Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
bots, cfaa, cheating, trademark

Companies:
amazon, twitch



Disappointing: Twitch Brings CFAA & Trademark Claim Against Bot Operators

from the gotta-be-a-better-way dept

I think most people agree that bots that drive up viewer/follower counts on various social media systems are certainly a nuisance, but are they illegal? Amazon-owned Twitch has decided to find out. On Friday, the company filed a lawsuit against seven individuals/organizations that are in the business of selling bots. There have been similar lawsuits in the past -- such as Blizzard frequently using copyright to go after cheater bots. Or even, potentially, Yelp suing people for posting fake reviews. When we wrote about the Yelp case, we noted that we were glad the company didn't decide to try a CFAA claim, and even were somewhat concerned about the claims that it did use: including breach of contract and unfair competition.

Unfortunately, Twitch's lawsuit uses not just those claims, but also throws in two very questionable claims: a CFAA claim and a trademark claim. I understand why Twitch's lawyers at Perkins Coie put that in, because that's what you do as a lawyer: put every claim you can think of into the lawsuit. But it's still concerning. The CFAA, of course, is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was put in place in the 1980s in response to the movie War Games (no, really!) and is supposed to be used to punish "hackers" who break into secure computer systems. However, over the years, various individuals, governments and companies have repeatedly tried to stretch that definition to include merely breaching a terms of service. And that appears to be the case here with Twitch:
To provide their services and with the goal of defrauding Twitch’s users, Defendants knowingly and intentionally used bot software that accessed Twitch’s protected computers without authorization or in excess of the authorization granted to them by the Terms. Also without authorization or in excess thereof, Defendants willfully, and with the intent to defraud, accessed Twitch’s protected computers by means of that fraud, and intended to and did use Twitch’s protected computers. For example, Defendants represent that they can access Twitch’s protected computers and circumvent Twitch’s security measures in order to provide their bot services without being detected by Twitch.
Except, it's a pretty big stretch to argue that bots accessing your open website that anyone can visit requires some kind of specific "authorization." Yes, cheating bots are annoying. And yes, they can be seen as a problem. But that doesn't mean that Twitch should be trying to expand the definition of the CFAA to include accessing an open website in a way the site doesn't like. As a company, Twitch has been on the right sides of lots of important tech and policy issues. It was vocal in the SOPA fight. It even sponsored us here at Techdirt for our net neutrality coverage. It's generally viewed as a pretty good internet citizen.

So it's especially disappointing that the company has chosen to come down on the wrong side of another really important tech policy issue: abuse of the CFAA.

The trademark claim is also somewhat troubling, though not as much. But it's also a huge stretch:
As described above for each Defendant, Defendants use the TWITCH mark in domain names and on their websites in connection with the provision of bot services. Defendants’ use of the TWITCH mark in commerce constitutes a reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark for which the use, sale, offering for sale, and advertising of their bot services is likely to cause confusion or mistake or lead to deception.
No one is visiting the sites of these bot makers and assuming that they're endorsed by Twitch. I mean, they're all pretty clear that their entire purpose is to inflate viewers/followers on Twitch, which is clearly something that Twitch is against. As we've noted over and over again, having a trademark does not mean that you get to block any and all uses of that word. Using a company's trademarked name in a way that refers to that company is generally seen as nominitive fair use (basically using the trademark in a descriptive manner, rather than as a way of deceiving people into thinking that there's an endorsement).

There's a similar "anti-cybersquatting" claim in there as well, but that's basically just a repeat of the trademark claim, "for the domain name," so the same thing applies.

Twitch doesn't need to use either of these claims, and it's disappointing that they and their lawyers have chosen to do so. This is not to say that bots and fake followers are okay. But these kinds of cases can set really bad precedents when a company like Twitch decides to overclaim things in a way that harms the wider tech and internet industry. I'm not even sold on the need to litigate these kinds of issues at all, prefering to think that a tech-based approach should be good enough. To be sure, Twitch notes that it's still mostly focused on technological and social moderation methods for stopping bots, but has decided to go the lawsuit path as a "third layer" of attack against bots.

Even if it felt it needed to go down that path, it really should have thought more carefully about bringing claims under the CFAA and trademark law. One hopes that the company will reconsider and perhaps drop those claims, even if it wants to pursue other claims, such as breach of contract.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2016 @ 8:52am

    I hope that Amazon wins its lawsuit. Bots are a thousand pox on the online community and they should be wiped from existence. They are mostly used by hackers and spammers and have no legitimate use. Even search engines who use them should be banned from using bots because they inappropriately hijack images from websites and load them up on their search engines, stealing bandwidth from website owners.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2016 @ 9:16am

      Re:

      "Even search engines who use them should be banned from using bots because they inappropriately hijack images from websites and load them up on their search engines, stealing bandwidth from website owners."

      You might want to use one of those search engines to look up the term robot.txt. http://lmgtfy.com/?q=robot.txt

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:04am

      Re:

      It's weird how excited you are about being flat-out wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Jun 2016 @ 12:48am

      Re:

      "They are mostly used by hackers and spammers and have no legitimate use"

      ...apart from all the legitimate uses they have, such as the one you mention next:

      "Even search engines who use them should be banned from using bots"

      How the hell would they work then? You want to go back to pre-Google days with "directories" and "portals" where you had to manually submit sites and end up with last century's Yahoo? No thanks. Even if you banned bots, that wouldn't stop people from hotlinking your images anyway.

      Also, if your lazy ass doesn't like this, maybe you should look up into the very easy tools you have available to stop indexing and hotlinking rather than trying to force everyone else to do the work for you. Learn how to set up your website properly.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 9:57am

    Huh? Is Twitch publishing games now? Last I heard Twitch was a streaming platform. Players playing a game would use the Twitch website to stream it so others can watch at the same time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      haik (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 11:10am

      Re:

      They do not - they are not going after cheat-bots, but after view-bots, basically allowing a streamer to boost up his view count

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        haik (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 11:14am

        Re: Re:

        (I should say, in that case, against view-bots sellers/providers. They are already fighting against the bots them-self in the technical side of thing, and of course against view-bots users, since it is obviously in breach of Twitch ToS)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ben S (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 11:10am

      Re:

      It's not a games publisher. Instead, there are certain incentives built into the system to up your viewer/follower count. Reach the first milestone, you can start earning money from the adverts. Reach others, and the amount you can make goes up. So people build bots to cheat the system to try to make more money. Others will pay the guys making the bots to have those bots follow and watch their streams. If you get caught using bots for this purpose, you can get banned, but these bots also, to appear more legitimate, often follow other random channels, which can put legitimate channels at risk, despite having done nothing wrong.

      I had a few interesting discussions with a twitch streamer who now lives in South Korea. He told me about the worries he was having as a result of these bots following his own channel, his conversations with Twitch staff, his fears regarding his own channel getting banned, etc. I learned about these issues from discussions with him.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Robert Beckman (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:19am

    Use of Trademark

    Mike you're entirely wrong about the use of the Twitch trademark being "nominative fair use." Fair use doesn't apply to trademarks.

    Instead, this is explicitly correct use. The entire point of a trademark is to dispositive lay identify the mark owner, so there can be no ambiguities in what entity you're referring to. The bot company's use of the Twitch mark does just that - it explicitly tells users that their services work on Twitch, which is the entire point of trademarks.

    This isn't a case about possible trademark misuse, this is about a mark holder not liking the statement about them and trying to use the power of the state to stop someone else's speech. Perfect example of why we need a federal SLAPP act.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Designerfx (profile), 20 Jun 2016 @ 10:27am

    waitamin

    Didn't google buy twitch?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    spacemonkey, 21 Jun 2016 @ 9:22am

    Just stop. Please.

    The statement "open website that anyone can visit" is so completely and plainly false, that's just not legitimate journalism.

    A site that requires registration and provides terms of service is NOT open! In order for you to like, subscribe, or any other 'social feature requires a registered (and authenticated) user... That's the whole justification of the legal assertion that someone has done Twitch wrong.

    We can arm wrestle about trademark and copyright and all that, but the real issue here is that folks are automating the registration process (and use of the site), completely in violation of the terms of service, and using that to profit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Jun 2016 @ 11:25pm

      Re: Just stop. Please.

      "The statement "open website that anyone can visit" is so completely and plainly false"

      Except, it's not. Anyone can search the site and view public tweets without signing up.

      "A site that requires registration and provides terms of service is NOT open. In order for you to like, subscribe, or any other 'social feature"

      Ah, OK, so you've injected your own criteria. The quote above doesn't say you can do any of that. it says you can *visit* there. Different things.

      Now, you may have to sign up an account to do some of the things the bots do, but that's not what you quoted.

      "automating the registration process (and use of the site), completely in violation of the terms of service"

      Exactly. But that has nothing to do with CFAA, trademarks, etc. That's a contract dispute. Which is the point of the article.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 21 Jun 2016 @ 11:59pm

        Re: Re: Just stop. Please.

        Gah, just realise I'd mentally corrected "twitch streams" to "tweets". I hope that doesn't invalidate any of my other points as they are still valid I believe.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Okwhateverspacemonkey, 21 Jun 2016 @ 11:31pm

      Re: Just stop. Please.

      You do not have to register just to view a stream,

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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