In the wake of Divergence Online’s disappearance from the Steam store last week, we spoke to Stained Glass Llama’s Ethan Casner, who on Thursday night told us that he had effectively asked (more like double-dog-dared, as we read it) Valve to take down his store page if Valve wasn’t going to properly deal with harassing reviews and reviewers. He also dismissed his partner’s tweets regarding a Valve takedown as a misunderstanding.
Following those statements, Steven Bonner, one of the unnamed people alleged to have been harassing Divergence Online’s devs, named himself in our comments and claimed that he had actually issued a DMCA takedown complaint against the game based on other unnamed players’ claims that Bonner’s assets were being used in the game without permission or recompense. Bonner has not provided proof about the assets or claimed that there was anything more than a “verbal agreement” as to his alleged partnership with SGL. The DMCA assertion led to fresh accusations that Casner was lying and dozens upon dozens of comments harassing the Massively OP staff (and suggesting that Casner’s harassment complaint at the very least had legs).
Privately to Massively OP, Bonner provided an unredacted document from Valve dated Friday night that informed him of a counterclaim issued by Casner and explained that he has 10 days to file a legal claim else the page will go back up automatically. While we believe that document to be legitimate, Bonner has been thus far unable to produce any documentation or even ballpark times and dates for when the original claim (not the counterclaim) was lodged, which would be the critical times and dates in this argument. Casner, however, has.
As we noted in our comments yesterday, the issuance of a DMCA takedown claim cannot be construed on its own as wrongdoing by any party. It is relatively simple to issue a DMCA takedown and it has been used as a tool to harass website owners and content creators since the day it was signed because of the legal ramifications for hosts — in this case, akin to Valve — if they do not cooperate with a claim. On the other hand, alleging an untrue DMCA infringement is a serious legal offense, not one to be undertaken lightly.
We spoke again to Casner in an attempt to sort out the timeline of events and figure out who knew what when. Here is what we think we know.
Thursday, January 28 12:02p EST: Valve tells Casner that it has finally taken some sort of disciplinary action (presumably against Bonner). MOP has verified this message. The exact wording is, “Thank you for reporting content that violates the Steam Terms of Service or breaks the rules of an area in which it was submitted. Because of your efforts, we’ve removed one more item from the Steam community.”
Thursday, January 28 2:43p EST: Valve informs Casner about Bonner’s DMCA takedown complaint. This is the first time Casner says he has heard of anyone planning on a takedown. Casner later tells me (see below) that at the time he didn’t believe the email was legitimate because it lacked corporate logos and because the game was at that time still up in spite of the email’s assertion that Valve had taken the game down. We still do not know exactly when Bonner’s initial DMCA complaint was lodged, only when Casner received notice of it.
At some point in here, the game’s store page goes offline. The game itself remains on Steam. Also this afternoon, Ana posts her tweets. This is critical because detractors claim they prove she (and presumably Casner) were aware of the takedown and therefore that Casner was lying to us in his original statements.
Thursday, January 28 6:08p EST: Tipster tells us the Steam store page is down.
Thursday, January 28 7:04p EST: I email Casner asking him for a statement. Casner tells me he believes Valve took him at his word that morning and took down the store page. No one in the press has any idea that an actual DMCA claim has been issued at this point. Casner does not tell me about the DMCA letter then, he says now (see below), because he did not believe it was legit and because the game was still technically up.
Thursday, January 28 7:16p (EST?): MMOs.com publishes its first claim that Steam outright removed the entire game, which was and remains demonstrably untrue. Ana’s tweets must logically have come before this since they formed the basis of the post, but timestamps on them are now lost to deletion.
Thursday, January 28 8:38p EST: Casner begins emailing me evidence. I tell him I will look into it for a post in the morning.
Thursday, January 28 10:35p (EST?): Casner’s Facebook post goes up. (I don’t learn about this post until Saturday.)
Thursday, January 28 11:28p EST: Casner sees the MMOs.com article, is tricked into thinking it’s our post because of the layout similarities, and emails me in confusion. I wind up staying up sorting through the pile of evidence and we email back and forth a few times. Critically, Casner tells me Ana’s tweets are an “abbreviation resulting in ‘Took the game down’ from the elongated ‘responsible for Divergence no longer being listed on the steam STORE’ due mostly to the twitter character limit.”
Friday, January 29 1:56a EST: I finish writing for the night and send Casner my last revision of the article.
Friday, January 29 9:00a EST: Our article goes live.
Friday, January 29 7:02p (EST/PST?): Bonner receives Casner’s counterclaim email from Valve. Valve tells Bonner he has 10 days to file legal documentation with Valve or the game’s material will be reinstated automatically. This is DMCA counterclaim boilerplate.
Saturday, January 30 9:17a EST: Bonner outs himself in our comments and describes his DMCA complaint. We’re swarmed with harassing comments from new users.
Saturday, January 30 10:09a EST: Bonner provides us with an unredacted copy of Casner’s counterclaim through Valve. Bonner says he cannot provide us with a timestamp for his original DMCA claim. The heavily redacted version of the counterclaim dated Friday night begins making the rounds on other websites and Reddit as triumphant “proof” that Casner is lying about the reason the game’s Steam page is down, in spite of the fact that its timestamp is too late to prove that on its own.
Saturday, January 30 11:15a EST: I follow up with Casner about the newly revealed DMCA claims.
Saturday, January 30 3:16p EST: Casner replies with fresh documentation.
Saturday, January 30 8:38p EST: I begin work on this timeline.
Sunday, January 31 1:30a EST: Casner provides the explanations and timestamps that flesh out the timeline (and statements below). I write the article you’re reading now for publication Monday.
As of the time of this writing, the game is still accessible on Steam, but the store page is still down. If anyone can provide any additional clarity to the timeline, please let us know.
Casner has told us that he is working with his attorney to conduct appropriate countermeasures against what he says will be proven to be a false DMCA claim. However, he was willing to answer a few more of my questions that to my eyes remain bones of contention in the argument.
Casner knew about the DMCA takedown before he issued his statement to Massively OP, so why didn’t he tell Massively OP about it or at least that it might have been an alternate reason for the store’s offline status?
Casner says: For two reasons. At first, I had no reason to believe it was real. This was a completely plain-text email with absolutely no graphics or markings relating to either Valve, Steam, or any government agency on it. Times New Roman font (or something incredibly similar) in one size; This couldn’t be real, so I checked the site, it worked fine for me, only the store page link didn’t work. I don’t know what’s up with this email, but it seems like Steam did exactly what I said we wanted to happen. I get phishing attempts like this all the time, so I went back to work. Later that day after we’d talked I would find out that it was, in fact legit, however again the game was still up and only the store was down.
We very clearly issued our desire for the store page to be taken down voluntarily and in exactly the manner (store only, not game) that it did happen on the following day. The email stated “we have removed the game from steam” which did not in fact happen, so to this day either they misspoke (which would be odd for a Valve corporate attorney), or the very thing we requested did in fact happen per our request. But regardless of who did what and for what reason, the statement “Divergence was removed from Steam” remains untruth, as it is still very much on Steam.
How did Ana know about the takedown but not about Valve taking action against Bonner? Why would she assume the former and not the latter? What’s the deal with those tweets?
Casner says: Ana and I don’t talk about the ugliness that goes on behind the scenes, so I don’t really keep a ledger chronicling what she learns about, to what capacity, and in what order. As our only programmer, I can’t really afford to compel her to swim in the muck. I’m the Edge Lord, it’s my duty to insulate her from that stuff. She was operating under the assumption that the reason the store page was down was our request (which we still don’t know to be untrue considering their statements contradict their actions) and by the time she found out about the DMCA, in her eyes: “It looked like with that DMCA that although we had already taken it down, they still would have been willing to take it off themselves just because of one email by a person with no evidence at all just words. I was and still am shocked that Valve would do that to us or anyone. Regardless of the method for our store page being down Valve is responsible.”
I would also like to note in fairness that English is Ana’s second language. As Casner put it, the nuances of these two statements — “Valve are responsible for taking our store page down” and “Valve are responsible for our store page being taken down” — are not always clear to non-native speakers.
On the advice of his attorney, Casner wished to offer one parting statement.
“Since learning that companies like Valve have absolutely no choice when issued a DMCA and are compelled by federal statutes to act on it immediately, even before any evidence is presented, SGL’s Ethan and Ana now recognize that Valve was merely acting in concordance of the law and are grateful for their professionalism in the matter. The duo hopes that, when the smoke clears and the guilty parties are dealt with accordingly, Valve will choose to revisit their original requests for a more proactive approach to community guidelines enforcement to prevent exactly this kind of thing from reoccurring in the near future.”
At this point, Massively OP does not strictly know the real reason Valve took the store site down on Thursday and why it took down only part of the game’s Steam presence contrary to the DMCA letter. Until Valve makes a statement of its own — an unlikely scenario in the middle of a legal drama, especially from a company not well known for timely public statements — we likely never will. Regardless, it is uncontested now that a DMCA complaint was lodged and met with a counterclaim. This’ll be one for the courts, folks.