If You Duplicate A Weapon In An Online World, Is It Copyright Infringement?

from the sort-this-sucker-out dept

It seems like we’ve had a bunch of stories recently about how the wild west of online virtual worlds is bleeding over into the real world courts. As we’ve said since these issues first came to light, it’s a bad idea to take these disputes into a real court. Games need to figure out ways to deal with in-game issues in the game. Otherwise it raises all sorts of problematic legal situations (for example, if defrauding, robbing, killing others is a part of the game, then why is it a legal matter?). However, as each new case comes up, different legal issues are raised. The latest one is in China, where a couple years ago there was a lawsuit over a duplicate magic sword. When the game company realized the sword was an “illegal” duplicate, it deleted it. However, the scammer had already sold the duplicate sword, so the person who paid for it felt cheated and sued the gaming company. Again, it seemed like there were reasonable solutions to this within the game, and without resorting to court.

However, questions of duplicate magic swords in China are back on the discussion board today, as someone (anonymously) has pointed us to a case (which may actually be related to that original case) where three men have been tried for selling duplicate weapons in the game. Here’s where it gets tricky, though. The men are being charged with copyright infringement. They made a bunch of copies of highly valuable in-game weapons, and were able to sell them for a profit of about $250,000. Apparently, this helped destabilize the world, as there were so many of these weapons which only the top players were supposed to possess. Still, this raises a number of interesting legal issues. Those involved aren’t being charged with fraud, but copyright infringement — which actually makes a little bit more sense, since they did make copies of digital goods they were unauthorized to copy and distribute. Still, again, it seems like an issue that should be solved within the game. The game can take away the weapons, and while that represents a loss to the players who paid for them, those players broke the rules in obtaining the weapons anyway. Also, we’d assume that since the game involves weapons, it’s likely that players could lose weapons in a fight anyway — so obtaining any such virtual good came with associated risks. Of course, after getting sued the last time the company deleted duplicate magic swords, perhaps they figured deleting these weapons would represent a huge legal headache.

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Comments on “If You Duplicate A Weapon In An Online World, Is It Copyright Infringement?”

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Richard@Home (user link) says:

Copyright infringement makes sense...

Lorien Trust, the company that runs a large scale live roleplaying game in the uk (www.lorientrust.co.uk) have copyrighted the designs of their in game currency as a way to stop forgeries.

Also, recently a player tried to sell some coins on eBay and had their auction stopped because the coins technically belong to The Lorien Trust and are ‘loaned’ to a player for the duration of the game – practically indefinitely as the game has been running for at least 10 years with no sign of stopping.

Sanguine Dream says:

In-game fraud...

1. If the game masters or whoever can find the people that bought the illegal copies just delete the item(s) and refund the money.

2. If the game master or whoever can fing the people that have been selling the illegal copies just delete their accounts and ban them for life.

Now this sounds too simple so there must be a reason that its not being done right? (no sarcasm on that question)

Michael says:

Re: In-game fraud...

Its pretty simple really, both parties, seller and buyer get permanent ban from game, weapons get deleted, no court will ever uphold a lawsuit that involves someone suing because they paid someone to help them cheat, and then lost the money, its like the people that tried to sue a drug dealer for ripping them of in a deal… also, these people that pay this much to cheat in a game are social rejects, along with the rest of the geeks that take these gasmes so seriously, come on! get a life ffs.

Sanguine Dream says:

Re: Re: In-game fraud...

The only reason I would not say just ban the buyer is that there may be a circumstance in which the item could be real and the buyer was actually tricked.

In the old days of Everquest most high end items couldnt be traded or sold. In a case involving items like that of course ban the buyer cuz they flat out know they should not have been able to buy that item, must less at such a low price.

I dont play MMORPGs anymore but there may be some item in some game that can be traded or sold. If it can be (especiallly in a trade) then the buyer could actually be tricked by a fake item. Now of course this would make since if a few isolated cases but if everyone is walking around with the same high-end gear (a sign to look for would be a bunch of low levels with said high end gear) then yes they should know better.

Araemo says:

Re: In-game fraud...

“1. If the game masters or whoever can find the people that bought the illegal copies just delete the item(s) and refund the money.”
So, if person A duplicates a weapon, and then sells 300 copies for $100 each.

Then, the company finds that there are 300 dupes, and deletes them all, they have to pay $30,000 to the people who bought them? I don’t think that is realistic, given the terms of use of the game(Notionally, don’t buy stuff out of game, and don’t dupe items. Both parties violated the ToS/ToU, and only one party got screwed.)

Big Huge Dave says:

These things should never even get to the courts

The problem is that these things should never get to the courts. Or at least the courts should all agree that once reviewed, if it has anything to do with a video game, it automatically gets thrown out, and the person that brought the suit to the court gets fined a substantial amount of money.

That would stop this sort of thing from happening.

I guess the best thing would be a law that states if you bring a lawsuit to court that has to do with a video game you get a huge fine and have to do community service.

Trampas says:

Re: These things should never even get to the cour

Everybody keeps missing the point. Just because YOU don’t value the items doesn’t mean they’re worthless just because they’re intangible.

Is your soul worthless? Your car insurance policy? Your credit card numbers?

Wake up people, if you can sell it for real money, it’s worth real money, even if you don’t like it.

Big Huge Dave says:

Re: Re: Trampas, you're being illogical

“Everybody keeps missing the point. Just because YOU don’t value the items doesn’t mean they’re worthless just because they’re intangible.

Is your soul worthless? Your car insurance policy? Your credit card numbers?

Wake up people, if you can sell it for real money, it’s worth real money, even if you don’t like it.”

Um, you’re comparing real world items, where it’s perfectly legal to purchase them, there’s a contract, etc, to a video game where it’s AGAINST THE RULES TO PURCHASE IN GAME ITEMS FOR REAL MONEY.

Yes, you’re right, if you can sell it for real money then it IS worth real money TO THE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE TRANSACTION. That doesn’t mean it’s worth real money to anyone else. It’s only worth real money to someone else if you value it to that degree and participate in a transaction with another person.

Now, to counter the silly points you make:

Your soul? I can’t even respond to that other than saying I’m not purchasing anything for my soul. So that’s a dumb argumentitive point.

Auto Insurance: If you try and cheat your auto insurance company it’s a crime, you have to pay fines, possibly do jail time. It’s in the contract. The contract specifies rules that you must follow in order to get the benefit of the insurance.

Credit Cards: If you rip off someone’s credit card numbers and use them for yourself it’s a crime, you pay fines and/or go to prison if found guilty. If you’re irresponsible with your credit card numbers or credit card then you will be succeptible to credit card fraud or someone using the credit cards, but if that person gets caught they are still in legal trouble due to the law prohibiting the theft of other people’s property.

insaniac says:

Re: Re: Re: Trampas, you're being illogical

Do not be concerned with the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a plank in yours.

Granted, some of the examples given by Trampas were a little odd, but his logic is sound. Value is inherent in everything, regardless of whether it is tangible, or whether it is valued equally by all of mankind. And to say that the value of an object only exists for the people involved in the transaction is silly. Although it may be somewhat true, it does nothing to further your point. This same argument can be used for anything, whether it is a piece of art or a rare historical artifact or even a house. Not everyone values the same things to the same degree. If anything, that only serves to show the similarities between the digital goods and the ‘real’ goods that are sold or traded in the real world.

The fact that remains, after all of the debating, is that those who are “in the know” value certain items at certain prices. This is true for all fields…..antiques, classic cars, furniture, homes, etc. So, when a group of people who could be considered ‘in the know’ value certain digital items, the general public should not be up in arms about it. So what if you wouldn’t pay a certain dollar figure for a magical sword. I wouldn’t either, but I also wouldn’t spend a similar figure for an autographed Michael Jordan jersey or an original Van Gogh.

Beauty (value) is in the eye of the beholder, but certain people are more capable of evaluating what the fair market value of a certain good truly is.

Big Huge Dave says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Trampas, you're being illogical

No, his logic is NOT sound. He’s basically saying that just because one thing is of value to an individual that everything is of value to all individuals the same, and that’s what’s silly.

He also is attempting to show that because you find your insurance policy of value that you should then find an imaginary object of value.

“And to say that the value of an object only exists for the people involved in the transaction is silly.” – Actually, no it’s not silly. That’s one of the basic tenets of economics. A transaction holds a certain value to the parties involved, whereas people outside that transaction might or might not. But these are just the fine details which don’t matter here.

We’re not even arguing if imaginary objects hold “value”. That’s really up to each individual person to denote by engaging in some sort of voluntary transaction for said imaginary object.

What this article is really about is should people be able to make it a legal matter with these imaginary objects that they see as having some sort of monetary value. If they do, fine, but if they then purchase the object(s) with legal currency, it’s against the rules of the game, and therefore I’m stating that the law should throw out all cases of this kind.

Lay Person says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Trampas, you're being illogical

O.K. I took the plank out of my eye, but now you have a shipping palette in yours.

You state that Value is inherent in all things. Then you state that people attribute the value to things.

So, which is it? How can you argue no point whatsoever with so much verbage.

Anyway, I believe that, all value whether diamonds, water, imaginary swords, intellectual property, or plutonium is strictly related to its usefulness for any given person. If its of use to a person, then it has value to that person. If that person can convince other people of its use then they too will give it value. Value is very subjective to each individual which is why the old saying goes “one man’s garbage is another mans gold”

Valkyri says:

Let's play make believe!

Oh for the love of all that is good, and I’m sure gamers are going to have a fit over this, but they’re delusional. If anyone is stupid enough to pay real money for an *item* inside a game then they need a doctor of the psychiatric variety rather than a lawyer. You’d think that when they lost money they’d figure “hey, I have a problem with my gaming” rather than issuing lawsuits?

Isn’t there a TOS somewhere that says that the rulers of the game world are the ultimate and can delete even players should they see fit? Sad, they don’t even have as much clout as a referee in a sport game, yet they own the rights to it.

It’s not fraud or copyright infringment, it’s just plain sad that a make believe digital world is so important to anyone that they can’t see it for what it is; a big world of make believe just like Mother Goose! Hmm, maybe I should have sued the ghosts in ms. pacman for eating my cherry.

If I buy a stolen bicycle out here in the real 3D world then guess what, I get charged with possession and I have to go to court and defend myself. All those whiners who claim they’re losing money because they bought illegally replicated digital items should be, under the game laws, charged too. Maybe that would keep people inside the lines… but I still could not possibly care any less about someone’s make beleive world and their stupidity for spending real money (I am assuming it is real money) for anything beyond a purchase price for the game and maybe a subscriber fee.

Buruko says:

What is proper recourse...

This case involves the Game Co. fighting the Looters, not the Loot-Receipients. The Game Co. isn’t going after the Looters to keep them from doing it but to get the bank they cashed in on their property.

And the only legal way to take money from someone is through a court. So there it is… plus case like this sets precedent for future cases.

As for those that bought the illegal loot, duped/tricked whatever they themselves are to blame as in most MMO EULAs it’s not authorized to buy/sell items for real currency. So they got what they sowed.

Matthew says:

FTA couple years ago

He is asking the court to order Optisp to give back his sword, which he estimates is worth 1,000 yuan (US$120) in real money, and apologize.

“I registered the account and played the game following the rules, so I should be viewed as a consumer,” He said. “I bought the high-level weapon in a legal way, so how can they delete it without compensation?”

So he buys this illegal sword for a few million in-game credits, and when that illegal item is confiscated he wants real money back. Trafficking illegal items, real or not, is not legal. Even if unknowingly, one cannot sue the police force for confiscating a stolen TV that you bought at the flea market.

The other article won’t come up for me. So I can only guess at the real issue here, but I imagine it goes something like this: X number of people learned how to duplicate an item or items, and are selling them for in-game currency. Imo, all these accounts should be deleted. All the duplicates should be deleted. Make them all start over from scratch. They all cheated, knowingly or not, and certainly violated the TOS.

It is not really feasible to ban someone. Odds are good that once all these players have to start over they won’t come back anyway, but maybe that’s the issue overall. The game doesn’t want to lose this fanbase.

So ultimately it comes down to doing the right thing vs economics.

JustMe says:

What if it wasn't a rare item?

This is a response to the couple of people who have made the assumption that the buyers knew they were doing something wrong.

Unless you’ve purchased the game guides or hang out in chat boards all day, a lot of players don’t even know about every item in the world and can’t determine if it is rare. Someone tells them they have a good sword to sell because they are quitting the game (or whatever). Most players are going to accept the offer.

I’ll make it a bit simpler. Assume instead of the +10 Sword Of Blinding that it’s a bucket of fish, or basket of tusks, or whatever.

All of those farmers in MMORPGs make in-game money. They spend the day fishing or farming monsters or waiting for special drops. Then they sell them in the in-game (and out-of-game) markets. However, some of those normal mundane items could be duped. The buyer isn’t going to know if the bucket of fish is real or memorex, so the buyer shouldn’t be punished.

Anonymous Coward says:

if the game rules and regs and what not say that is speciffically illegal to sell in game items in an out of game market, both the buyers and sellers are in the wrong.

second, if the game says that making dupes is illegal, the origional sell should be held accountable for copyright violation, or…what is it…because they are making money off of the orginal company’s products.

so yeah, it’s both their fault. the game designers make the game so that the higher level players have an esier time playing.

i used to play Phantasy Star Online, and yes, i broke this code and bought duped items. it was wrong, but it was fun. it was kinda nice to have an uber powerful weapon that would take me years to get. did i use it in online play to steal from other people? no…but still.

as it comes down, if there was a contract and the contract was broken….lawsuits are fine.

Ed says:

Virtual Copyright

It seems that the comments so far miss the point of this article. Is “duplicating” a virtual artifact copyright infringement? I argue that it’s not. All that’s likely happening when someone acquires an artifact is that some bit in their online character’s profile gets set to indicate that they possess an instance of that artifact. The software that simulate’s that artifact’s interaction in the virtual world has not been duplicated at all, and never even leave’s the game publisher’s servers — it is just being caused to execute for one more instance than it would otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

i contest that the action is illegal. by duping, you are breaking the code on which the game was made. sure it’s just flicking a bit or two, but….there are proper ways to get an item. It’s like in football if you come out in a tank to run for a touchdown. or if you take a shortcut in a cross country race. you don’t complete the requirements, and it’s wrong.

just because the “item is digital” and exsists in a “virtual” world, doens’t mean it can’t be protected. remember, music is protected and ll it is is just some bits here and there. sure when you “open” it you hear the song…but when you “open” the weapon in the game, you can see it and use it.

Lay Person says:


Literally, the thief somehow duplicated an item within an environment that is already exclusive to only the software that it resides in.

In short: the sword can only exist in that software, so since the software is under someone elses ownership so too is the distribution of the sword within that software. In addition, any method that uses that games code is also under the software owners control.

So yes, if you are in an environment that is not yours, if you disobey the usage agreement of that environment, then you are commiting a crime. Because that usage agreement ties it with actual laws in the real world.

If I invite soemone in my car, they locate my SS#, they copy my number, put it in their pocket and leave my car, that SS# is still mine. Regardless of how it was acquired.

Anonymous Coward says:

RE: bighugedave

no, he doesn’t say that if one thing is valuable to one person that all things are valuable to all people.

he states that if someone values something, then it is valuable. maybe to to you or me, but to someone, that object has value.

also…by reading into his post, we personally assign a value to each “thing” i.e. your soul is worth very little to me, while my soul is worth more. my car insurance policy is worth more than your car insurance policy…unless you hit me…

see where i’m going with this?

Big Huge Dave says:

Re: RE: bighugedave

“Wake up people, if you can sell it for real money, it’s worth real money, even if you don’t like it.”

The above comment he makes sure sounds to me, Anonymous Coward, like he’s making the assumption that just because you can sell something for real money that makes it have value…to everyone. He doesn’t specifically say “to everyone”, it’s inferred. And I’m not stretching what he’s saying to infer it.

You say yourself “he states that if someone values something, then it is valuable. maybe to to you or me, but to someone, that object has value.” which I agreed with, that it’s valuable to the parties involved only, not all of us.

This discussion has kinda gone off topic a bit anyways, I just enjoy the discussion of economics.

My opinion is still that lawsuits such as this should be thrown out immediately due to their ridiculous nature. By “ridiculous nature” I mean both parties are participating in something illegal to the game they’re playing, against the rules, not allowed, whatever you want to call it.

Xeno says:

They’re going to have a very hard time proving that this is against the rules.

Let’s forget about the whole, “is it worth the real world money paid for it” argument for a secont.

When you stop to think about it, what did they actually pay for….

The buyer paid to have the seller perform a virtual action in the game. In this case the action was giving the buyer the item(we’ll address the duplication in a bit). The action of giving the buyer an item is no different from paying the buyer to kill another player, or perform some quest, or some other strictly game related task. In the end, the buyer paid the “seller” to simply perform a service and give him the item.

He could have just as easily paid for the information as to the exact time and location in the virtual world where the “seller” was going to drop the item, and if selling information about the game is illegal, then any video game site that provides a walkthrough for a profit will also be illegal(which as far as I know is not the case).

So all the “seller” was doing was performing a certain task that resulted in the buyer getting the item, and as others have pointed out, unless the ToS say you cant do that, there’s no issue.

As for the duplication, you can’t blame them for copyright infringement.

There are two possible ways that the “seller” could have gotten the items.

1) The seller hacked into the server in order to create the new items. This would definatly warrent a hacking charge or whatever it’s officially called.

2) The seller created the new items using a glitch in the programming code. This was a mistake on the part of the programmers, so they can’t be surprised that others would take advantage of it. From the sounds of it, this seems to be the way the items were created, so lets focus on this…

All the seller did was perform a certain sequence of actions that resulted in a new item being created on the games server. The user did not remove anything from the server at all, everything remained in game. In short, the key point here is that the object never left the virtual world.

So to sum it all up…

Basically what we have is the “seller” using the games software to create a new item. The seller then contracts with the “buyer” to perform the actions in the game that result in the object leaving the seller’s account and being transferred to the buyer. The buyer compensates the seller for his time just as any other person performing a service in the real world would and they both go on with their lives.

The game owners obviously aren’t happy about this, but the item was created using their program(not hacking). And if the process of creating new items is copyright infringement, then doesn’t that mean every player who kills a monster which results in a new item being created (Dropped) is effectivly guilty as well?

Big Huge Dave says:

Re: Re:

I appreciate the fact that your argument is well thought out, however I do see some problems with it.

You are correct that when you explain what the seller purchased, no one can argue that.

As for “copyright infringement” I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if we can blame them for that or not. To me and most others I think it sounds like they’re grasping at straws to get whatever charge they can against the seller.

The main problem I have with your logic, however, is point #2 “2) The seller created the new items using a glitch in the programming code. This was a mistake on the part of the programmers, so they can’t be surprised that others would take advantage of it…”. Basically what you’re saying is that if someone leaves a way open to break the rules it’s okay.

So if you accidentally leave the door of your house unlocked, someone comes in and steals things, it’s your fault, not theirs. Obviously this isn’t true in our legal system. Breaking the rules is breaking the rules, pure and simple. Just because an opportunity exists to break the rules doesn’t make it legal, just, ethical, or right to do so.

When you say “The game owners obviously aren’t happy about this, but the item was created using their program(not hacking).” I disagree that it’s not hacking. I feel that when you use a computer system in such a way as to take advantage of security holes to benefit yourself, well that’s hacking. But it doesn’t matter if I think it was hacking or not, the game company can decide what’s hacking, because it’s their product. Not yours, mine or anyone else’s, it’s theirs, and they have the right to determine what hacking is and what it isn’t. They may employ a lawyer to further define “hacking”, who knows.

As to the legal aspect of this issue I’m not sure how they can go about charging the offender, but I’m sure they can cancel his/her account and take whatever action is necessary to restore the game world to it’s state before this action took place. I’m sure their terms of service state they can cancel someone’s account for any reason at any time, and the game world can change for any reason at any time without guarantee.

Also, I’m sure it’s in their license agreement somewhere that purchasing items in the game using real world currency is against their terms of service. All games nowadays have this stipulation, otherwise things like this will plague the MMORPG game companies.

Anonymous Coward says:

but you forget a KEY piece of information.

the actions specified are defined in the user agreement that those actions are illegel. it’s not there’s a glitch, so it’s the programmers fault, or i’m good at hacking, so it’s ok. the point is that they broke a contract.

if you signed a contract not to dig up your back yard, but you dig 2 holes, and fill hole a with hole b’s dirt and fill b with a’s dirt….nothing left the yard, yet you still dug up the yard.

thus the contract is broken.

Hael says:

Copyright infringement

In order for there to be copyright infringement, the company would have to copyright the item in the first place. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I find it hard to believe that all the rare virtual swords / shields / etc. in the game are individually copyrighted and I’m not aware of any blanket copyright that covers all virtual items created. It should be a one to one relationship.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Copyright infringement

I’m not aware of any blanket copyright that covers all virtual items created.

In the US, that’s exactly what there is. Any content is *automatically* copyrighted upon creation.

This case is in China, though, so I’m not sure what the laws there are. However, if they match the US, then they would not have to individually register each item.

King in his castle says:


Not prosecuting someone that takes real world money via a computer ‘game’ is akin to not prosecuting someone that defrauds via television or any other medium.

Worse, setting the precedent that you suggest, that solely in-game authorities handle the situation, will only allow people to create personal fiefdoms on the net. While I dislike referring to the movie The Matrix, I can vaguely imagine these people being like the Merovingian character that sells information. As game and real life blur and link further, it’s more important than to determine concrete consequences. Those in control of any piece of information, database, game, etc., even if capable of controlling these situations, may not do so even-handedly. There is enough corruption in real world commercial/judiciary/governmental systems as it is… I’m waiting for someone to launder a large enough sum of money through a ‘game’ for this to matter to someone.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: fiefdoms

Not prosecuting someone that takes real world money via a computer ‘game’ is akin to not prosecuting someone that defrauds via television or any other medium.

That’s wrong.

Defrauding “via” television is quite different. In those cases, the medium used for defrauding is simply the communications protocol. All of these frauds the defrauding is not *via* the media, but IN the world created by the game owner, who has set the game conditions. Each of the players has chosen to play *in* that world and accept the rules and regulations of that game.

That’s entirely different than what you describe.

And, if we allow these crimes to be prosecuted in real world courts, how do you settle the case where a player is “robbed” in a game — but part of the point of the game is to rob other players?

What if the game is simply created as an open world with open possibilities, and the idea is to explore questionable behaviors. Even if robbing isn’t encouraged specifically, the boundaries allow it?

The fact is, if the game owners created the world and they are responsible for what happens in it. If they don’t want fraud, they should prevent it. If fraud occurs, they need to deal with it. Otherwise you’re opening up a huge pandora’s box of trouble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Um... get a life

Sure, I agree that value is in the eye of the beholder, and that if you want to pay real money for a digital sword…. go ahead. If you value it that much, who cares? I’m not hurt by you paying real money for a digital sword. Nothing wrong with that. However, when you start suing over a GAME, then something IS WRONG WITH YOUR GAMING HABITS! Why don’t you stop gaming and get A REAL LIFE! Everyone who puts real money into a game should realize that their digital items could just one day vanish at the whims of the game masters…. and they better be OK with that. It’s a freaking GAME!!!! If the game masters OWN the game and they decide one day to get rid of all of the copies, then TOO FREAKING BAD! When you started paying real money, you should have realized that its just a digital game of zeros and ones that could all go away one day. Any legal proceedings in the real world resulting from ‘illegal activities’ that happened in a digital world should be THROWN OUT OF COURT.

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