Blizzard wins $88m lawsuit against WoW private server owner

Blizzard Entertainment has just won a substantial lawsuit against WoW private server provider Scapegaming, including a crippling award of $88 million in damages. Read on for more on WoW private servers and this case.
What was Scapegaming?
Scapegaming was a WoW private server, which permitted players to play a modified version of WoW that was not under Blizzard’s control and for which players would pay the private server provider rather than WoW. For example, it seems that Scapegaming even featured a (real money) microtransactions system, which obviously WoW does not.  Vanilla WoW is just fine for me for me (my 80 Horde DK is doing ok thanks), but I can imagine that some gamers may find attractive the idea of playing a different, non-sanctioned version of WoW.
Private servers inhabit a pretty murky world (more on them below) and so not much is known about Scapegaming. However, from some investigation it seems clear that Scapegaming is/was one of a number of interconnected WoW private servers, who enjoy apparently quite substantial player bases.  For example, you can have a look at this Youtube video for some rather mysterious allegations about the various figures behind Scapegaming and its rivals.  One thing that does seem clear is that some point Scapegaming was shut down, though whether this was as a result of this lawsuit or other factors is unclear.

So, a bit about private servers
As I said, private servers permit players to play WoW without Blizzard’s supervision and which therefore gives them the ability to manipulate the game to an extent impossible in the official servers. BUT, private servers without the dev’s consent are quite clearly illegal. Why? Because if you reverse-engineer and make available to the public a modified version of someone else’s game without his/her consent, you are committing a range of IP infringements, particularly copyright and trademark infringement. Moreover, both making and using a private server would involve breach of the WoW terms and conditions, entitling Blizzard in principle to shut down WoW game accounts of both the private server providers and their users. In fact, if such servers are provided to the public for profit, then under many jurisdictions this could potentially be a criminal as well as a civil matter for the server providers. Beyond that, private servers cause commercial and creative problems for the dev because they are outside of his revenue stream or his creative control. In other words, they are pretty much always going to be BAD NEWS for developers.
Blizzard itself is certainly alive to the dangers posed by private servers. In around 2002, it took legal action against the owners of Bnetd, a reverse-engineered clone of Battle.net and therefore in effect a private server itself (you can read more on that here) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bnetd. Beyond that, Blizzard has taken legal action on a number of other occasions when third parties have attempted to introduce changes to WoW without its consent (see for example the WowGlider litigation).

So, at this point, let’s have a quick look at what we know of the Scapegaming case.

The case
In early 2010, Blizzard commenced the legal action in a Californian court directly against Alison Rees, apparently the owner/manager of Scapegaming. The details of Blizzard’s exact complaint were, as usual, set out in a formal Compaint (known as Particulars of Claim in England) – but unfortunately I don’t have access to it (yet). Still, one would expect that it gave set out the IP/contract arguments against Rees.
Then, it seems from the court record, Rees did…nothing. As seems often to be the case in clear IP infringement cases of this kind, Rees ing appears to have chosen not to respond to the lawsuit at all. As a result, it seems that Blizzard became entitled to default judgment (this is a legal procedure in which, if you start a lawsuit and the other side doesn’t respond within the requisite reply period, then you automatically ‘win’ the lawsuit because of the other side’s failure to engage in the process).
At which point the lawsuit seems to take another non-twist, because then Blizzard’s lawyers appear to have done nothing either. The lawsuit history is skimpy on detail and therefore difficult to follow at this point, but it seems that the court took a pretty dim view of this and therefore proposed to dismiss Blizzard’s lawsuit altogether because Blizzard had failed actually to ask for default judgment against Rees. Anyway, after a court hearing on the issues, the court (apparently quite begrudgingly) gave Blizzard a short period in which actually to seek default judgment, which it then did in mid June 2010. This then rolled on for some time until, in early August, the judge ruled that:
Based on Plaintiffs evidentiary submissions, the Court concludes that Plaintiff is entitled to default judgment in the amount of $3,052,339 in disgorged profits, $85,478,600 in statutory damages, and $63,600 in attorneys fees…Plaintiff Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. shall recover $88,594,539.00, and post-judgment interest thereon at the rate provided by law until paid in full, from Defendant Alyson Reeves, d/b/aScapegaming.
Let’s just pick the numbers apart for a moment. Blizzard is to recover $3m in “disgorged profits“, meaning that it was able to convince the court that Rees herself had made over $3m in profits from Scapegaming. That’s a serious amount of dough to earn from a private server. Then we have $85m in “statutory damages”, which is the amount awarded by the court to compensate Blizzard for the estimated loss caused by the IP infringements. Clearly this makes up the bulk of the award and is pretty nuclear all on its own (though NB that the amount of statutory damages awarded are often a target for an appeal later on). Finally, we have $63,600 in legal costs.
So what?
$88m in damages is a pretty crippling blow to bring against an individual and I would guess that, unless Rees is a wealthy individual living in the US (or she manages to win an appeal against that award – seems unlikely), then actually recovering anything like that sum of money may be difficult. However, the sheer size of the damages award certainly should send a clear message to other WoW private server providers (particularly any of those who have moved in on Scapegaming’s territory since the lawsuit began).
Which leads us to the last point for this post. What this case shows most strongly is that Blizzard views private servers as a sufficiently significant problem to merit lawsuits – particularly if other private server providers are earning anything like the $3m that Rees made from Scapegaming. Couple that with the fact that there are clearly other private server providers out there, and it suggests we will see more of this kind of action from Blizzard in the future. Watch this space…

Image credit: Activision-Blizzard/Wikimedia