Off-Topic: When culture clashes with copyright, everyone loses.

Blizzard’s legal department seems to have gone completely crazy the last few months, with sending Cease & Desists to a variety of people, even including Breanni at Warcraftpets.com. Since we don’t generally understand the copyright laws that Blizzard has to follow, we assume that Blizzard is somehow being malicious in stomping on the fans that are seemingly doing GOOD work for Blizzard (addons, iphone apps, etc.).

In theory, every time I take a clip art picture from Google and put it on this blog, I’m probably breaking copyright laws, because I’m making a “copy” of someone else’s photograph or artwork wihout their permission – even though I make absolutely no profit when I do it (as I don’t even have advertisements on this blog). Everyone that records their raid with Fraps, sets it to music, and puts it on youtube is breaking copyright laws (from the music industry’s standpoint – because you are making a “copy” of the songs you use when you put it up on youtube).

So, what’s going on? Really, I don’t think it’s Blizzard’s fault that they have to enforce copyright laws. They actually let us get away with a lot of things that fall in the “gray area” surrounding copyright issues.  While Blizzard can let everyone do whatever they want, they undermine their own company when they allow people or other companies to profit from their games without oversight.

The best explanation of what is wrong with the current copyright laws, and how the law interacts with our current internet culture, is a talk given by Lawrence Lessig at a conference in March of 2009 at the OFC conference in San Diego. I really strongly recommend that you watch the whole thing. It’s about an hour, but it’s one of the most helpful and informative hours that I’ve spent my entire life.  Click here for a link to the whole video.

If you aren’t quite willing to spend the full hour, here’s a 10 minute clip from the middle that I think best introduces the problem:

Okay, so at the end of this clip I put here, Lawrence Lessing talks about a “sharing economy”. He better explains the interaction between sharing & commercial economies (turning into “hybrid” economies) in the next part of the video. Things like addons that charge for their use would probably be more of a hybrid economy. Wowinsider (that got renamed by AOL to “wow.com”) is a hybrid economy (they make money off their advertising, right?), however Blizzard hasn’t shut down wowinsider – because they aren’t doing anything that Blizzard would want to shut down. Here’s section 4 of the video explaining more about hybrid economies (in companies such as Amazon.com & Microsoft):

For the most part, Blizzard does their best to not interfere with people who want to make things and share them for free. Blogs like this do a huge service for Blizzard by explaining to other people HOW to play the game, thus making Blizzard more money in the long run (without costing them anything, or making me any profit). Blizzard does, however, tend to crack down on people who make a profit at Blizzard’s expense (with a few exceptions). When Blizzard sent their C&D to warcraft pets, what they were cracking down on was selling T-shirts, not the information being shared on the website. Blizzard encourages “sharing economies”, but if Blizzard allows people to directly make money off their games by selling WoW-related products, then they open doors for bad practices (such as the botting programs we all hate) to win lawsuits against them. So, fairly innocent practices (like warcraft pet’s T-shirt store) has to get shut down so that Blizzard can prove to the legal system that Blizzard does care about the copyright that is on their material.  It’s really the law’s fault that Blizzard has to enforce the law. I’m pretty sure Blizzard’s staff doesn’t actually care about warcraft pet’s t-shirt store.

I spend an aweful lot of time giving away my time for free to make Blizzard’s games better (from my blog posting, forum posting, and Beta testing their game), and I don’t currently even have advertisements on this blog because I want to stay as far away from the gray areas of the law as I can (although I probably break some copyright laws by posting other people’s copyrighted artwork and pictures on this site – even if I don’t profit from doing so).

I think we can all agree that making botting programs, hosting private servers, and profiting off hacking accounts to sell other player’s gold is definitely wrong. However, if warcraftpets doesn’t want to shell out money from their own pockets, and instead wants to support the site by selling t-shirts, that’s something that the laws need to stop criminalizing. When we’re “remixing” Blizzard’s work, it needs to not be so closely regulated by copyright laws. Until the laws change, however, Blizzard has an obligation to also follow the copyright laws, as much as they ask us to follow those laws, as well. It sucks, but it’s really up to us, and the lawmakers, to change the copyright laws to allow our internet “rewrite” culture to flourish. Until then, all of us are going to continue breaking the copyright laws accidentally as we conduct our lives, because the laws were not designed to handle the new interactions that have emerged in our culture. Really, I don’t blame Blizzard for what they have to do, even if I don’t personally have the law degree that is required to understand what’s going on.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted May 21, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Copyright is a very interesting thing, and is part and parcel with convoluded software and intellectual property laws. I took a software law course while I was in law school, and it was a nightmare, in large part because the judges hadn’t quite decided to do with it yet, which meant the rulings were all over the map and horribly inconsistent.

    I have been following Blizzard’s crackdown with some interest, as well as some of the resulting litigation it has been causing. I think that it will be fascinating to watch some of this develop and watch old doctrine be applied…or even new doctrine made as these cases come along!

    On another note that you mentioned regarding You Tube videos, we have a guy in our guild that puts together “tribute” videos from time to time (shameless promotion of his cool vids! http://monolithwow.dkpsystem.com/dynpage.php?id=48) and just recently he was advised that You Tube took the music off of his video due to a mandate from Warner Music that he was using their intellectual property without their permission. I’m not even kidding.

    He went to the band’s Myspace Page, and requested permission from them to use their music in his WoW video, and they granted him permission. But it gets cooler! They liked his video so much they asked him to send them a hard copy of it and asked if they could use it at some point in the future.

    Anyhow, as Lissanna states, this is a very real, very emerging issue, and being a legal junkie I am more curious than annoyed about how everything is going to evolve =) Thanks for your insights on it, Lissanna!!!

  2. Posted May 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, as we speak I am hopping through the hoops of copyrights at work, where I help develop higher-ed online courses for distance learning: which involves digitizing videos and checking every image, comic strip, and photograph that live-classroom teachers can show at a whim. Just the fact that the content is being moved to a “downloadable” place online turns the copyright holders into ravening beasts, even if it’s for education and is protected from the general public by login. Some copyright holders are okay with it, others insist purchasing new licenses, etc. It’s a big mess to hack through… all for a professor to show, say, a Dilbert cartoon he thought was applicable, and was allowed to post in a classroom on an overhead slide or powerpoint presentation without any issue.

    Trying to explain to the instructors why there’s a difference is even more of a headache.