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The Lawbringer: A good cause

Mathew McCurley
Mathew McCurley|May 6, 2011 2:00 PM
Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

On Monday, Blizzard announced that it would begin selling a new companion pet in the pet store and that for a limited time (until July 31), 100% of the cost of the pet would go to the American Red Cross to aid victims of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan. Blizzard used its art and time assets for a great cause, using a previously successful tactic to raise money for people in dire need. While Blizzard is not donating the money directly, it is facilitating donation collection and incentive by putting the pet up for sale.

What interests me is the level of fervor and the community outcry for this type of relief effort by Blizzard. Why are people so eager to push a corporation like Blizzard, which has a costly back end to monitor and maintain, into what amounts to a large-scale companion pet release for charity that people would have donated to anyway based on the generally accepted understanding that people are charitable? First, we need to learn a tiny bit about corporate donations and charity and explore why people like Blizzard in the first place. Second, we can ask why we want Blizzard to do the right thing.

A look at corporate charitable donations

While Blizzard's own campaign to raise money for the American Red Cross is not a charitable donation directly from Blizzard, it is still worth a look at the precedent of where we are today and why, as patrons of this huge corporation, we feel that this is the good and just thing for Blizzard to do. Back in the day, corporations and their powers were governed by statutes and their own rules (certificates of incorporation, not always called such) in a very narrow fashion. If a corporation acted outside of its general purpose or what it was "allowed" to do, this was considered ultra vires, or "beyond the power" of the corporation. It was incredibly unfair to people contracting with a corporation and gave corporations huge power in dealing with contracts, because they could just argue that they weren't authorized or acted out of purpose for any given dealing.

We've gotten rid of the ultra vires exception these days for the most part and replaced it with a broad understanding that corporations have the power to engage in any type of lawful business, as to not screw over the people they contract with. Part of the implied powers of corporations includes the ability for the corporation to make charitable donations without shareholder approval. If challenged by a shareholder, that donation has to be so incredibly unreasonable to pass the test.

Basically, we want corporations to be charitable and have pulled out most of the stops for them to do it. We, as players, want to give to charity and want to clamor at Blizzard's door for it to use their great influence to embark on a worthy cause. But is our imparting our own desires a reasonable action?

A reasonable donation

Obviously, Blizzard is spending some money to make this Red Cross donation possible. Part of the pet store upkeep, service, and support go toward facilitating these sales for charity. No doubt that these operating costs are reasonable in the minds of the public and shareholders, since it's for a good cause. In the grand scheme of things, the pet store probably doesn't cost the lion's share of Blizzard's revenue to run and maintain. In fact, being charitable gives you some political capital to spend elsewhere, and (not to be cynical) it makes people happy and adds to the corporate reputation. It's a reasonable amount of time and effort put into such a worthy cause.

The desire for just corporations

We like corporations. We like them a lot. In fact, there are huge numbers of liability issues that are just thrown out the door in regard to many types of corporations in America, and that is usually a good thing. Taking out some of the investment risk in a corporation allows people to invest with relative safety, and we get awesome things out of a lot of publicly held corporations.

A corporation is treated like a person, for the most part, and we want people to be good. We feel a deep connection with Google and Blizzard and Coca-Cola. If you didn't feel these connections to these "legal" people, you wouldn't have the feelings you do when you see Google blunder on privacy or Blizzard make a potential mistake with Real ID. You care. You really care.

Blizzard is still a bunch of guys who got together to make great games. Sure, it's a bigger building now, and they've got an orc statute out front made out of bronze, but it's still the same guys and gals. We like those guys and gals -- hell, we love those guys and gals. And that's where the clamor comes in. But Activision Blizzard is still a company with shareholders who have every right to ask why did Blizzard not put up the Cenarion Hatchling pet for 50% to charity, when the amount of revenue being pulled in would have been substantial.

The clamor

Ever since the Winged Guardian was announced, people began speculating that Blizzard was going to offer the mount for Japan relief. The clamor became louder, as Blizzard is noted for its generosity due to its two successful years of donating to The Make-A-Wish Foundation through companion pet sales. Apparently, the idea hit home enough for Blizzard to grab a relatively rare art asset, put it up on the pet store, and donate 100% of the proceeds to the American Red Cross until July 31.

But what about getting the pet makes this whole donation business more palatable for players? We want a corporation to be generous, of course, but they have a back end to run and servers to maintain and games to create. Why Blizzard? Where is the responsibility, and why do people feel that Blizzard has this responsibility? It's because Blizzard as a whole and to its players is responsible for good things and has the machine to make big things happen.

Charitable people

The question I asked myself (as relatively cynically as I would allow) was about certain comments from around the WoW community relating to the pet sale. People commented that they were never a fan of downloadable content or digital purchases, but they would do this for charity. These are obviously charitable people, but would they have donated the same $10 to the cause without the added incentive? Why let your hate of microtransactions get in the way of being a charitable person? You can still help Japan without buying an in-game item. I guess, from my own little box here in New York, I figured this particular instance was a bad time for people to talk about the evils of DLC and throw their hands up in the air and succumb to the microtransaction demons. "Well, it's for charity," they said -- but why isn't the act of charity enough?

Hopefully, the Cenarion Hatchling donation drive will bring a good chunk of much-needed donation money to the people of Japan for their suffering. I'm sure it will -- Blizzard is good with these things. Many corporations are. It's interesting to see people's visceral responses to a person that technically doesn't exist yet at the same time does, because it is a person made up of the people we know and love.

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 mat@wowinsider.com.