Garwulf’s Corner #36: A Question of Rights


Sometimes, it is very easy to lose the forest for the trees. A great example is the current situation between Vivendi and Bnetd. The first time I took a close look at it, I didn’t understand what was going on either.

For those just tuning in, let me give you a brief primer. Back when Starcraft was released, a group of fans decided to put together an alternative to Battle.net. By capturing packets (little bundles of information) sent by the games to the Battle.net server, they worked out how the Battle.net service worked and designed their own as an open source project. And thus, through one or two variations, came to be Bnetd.

And then, when the Warcraft III beta test started, a few of the developers jumped the gun and began to reverse engineer the Warcraft III Battle.net data. Before the beta testing was over, they released a separate product named Warforge, which emulated Battle.net for Warcraft III, and in doing so, circumnavigated the CD key authentication by altering a DLL file. On February 17, the ISP hosting the Bnetd project received a cease and desist order from Vivendi, which claimed that a violation of copyright under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) had taken place. And thus began the great controversy.

Now, as an author and a professional writer, I am relatively well versed in intellectual property law. I have to be; otherwise it becomes very easy for somebody to take advantage of me. And, my gut reaction is to take a look at the intellectual rights first. And that’s how I missed the forest.

As far as intellectual rights are concerned, Blizzard actually comes out looking like a bad guy here. It is the old question of book ownership. If I take a book at random from my library, such as Harlan Ellison’s Edgeworks 1, I find that Harlan Ellison owns the text. However, he doesn’t own the book. The pages and binding belong to me, and I can do whatever I want with them, so long as it isn’t blatantly illegal. The same issue comes to play with computer games.

Blizzard owns the content of the game itself. So, all those rogues and demons in Diablo II belong to Blizzard. But the CDs and the hard drive space the game sits on belong to the user. And hence the crux of the problem. So long as Bnetd hasn’t gone and altered or copied the code of the game itself, no copyright violation has taken place. And, indeed, nothing of the sort has happened. The Blizzard games have not been altered, Battle.net has not been stolen and carbon-copied, and in that light it looks as though Blizzard has turned into a Microsoft-style bully.

But looks can be deceiving. And, now, my dear readers, it’s time to look at the forest. You see, although a copyright violation hasn’t taken place, Blizzard is in the right, and Bnetd is the one in the wrong.

The first thing we have to do is get rid of the notion of intellectual rights, as hard as that may be. Those are being used as a tool here, but aren’t actually the crux of the issue. Indeed, we have to look at the company itself first.

So…Blizzard Entertainment. It currently does two things of note: produces games, and operates Battle.net. The two are closely intertwined; there hasn’t been a Blizzard game that hasn’t had the ability for Battle.net play since Diablo. And Battle.net is a free service specific to Blizzard; it only supports Blizzard games, and each game is designed with a special option that allows this sort of online play.

At first glance, Battle.net does not appear to be something that generates a lot of revenue. However, most businesses operate on a basis of dollars and cents, so it has to at least pay for itself, or Blizzard would simply let services such as Kali take care of the online play. The only way it can pay for itself is by advertising (primarily Blizzard-related products). The more people who log on, the better the advertising will work, and the more revenue the service will generate.

On a business basis, Bnetd is already in the wrong. It is one thing to take Blizzard’s general model and apply it to your own product; that is what Bungie software did for the Myth series. But Bnetd doesn’t do that; it emulates Battle.net. Put simply, it uses Blizzard’s own games to take users away from Battle.net. It is a form of business piracy, albeit a subtle one. If the developers had come up with a new way of playing (such as an online emulation of a closed LAN), that would have been something different, and Blizzard would have had no objections. But that’s not what Bnetd did. Granted, the Bnetd developers meant well enough, but they should have thought out what they were doing in more detail.

Warforge is a different matter. Not only did it have to alter some of the Warcraft III code to bypass the CD key authentication (which is an intellectual rights infringement), but it also caused considerable harm to the beta test. One of the primary reasons for the beta testing was to see how the Battle.net servers handled Warcraft III under controlled conditions. By releasing Warforge, the developers destroyed the controlled environment, and invalidated that part of the beta test. They are lucky that Blizzard hasn’t sued them for it; by all rights, the company should have.

But there is a larger issue at stake. If only Warforge compromised the beta test, why shut down the entire Bnetd project? After all, the thing has been going for about four years without Vivendi complaining.

I think a larger issue comes into play here. Security is our watchword now. And, as a perfect example, I present Battle.net less than a month ago.

It was an online realm that had been virtually destroyed by hackers, crackers, call them what you will. Cheats sprang up all over the place, the realms were broken wide open, and Blizzard found itself having to keep up with a community of thousands who were trying to break Battle.net. And how, pray tell, do you create a hack that will work on the realms? I imagine it would be the same type of reverse engineering that was used to create Bnetd.

The only way for Blizzard to get a handle on the hacking is for the company to demonstrate that a no-tolerance policy is in place, which is exactly what they are doing. Anybody caught using a hack or trainer now has their entire account deleted. And anybody who publicly tries to reverse engineer Battle.net gets shut down.

The question for me is not whether or not Bnetd should have been terminated; quite frankly, I agree with Vivendi’s actions. If Bnetd had wanted to offer an alternative to Battle.net in the way that they did, they should have either created a new type of multiplayer service or designed their own game to go with it…that is honest competition (aside from which, the legality of reverse-engineering any software is a big grey area).

Instead, I wonder whether or not the death of Bnetd will serve as a deterrent. If it does, then perhaps not only will Diablo be saved, but so will the other games. On the other hand, if it fails we may find ourselves facing a hacked and corrupted Warcraft III.

My fingers are crossed.

Next installment: A Glance at the Other Side, in which the author builds a dungeon and muses about the differences between real and imagined evil.

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