to the child. You can find the form on the Blizzard support page here. Blizzard knows that children are going to play the game with their parent's permission and, upon reaching the age of maturity, will want to keep that account on their own terms. This is one of those exceptions that does take a good bit of identification and potentially time, but it is available to you.

It is interesting that WoW has a system in place like this, especially since the game has gone on for long enough that children have passed into legal maturity over the course of WoW's lifetime. Many MMOs might never have this issue because of the very nature of their lifespan. World of Warcraft has parents and children growing together in and out of Azeroth, creating an interesting environment.

Legal name corrections

An email form also exists for making a correction to your legal name on an already-registered account or a change to the parental control email update information. There is no email form for transferring an account to a new person, however. If you just got married and changed your last name or went through a divorce and got your last name back, Blizzard allows only the last name on an account to be changed due to very specific circumstances. The process is a bit intensive, but nothing too ridiculous.

There are even scams out there that tell you to don a female voice or get a friend to call Blizzard and have them change your last name to your new, fake last name by way of fake marriage in order to transfer account ownership. Do not do this. These people work hard enough as it is dealing with addons they don't support and all of those calls from ninja looting victims. Give them a break.

Making the call

When you're a company like Blizzard that has to mitigate calls, problems, and potential account disputes, removing one of the crucial aspects of account management from the player goes a long way toward stopping problems before they happen. My account is a sacred thing that gets licenses, purchases, and value added to it over time. While I don't own my account, I do have an investment in it. Anything that keeps it in my possession is a pretty good move to me, since I spent a huge amount of time cultivating my experiences and achievements in these games.

Blizzard made the call to be restrictive with your name in order to protect account integrity. It may seem like a giant pain in the butt, but it's not done to make your life miserable. You'll be pretty damn happy that your name is on that account when someone else tries to take it away from you, especially with so much money in expansions and your own time invested into it. With your kids, however, you are safe in knowing that their account under your name can eventually be their account.

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.

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