WoW Factor: Nostalrius, copyright, and player demand

I don't miss the days without blood elves, not at all.

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 thatĀ 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 irritableĀ 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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