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Three Chinese men have been jailed for operating pirate servers of Giant Interactive’s MMORPG ZT Online, according to Pacific Epoch. The men are ordered to pay a total of RMB 60,000 (USD $8,586) in compensation to Giant for the servers that are said to have cost Giant a minimum of RMB 59,000 (USD $8,443…the cost must be tied to lost subscriber fees). Chen Jian was sentenced to one year in prison for building the servers while his accomplices, Shi Zunkai and Sun Jun, were sentenced to 10 months and nine months, respectively.

ZT Online LogoPirate servers (actually, server emulators) are unauthorized game servers run by a third-party. The game experience will be similar but not identical to that of official servers but lacks all official technical support. This typically leads to laggy or inconsistent game performance. Pirate servers are usually created by writing or using custom emulation software which mimics the behavior of the official server. Operators of pirate servers are even able to offer incentives to play on their pirate servers rather than the official servers, such as custom or new items, accelerated XP gain, or even the ability to go to war with your own faction.

Wikipedia provides a nice summary of some of the legal issues surrounding pirate servers:

Copyright and Reverse engineering: The first issue is a possible infringement of the game creators copyright. As the case of Lotus v. Borland demonstrates, recreating “methods of operation” is not a copyright infingement. Thus, emulating copyrighted material is not a breach. However, this demands that the complete emulator is a work of its own. Sometimes the original server software leaks out of the company that created the game, for example AEGIS (Ragnarok Online). Use or distribution of this is definitely a copyright infringement. Modified versions of such original server software are not considered to be server emulators. The protocol that is used for communiciation between server and client is not subject to copyright, in contrast it could theoretically be patented, whereas software patents is a disputed field also. There are cases where a game creator effectively shut down popular private game servers by threatening lawsuits due to obvious copyright violations such as offering the client for download, or offering downloads of modified files from the original game package.

End User License Agreement and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:
Another legal issue is the EULA. Today most commercial MMORPGs require the user to sign a clause not to create or use server emulators when installing the client he bought. As shown in the case of Bnetd Vivendi Universal v. Jung, the DMCA can be relied on as well if the lawsuit is in the United States — the DMCA is a US specific law, although there are similar laws in some other countries. They argued that server emulation requires the circumvention of copy protection. The server emulator company lost the suit and the domain was transferred to Blizzard.

Giant Interactive says the recent arrests prove the company’s commitment to the fight against pirate servers, a fight Giant by no means is taking on alone. Everyone’s favorite (ok, at least mine…for now) MMO operator, Blizzard, is no stranger to pirate servers. Pirate FlagIn fact, it’s pretty simple to find a reliable WoW pirate server…one quick Google search found over 200 of them.

As Playnoevil mentions in their coverage of the arrests, this type of arrest may only prompt pirate server operators to move their servers off-shore to countries that have weaker intellectual property protections, much like the online gambling business has already done in the US. But whereas the government is cracking down on gambling, it’s the game companies who must do the heavy lifting against pirate servers. Especially so in China, where it’s estimated that 90 percent of lawsuits against Chinese copyright and trademark violators are filed by infringed companies.

Obviously game companies should keep an eye on pirate servers, but to what extent? How much of a threat do they really pose? World of Warcraft has topped 10 million paying subscribers despite the proliferating pirates. Isn’t it just as likely that consumers will take the bait and sample the pirate server, enjoy what they’re doing (if you’re a game company with a game that people don’t enjoy, you’ve got bigger problems than a few pirate servers) but tire of the often unstable and buggy experience and therefore decide to become a paying subscriber? That’s free advertising and can only help business. After all, every person playing WoW (even pirated WoW) is a person not playing your competitor’s game and, more importantly, falling in love with yours.

On the other hand, there may be some trademark/counterfeit-like concerns…let’s say a consumer wants to play World of Warcraft but somehow stumbles upon a pirate server. Looks like WoW, plays like WoW, even has WoW trademarks and copyrighted material all over the place? But it’s not WoW?? Alot of that sort of activity and Blizzard’s marks start to lose their source-identifying properties…we’ve seen where that road leads. Blizzard doesn’t want an inferior knockoff on the market, and so that’s why we see Blizzard and other companies taking upon themselves a duty of quality control and enforcement on behalf of their consumer base.

Question for the comment section: Would there be any advantage to doing a similar thing with worlds such as Second Life? Would a pirate server make sense? Probably less if at all, since the experience is defined by being a part of “the grid.”

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4 Responses to “Chinese Pirates Sunk, But Pirate Servers Run Rampant”

  1. on 10 May 2008 at 8:46 pmDoubledown Tandino

    Kenan Farrell & Ben… and anyone,….

    what do you think about the penalty? 1 year in jail and $8000 fine. is it harsh? what would this penalty be in america?

  2. [...] Original post by Virtually Blind | Virtual Law | Legal Issues in Virtual Worlds and Multiuser Online Games [...]

  3. on 11 May 2008 at 10:06 pmBenjamin Duranske

    I’d like to hear more about what the crime actually was. That’s one of the maddening things about trying to cover China (and why I’m glad Kenan does these articles)! Hopefully, he’ll post more if more emerges.

  4. [...] the continuing war against pirate servers, three Chinese men have been given jail sentences for running a ZT Online [...]

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