Is there hope for custom game developers amidst Blizzard Entertainment’s new Acceptable Use Policy?
Following the launch of Warcraft III: Reforged, Blizzard Entertainment (Blizzard) has updated its Acceptable Use Policy so that the legal rights that custom-game makers automatically assign to Blizzard have been expanded. The new wording (highlighted in bold) reads:
Custom Games are and shall remain the sole and exclusive property of Blizzard. Without limiting the foregoing, you hereby assign to Blizzard all of your rights, title, and interest in and to all Custom Games, including but not limited to any copyrights in the content of any Custom Games.
In order to put the importance of this into context, it is necessary to consider the legacy of Blizzard's 2002 real-time strategy game Warcraft III. Many would argue that as successful as Warcraft was, the game's most enduring legacy might be as the basis for genre-defining, fan-made custom game spin-offs like Defense of the Ancients (aka DotA).
For those who have not played Warcraft III, Blizzard included a free "world editor" in the game that allowed players to create custom scenarios or "maps" for the game, which could be played online with other players through Battle.net. Those custom scenarios could be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they could be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like DotA.
The increased popularity of DotA helped spur the development of the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, including Riot Games’ infamous title, League of Legends, and ultimately led to the development of Dota 2 by Valve. However when Valve came to market and trademark DotA as a franchise, they faced opposition from the DotA Allstars contributors working at Riot Games, and Blizzard Entertainment, both of which legally challenged the franchising of DotA by Valve. The legal dispute was settled in May 2012, with Valve gaining franchising rights for commercial use to the trademark, while non-commercial use remains open to the public. Dota 2 was first made available to the public in 2011, and then officially released in July 2013.
What does copyright law say?
A computer game is protected by copyright. However, from a copyright perspective a computer game is a little unusual because it often comprises a number of different copyright works. These include:
- the computer program (which falls within the definition of a literary work);
- the images that appear on a screen (which fall within the definition of an artistic work);
- the music in the game (which falls within the definition of a musical work).
Additionally the rules and the design of the game would be protected, but the copyright protects the owners only against direct copying; so if someone else were to take the idea and produce a different game based on it, there would be no infringement in the UK.
Blizzard’s New Acceptable Use Policy and its (potential) consequences
While it’s difficult to protect the basic concept of a game, Blizzard’s updated Acceptable Use Policy is important as it allows Blizzard to claim copyright over any original characters, art and writing associated with Warcraft III: Reforged. In other words, whilst other developers would be able to create similar general gameplay of Custom Games created within Warcraft III: Reforged for their own purposes, any derivative games that use the same name, art, or characters would belong to Blizzard (because only those aspects are protected by copyright law). The principle behind this is that copyright protects the expression of an idea – not the idea itself.
Although this may seem like a simple case of a company protecting its interest, when considering the success of Dota 2, it is not surprising that Blizzard has taken these steps. Since the launch of Dota 2 in 2013, Valve has started hosting the Dota Pro Circuit, which is made up of five major tournaments and five minor tournaments and culminates in “The International”. Last year the total prize pool for The International was $34,330,068 USD. Given the increased interest and investment in esports over the last ten years, and the ever growing number of people playing and streaming games, if a custom game created within Warcraft III: Reforged becomes a success, Blizzard wants to ensure it has a level of protection that it didn’t have when DotA was created.
In conclusion, whilst the new policies probably won't have a direct effect on the vast majority of Warcraft players who decide to custom create content for fun, if another custom game within Warcraft III: Reforged becomes a hot new trend in the gaming world, this new wording could ensure that the resulting profits (and potential tournament rights) go to Blizzard and not the Custom Game developers themselves. However the amendments don’t prevent Custom Game developers from being recruited by other companies, as Valve and Riot did in the mid 2000’s, and potentially creating their own game and subsequent legacy…