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Blizzard suing Starcraft II hackers threatens gamers everywhere

first_imgIt’s usually pretty easy to tell who you should be rooting for in a case of corporation vs. citizen; either the corporation is oppressing the little guy, or smacking down an annoyance in service of the public good. Yet the latest story about Blizzard Entertainment and its mega-hit Starcraft II presents a slightly more complex situation: Blizzard is suing the creators of a popular, potentially game-breaking hack, and in so doing begins a battle that could come to define the legal relationship between game and gamer.The sticking point has to do with the charges themselves; while we all know it’s nefarious and evil to cheat in an online game, there’s no actual law against doing so. As a result, when Blizzard went looking for a way to force these hackers to cease their hacking, the company was forced to turn to seemingly unconnected allegations. The team behind the ValiantChaos Maphack must now face off against charges of copyright infringement (direct, contributory, and “vicarious”) as well as breach of contract, trafficking in circumvention devices, and “intentional interference with contractual relations.”The MapHack at issue here reveals the entire multiplayer arena with no fog of war to obscure an opponent’s movements.This all sounds terribly official, until you remember that this is in reference to a map hack. The idea here is that by materially affecting the game experience of legitimate players, the hack thus materially affects Blizzard’s fortunes and constitutes financial wrongdoing. This might make a stitch of sense were Starcraft II a subscription-based game like World of Warcraft, but in this case any lost revenue would come in the form of potential late-stage retail purchasers scared away by the hack. I very much doubt that Blizzard has any data supporting such a claim.Even if it did, the suit would still be spurious in the extreme. If hacking is illegal because it makes the game worse for legitimate players, does griefing then become illegal as well? What about just being a jerk, because that’s simply the sort of person you are? What about being so good that “legitimate players” can’t enjoy playing against you? If the crux of the legal argument has to do not with the code or its distribution, but with the in-game effects on players’ subjective experiences, then the fact that this is a packaged software product becomes meaningless.The more tech-centric argument put forth in the complaint, that the hack copies “copyrighted content into [the player] computer’s RAM in excess of the scope of their limited license,” is essentially saying that you may not even read certain content buried within the software you own. More to the point, Blizzard will decide when and according to what rules you may read it — digital fog of war algorithms and the sight ranges of RTS units are, at that point, a recognized mode of communication under the American legal system.If this isn’t illegal…On the other side of the coin, the guys at ValiantChaos have been charging quite a bit of money for access to the maphack — upwards of $60 via PayPal donation. Thus, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them, and easy to feel sympathetic toward frustrated developers forced to watch third parties get rich by ruining their hard work. The problem is that any emotional sympathy we extend to developers does and should not translate to legal support for these allegations.Nintendo lost a very similar historical battle against Game Genie in the ’90s, but the legal climate was very different back then. Sony, Apple, and others have all attempted to keep people from tinkering with their hardware and software products, but have met with limited success in the United States. Those cases, and this one, ultimately rest on how binding pre-purchase contracts really are, and on whether you are even capable of signing away your rights as a consumer — intentionally or otherwise. The worst punishment you incur as a result of jailbreaking your iPhone is a voided warranty — but hacking a video-game will leave you legally unprotected? What if the hack in fact did not ruin the game for legitimate players — would it at that point be legally acceptable?There is an incoherence at the center of this case, and if it is allowed to go forward as-is it will set easily exploited precedents that will haunt “legitimate” gamers for many years to come. Cheaters may be the lowest of the low, but fighting them with efforts like this has the potential to harm the very people we’re trying to protect.last_img

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