FBI shut down the unauthorized computer game server L2Extreme, which hosted the NCSoft MMORPG Lineage II. Owners of L2Extreme provided its 50,000 active users with service and code for the online game for a fee. NCSoft claimed millions of dollars of annual loss due to this illegal service. L2Extreme operated pirated server software copied from the NCSoft server software. Users then registered with L2Extreme to play Lineage II instead of using NCSoft’s servers.
The financial effect is of course significant, but NCSoft also had to defend its intellectual property rights. The case, at first glance, is similar to the Blizzard v. BnetD case. However, BnetD reverse engineered the Blizzard server software without direct infringement on the original software. It was a fair use copy with no copyright violation involved. Contrarily, L2Extreme simply pirated the software from NCSoft. In addition, L2Extreme was a profitable business whereas BnetD was fueled by volunteer game enthusiasts. Otherwise, the details of both cases seem very similar.
Comparing the Blizzard v. BnetD case with this event, it becomes clear that seemingly minor details are in fact the deciding factors in many copyright decisions. In one, the FBI abruptly closed down operation without proper legal decision whereas in the other, the original game company could not persuade the court of any wrongdoing on the defendant’s part. Noticeably, intellectual property laws and their applications to the game industry remains a relatively new field. Hence, it is difficult to pinpoint what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps the single greatest law which many intellectual property and gaming related cases are based on is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, there are many critics of the DMCA simply because of some of the consequences of invoking the Act. It remains to be seen how long the DMCA can last before undergoing major renovations. Much of that is derived from the evolutionary nature of gaming, where much change can occur in just a few years. Laws that are applicable in one year may become outdated the next year. This is the inevitable change of technology.
Marvel filed suit against NCSoft, the company which produces the popular MMORPG “City of Heroes”, for contributory copyright and trademark infringement. In the game, players can create their own characters to embark on missions to advance through the game. However, Marvel claims that the character creation engine allows players to create avatars resembling Marvel superheroes such as Wolverine or the Incredible Hulk. Marvel concluded that the creators of the game are aiding the players’ infringement of their trademarks on such characters. The case was settled outside of court. Evidently, NCSoft prevailed because they announced that there would be no changes to their character creation system.
Although the game does not contain an advanced system to exactly duplicate Marvel characters, it is possible for players to create their own characters with similar appearances. Then, Marvel’s argument might hold true. Granted, NCSoft did not deliberately place or aid players in creating these similar characters. However, the larger implications of this case had Marvel won would have a profoundly negative impact on the future of intellectual property and copyright law. NCSoft simply supplied the basic, physical creation tools necessary for player development in the game. To sue NCSoft would be similar to Marvel suing Lego for similar reasons. Owners of Lego pieces might attempt to build structures resembling Marvel characters. It seems almost ridiculous to litigate against a supplier rather than the actual violator of law.
“City of Heroes” contains a character building tool that encourages originality from the player. Players use this tool to create entities of their own imagination to participate in the game’s play. Even though such entities may ultimately look like copyrighted Marvel characters, gamers cannot be held accountable. They are not using these characters for any other purpose other than to play within the game. Therefore, it is implausible to sue a company which distributes these tools. Creation and creativity within games are what makes today’s games unique. Players are no longer subject to the generic characters. Such traits are integral to maintaining strong consumer attention towards the game and contributing to game development. If this decision had swung the other way, copyright law would have directly hindered the advancement of the game industry.