WoW Factor: Nostalrius, copyright, and player demand

If you haven’t been following the latest Legion testing – which, at the end of the day, is just a series of iterative updates to the experience that we’ve been dealing with all along – then the big news this week in the World of Warcraft community was the shutdown of the Nostalrius server. Yes, it was another vanilla-only private server, yes, it was player-supported, and yes, it got shut down before it ever went to court. And thus we’re knee-deep in another back-and-forth argument about whether or not people want official vanilla servers.

If I have the air of someone who is a wee bit tired of this particular discussion, that’s because I am. It’s something that has been debated on and off for a long while, ironically dating back to just after The Burning Crusade released, and it’s always taken the form of “these illegal servers are popular, so make one legal!” But there’s no real way to ignore it, and it deserves a bit of discussion here.

On copyright, trademark, and not being stupid

When companies idolize their pasts, it's usually because their presents are much less interesting.Let’s be clear here: Every single private server in existence is a massive copyright violation, and the only reason that these things have not been shut down is either that the company in question doesn’t know about it or because said company is willing to turn a blind eye to the project. Blizzard’s pulling the lawyers on this one was entirely correct to do so.

There always seems to be a lot of confusion as to where the line gets drawn, so let’s make something clear: A copyright violation is using anything that Blizzard has published as official World of Warcraft material without the explicit agreement and licensing of the copyright holder. That includes characters, stories, plots, art assets, and so forth. Fair use is a provision allowing people to do things for educational or contextual purposes, such as parodies and news sites. I can use a picture of Garrosh Hellscream on this article and add a caption, which falls under the header of fair use specifically because I’m talking about WoW and using it as an example. Fair use is also a defense rather than a blanket expression of safety, a tacit admission that something is a copyright violation but used in a positive manner.

For those of you looking to read more about it, I highly recommend the TF Wiki article on copyright, which is far more cleanly and comprehensibly written than you might expect for a fan-run wiki about a bunch of transforming robots. Then again, if I can link to that wiki, I will.

How much money Nostalrius did or didn’t make off of the server has literally no bearing on anything; what matters is that the server was making extensive use of works copyrighted by Blizzard. The graphics, quests, music, textures, characters, and plotlines are all under copyright, obviously. One could even argue that it starts to infringe upon trademark, which is a whole other ball of wax. Either Blizzard didn’t know about it before or didn’t feel the need to act before, but it was always a time bomb. There’s no debate to be had here. The works in question were all being used in the original context without any alteration, and that means it was always a ticking time bomb.

Does this prove people want a vanilla server?

No, I don’t care, and it’s not a productive discussion.

Nostalrius proves that a lot of people will flock to a free server promising a vanilla experience that involves not giving any money to the people involved in making the original game. Making larger statements about whether or not that proves the demand is there relies on making a lot of assumptions that I’m not comfortable with, starting with the assumption that everyone who played on that private server would happily shift over to paying money every month to Activision for the same service.

Even if it does prove that, though – even if you could use this as an unassailable lynchpin of an argument stating that 300,000 players would happily play the vanilla-only server right now – it’s not a productive discussion. Blizzard has always had the exact same answer to that request, and that’s “no.”

Seriously, the company that couldn’t give a unified answer about flying through an entire expansion cycle hasn’t budged an inch on whether or not vanilla servers will ever arrive. It’s a question that has been consistently asked for a long time, it has always received the same answer, and there’s no indication that the answer is about to change. Asking about whether or not it proves anything is like spending hours arguing over who farted in the living room: It’s time that could be better spent opening a window.

You can long for the earlier days if you want to, and there are legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the direction the game has gone in recent years. It’s not a matter I particularly want to comment on or a debate I want to get into, though, and it ultimately doesn’t matter when the discussion has been shut down before it can be started.

You can't really go back again.

But what does it mean? And why?

The thing about copyright is that it’s enforced by the copyright holder on an at-will basis. We here at Massively Overpowered have copyright on the articles we post, and any time some yahoo decides to cut and paste the whole thing on Reddit, we are fully within our legal rights to throw cease-and-desist orders around. Ditto the many, many times that sites crop up copying everything we do and trying to build their reputations on the back of stolen content. However, whether we do so or not, we still own the copyright; not sending out notices when someone steals our content doesn’t in any way diminish our possession of said copyright.

It’s unlikely that Blizzard doesn’t know about these various operations, but it’s understandable that it may not take action against them immediately. Now that we’re in a year-long lull of content, however, it seems that Blizzard is bringing the hammer down with a bit more fervor, which raises some justified speculation. The company’s ultimate motives can’t be known to outside observers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Blizzard’s a bit more irritable about copyright at the moment, especially with a movie coming out and the base game itself in an unwelcome state for many players.

And it’s here that things become interesting because it speaks to something that the industry may be starting to notice as a whole. WoW, at the moment, has a large portion of people who want to play the game but don’t want to play what the game is, preferring snippets that the game has had as major elements in the past but has since abandoned. I would argue there are titles already exploring the field of “WoW without quite so much WoW” as a content delivery model. And the most interesting part of this shutdown is that it indicates to me that Blizzard’s approach is not to ask what people want but to shut these things right down when it can.

Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work. And we have a large portion of the gaming population who loved WoW at one point but aren’t happy with it now, some of which are willing to go rather far afield to find something with a similar feeling. So what will it all mean in the long run?

I don’t know. It’s worth keeping an eye on, just the same.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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368 Comments on "WoW Factor: Nostalrius, copyright, and player demand"

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Kass40
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Kass40

There is a demand for a vanilla server, offical or otherwise. Look at SWGemu, it’s in the process of being ressurected from the ashes.

I don’t see the issue for a company to offer gamers the chance for nostalgia the chance to play the original format of the game. All Blizz needs to do is launch a few servers, with the other servers, charge the monthly fee to allow players to switch between servers at will. At the moment I popped on to WoW to see the pop rates, about 30 eu servers were on low pop lastnight at peak time. 

If blizz was to consider a vanilla server, I am sure players would pay their monthly sub. To be able to play WOW up to even Burning Crusade would be awesome. I know I would not hesitate to sub back.

MyNameIsIllegal
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MyNameIsIllegal

Vagrant Zero carson63000 Loopstah wjowski If they are all paying the sub anyway, and they put a little extra time in to implement the micro (macro honestly) transactions into the older version, what is the difference from an income standpoint?

MyNameIsIllegal
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MyNameIsIllegal

ManastuUtakata MyNameIsIllegal carson63000 Loopstah wjowski Admittedly, I was exaggerating slightly for effect.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

wjowski Jigawatts Siolenas  
Which is part of the reason I have, for the most part, returned to offline games after spending about a decade playing MMOs almost exclusively.
In an offline game I can, for the most part, relive any previous experience I had with the game, at any time I want, and this isn’t just about being able to keep content I like around but also about being able to keep savegames that allow me to jump to any bit of content I might want to see; in a MMO, on the other hand, I’m restricted to content the devs want to make available, played in the way the devs want it to be played (AKA without mods or cheats), and even if the content wasn’t removed I often have to roll a new character, and go through a lot of content I’m not interested in, to get to some bit of earlier content I want to play again.

BTW, nowadays, if a MMO changes in such a way it’s not to my tastes anymore, I will simply leave it without looking back, regardless of how much time I’ve previously spent on it or whether I have in-game friends there (I tried before remaining in games I didn’t like playing anymore in order to keep in contact with in-game friends, the end result wasn’t nice). I might come back if it changes again to something I can find enjoyable, but as the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.

Siolenas
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Siolenas

The only way I see vanilla coming back is when wow reached its conclusion and the story ends. Then they could reset the game and have it auto play.

Siolenas
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Siolenas

None of those other games evolve over time. Ff6 ends and then you restart. Wow is a living game. Vanilla was beaten and so forth. To offer a vanilla server is counterpreductive. That error is over.

wjowski
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wjowski

Jigawatts 
 That’s the price you pay for dynamic content.  Things change, sometimes not to your taste.

Jigawatts
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Jigawatts

If I want to play Final Fantasy 6, I fire it up, if I want to play Ocarina of Time, good times, if I want to play Planescape: Torment, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, or any other of the myriad of classic games in existence, all I have to do is pull up or put in the game and I’m good to go. But if I want to play Vanilla WoW, sorry, unavailable, you cant do that, but not only just that, we are met with a literal “you think you want that but you dont” by the devs themselves.

I havent played your current game since the early part of Cataclysm, Blizzard, I am currently not giving you any money, bring legacy servers online (or revert your current game to being challenging and group focused (regarding all aspects of the game, not solely high end raids)) and I will once again be giving you money.

carson63000
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carson63000

borghive carson63000 I’m not saying anything of the sort and I have not the faintest idea how you got that from my comment.

I’m saying that I believe the cutover from server reputation being important because a bad rep hampered your ability to enjoy the game happened earlier than you believe it did. That I believe that even in WoW’s earliest days, the servers were big enough and anonymous enough that this was not a serious factor.

I didn’t say anything at all about the actual bad behaviour or what caused it.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

SallyBowls1 
Companies that have much of their revenue coming from the sale of physical objects, such as toys, tend to be extremely paranoid with trademark protection, sometimes to the point of driving away fans. Hasbro, for example, had to revise how it handled trademark issues after My Little Pony unexpectedly attracted a legion of adult fans, and those fans started creating fanart by the truckload; Hasbro’s initial crackdown on unlicensed media threatened to mushroom into an unmitigated PR disaster, but thankfully people inside the company quickly noticed that an abundance of fanart actually drove even more people to their licensed products.