The history of private MMO servers goes back to the heyday of the massively multiplayer, when the concepts of these virtual worlds were still in their formative stages. World of Warcraft private servers, also called emulated servers, boast numbers in the thousands, usually running off donations and providing a limited amount of the full WoW experience due to the nature of the reverse server engineering and implementation needed to run the game. One thing is for certain, though: Using the game client to connect to an emulated server is against the World of Warcraft EULA and cuts into Blizzard's profits.
What are private servers?
Private servers have been around since the early days of MMOs. I remember back in the day when RunUO, emulated server architecture for Ultima Online, was incredibly popular. Some of these servers provided really cool and compelling rulesets that were never part of the original game. Sure, it was against the EULA then, but it was the wild west and rules were made to be broken. EULA violations, sure, but illegal?
An emulated server is basically a third-party approximation of what the real server software and architecture is supposed to look like. In WoW's case, a crafty programmer can use the WoW client to reverse engineer or make approximations about how things are supposed to work, put those servers online, and then allow people to connect to said servers without the same authentication, activation, or other anti-piracy measures that Blizzard had put in place, like CD keys.
So how do you create server architecture and software for a game that never releases its server architecture and software? Blizzard would never release its WoW server technology -- it would be a terrible move for the integrity of the brand and its game and profits. Ultima Online was easy to emulate because, apparently, all you needed to do was change a few lines of text in the UO files to point to client to a new server location.
The client, the actual installed copy of the game on your hard drive, then becomes the server key, with clever programmers parsing the client for clues and information on the server architecture. Usually this involves some type of reverse engineering of the server software, which is generally illegal, according to the DMCA.
Ah, our good friend the DMCA is back. You'll learn quickly that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has curled its many tendrils around almost every internet legal concern since its inception. There was a case called Bowers v. Baystate Technologies back in 2003 that clarified that a EULA could negate the fair use allowance of reverse engineering, thus removing reverse engineering as a way to figure out the way software works. You can, however, reverse engineer for interoperability concerns, but not to make a competing product. You're also prohibited from releasing any code or information you create from reverse engineering.
bnetd: We've been here before
Do you remember bnetd, the emulation software that allowed players to create their own Battle.net-like servers and play Blizzard games on them? Bnetd was huge during many of Blizzard's betas because many people downloaded the game clients without permission and began to play said betas on emulated servers. The reverse engineering of Battle.net was so good that bnetd provided some of the best emulation ever, giving almost a perfect feature-for-feature facsimile of Battle.net.
Blizzard didn't sit on this one idly. In 2002, Blizzard issued a DMCA takedown to bnetd's internet service provider, and the lawsuits soon followed. Blizzard won in 2004 on claims of copyright infringement, trademark infringement, EULA violations, and DMCA anti-circumvention procedures. You see, the DMCA specifically states that it is illegal to circumvent barriers that software creators put to block unauthorized use of their software. CD keys, Blizzard said, were such barriers.
The EFF hated the rulings, saying that fighting over reverse engineering was going to have a chilling effect on interoperability system design. Blizzard won the appeals in 2005, and bnetd.org was given to Blizzard, with production of the emulation server software moved to other countries where no such anti-circumvention law exists.
Battle.net even has an FAQ about emulation servers and how CD keys help to fight piracy here.
Mike Morhaime's now infamous quote resonates with us today, especially when you consider the sales and subscription figures for World of Warcraft. After the bnetd rulings, Morhaime stated that the rulings were "a major victory for our profit margins." And he's right -- the ability to only play Blizzard games on Blizzard's architecture is a big deal, especially with the number of people who play Blizzard games. Battle.net was free, and people still played on bnetd servers. Granted, they were also usually downloading copies of Blizzard games illegally and against the EULA, because bnetd did not require the same authentication to play as did the actual Battle.net servers.
Which brings us to the World of Warcraft. The problem with emulated servers is not so much the server aspect, running the servers, or making profit off of unauthorized servers. I mean, those things are also a problem. The real issue, however, is that these servers do not require the same authentication to play on them as the actual Blizzard server structures do. Just like Battle.net and bnetd, the real issue is that players steal copies of the boxed game and use these illegal copies in unauthorized ways.
When Morhaime said that bnetd was a huge victory for their profit margins, he wasn't being flippant -- he was being honest. Selling retail versions of the game is a big capital moneymaker, covering a good amount of the cost of development. The monthly fee revenue generated pays for upkeep and the continued development, sure, but the initial investment has to be repaid somehow, and boxed copies are key.
Here's the EULA provision that makes emulated servers unauthorized:
Additional License Limitations
The license granted to you in Section 1 is subject to the limitations set forth in Sections 1 and 2 (collectively, the "License Limitations"). Any use of the Service or the Game Client in violation of the License Limitations will be regarded as an infringement of Blizzard's copyrights in and to the Game. You agree that you will not, under any circumstances:
F. facilitate, create or maintain any unauthorized connection to the Game or the Service, including without limitation (a) any connection to any unauthorized server that emulates, or attempts to emulate, the Service; and (b) any connection using programs or tools not expressly approved by Blizzard;...
Blizzard has stepped up the fight against unauthorized emulated servers in recent years, sending out takedown notices, threatening legal action against against these server providers, and in some cases removing the official accounts of private server users.
One of the biggest emulated servers, Molten-WoW, boasts over 60,000 active players weekly, provides links to full World of Warcraft downloads and patches, and accepts donations while using Blizzard assets, artwork, and everything in between to run their own servers for World of Warcraft. It opened on Dec. 5, 2009, and only features limited content up to Wrath of the Lich King. It's a hotbed for game piracy.
60,000 non-paying customers. 60,000 (potential) retail box copies and subscriptions not bought. And that's just Molten-WoW. There are dozens of popular private servers with an estimated hundreds of thousands of total users. Over the course of World of Warcraft's past, present, and future existence, a very, very large sum of money will be lost to pirates and private server operators.
Blizzard's recent forays into the legal world have been met with mixed successes, with major defeats to the copyright infringement aspects of their EULA claims. The DMCA, however, is still a sharp sword that Blizzard wields with finesse, and it will most likely be the weapon of choice against private servers. The problem is can Blizzard even reach them?
My preachy two sentences: Buy your games. Support the companies who make video games.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.