Cheating In A Fantasy Online Game Is Hardly Illegal But Stealing Is Something Else

Mar 30, 2011

By Kerrie Spencer, staff technology writer – March 30, 2011

There is a fine line between stealing and cheating in any game – perhaps more so in an online fantasy game. Think intellectual property rights.

Fantasy games have taken the cyber world by storm. Many addicts lurk at home (and at work) on their computers, participating in a realm where they can be someone else, look different, fight evil and vanquish demons and other strange creatures.

The players come with weird names, strange suits of armor, odd gifts, the ability to use magic or level a whole field of enemies. They are invincible, unstoppable and the right and might of the online role-playing community. You would be surprised how many people are hooked on games like this and pay a good chunk of money to be something and someone they could only dream of at night.

These games are not real, but some players take liberties to make the gaming experience more appealing. Or, is it appealing or stealing or cheating? Let’s look at the game called Evony. To be honest, it is a bit of a vague game, where players hustle their armies through various medieval landscapes. There does not seem to be any clear indication of where their buddies are, nor where the enemy is hiding.

That glitch was solved by an innovative gamer and programmer, Philip Holland, who created a digital map of the game and offered it for sale to others online. It is quite popular with other gamers. Still, the map, the landscape, the gaming and the strategies to wipe mobs off the face of the earth were all taking place online. Now, however, Holland is in hot water with the makers of Evony.

They filed a lawsuit in federal court stating that Holland violated their copyright and breached the terms of service. They say Holland’s violation screwed up the cyber play world, gave some players an unfair advantage over others and threatened the maker’s investments in the game – a figure that ran into the multi-millions. (1)

Holland shot back with an entrepreneurial point of view, challenging the company over whether or not their technology was really off limits to independent thinkers and programmers like him and his partner, Drew Ewing. Holland feels that people like him were the real creators and pioneers of the Internet in the first place. While you might be thinking this is a tempest in a teapot and who would really give a fig, there are some important principles of law tucked into this about to be duel of David and Goliath – the cyber version.

Intellectual property rights sit at the root of this lawsuit. The core of the problem is that most existing intellectual property rights are based on the law as it existed when referring to books and paper contracts. IP rights are floundering online. Where they will go for the future is anyone’s guess, and thus court cases like this have the potential to help to define what online IP could, should or would be for the future.

The somewhat humorous aspect of this particular lawsuit relates to someone suing another because he or she is essentially cheating in an online fantasy game or at best, breaking the rules. What grounds are there to launch a lawsuit? Well, that largely depends on your point of view.

If you happen to be the game’s creators (Evony LLC and Regan Mercantile LLC), Holland has really stepped in it by: abusing the terms of service, using robot players to beat out humans, peddling information about their game and even going so far as to offer an alternative to their original fantasy world. In other words, Evony LLC wants to protect their turf for themselves and their millions of players. They regard Holland as a software hacker, hence the major reason for the lawsuit. (2)
What is the flap all about, what is Evony and who cares? The flap is about stealing strategic information from the game, intended for all users, and then selling it, giving others an unfair advantage over players without a Holland strategy map. What is Evony and other games like it? Evony is one of many Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy Games. Now there’s a mouthful. Shorten it MMORTS and you have a cyber game where players all over the world make up characters, etc., and work together to overcome evil, build an empire or town or conquer a civilization. (4)

As with this particular game and with others, they are generally free to play. However, you can pay the makers of the game to speed up the town-building portion. More power, more acquisitions, more points – that sort of thing. Players are really into it and do pay good money to advance faster. This is the reason Holland and his partner developed their cyber map of the Evony game world. He feels the map makes the playing experience even better. Evony disagrees and calls it cheating. After all, part of the fun of the game is supposed to be trying to find your enemies. If you have a map telling you where they are, what is the challenge in that?

Holland has been heard to say – in reference to the pending federal court case – they were only accessing data that the game was “letting” them connect to and that the company should make sure that does not happen if they do not want their security breached. (1) Legally, that would be called theft. Just because the gamers have access to the information to play, does not give them the right to steal the information and use it to make money. Holland does admit he makes money from his mapping system, or “game guide” as he refers to it. The amount he makes from each subscriber seems to be in question.

Holland and his partner have a rebuttal for every allegation in the federal lawsuit, including denying they used bots and denying they developed another universe similar to Evony. But they do admit they thought about creating a parallel universe. Sometimes there is a very fine line between thinking and doing; just one more thing in question in this federal lawsuit over IP rights online.



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