A judge in the case Blizzard brought against mod developer MDY has ruled that its auto-farming "bot" for World of Warcraft, Glider, violates Blizzard's copyright.
Glider takes control of players' characters and automatically grinds through enemies, "farming" them for gold, materials and experience. It can be used as a tool to generate funds for real-money trading, or simply as a way to level up a character without putting the hours in.
Either way, using Glider distorts the game experience and constitutes a violation of the user agreement for World of Warcraft - hence Blizzard's interest in shutting it down. Judge David Campbell already passed summary judgement in favour of Blizzard last summer, and awarded it damages in the autumn.
But this latest ruling could have much wider implications for digital rights management, as argued in an interesting if rather technical Ars Technica article.
The argument put forward by Blizzard and accepted by the judge is that the "non-literal elements" of WOW - the end-user experience, in other words, rather than the data stored on the game disc - constitute intellectual property which is protected by WOW's security software, called Warden. Therefore, because it circumvents Warden, Glider contravenes a provision of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act banning software that is "primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work".
MDY argued that the game experience was not a distinct copyright work, because it did not exist in a tangible medium, and because it was effectively created by both Blizzard and the player. The judge rejected these arguments.
Although few WOW players will mourn the setback for a mod regarded as a cheat at best, legal experts contacted by Ars Technica point out that this case sets a worrying precedent. By using legislation intended to stop file-sharing in its case, Blizzard has effectively succeeded in copyrighting not just a game, but a network service, and enshrining its right to control access to that service even if no copyright theft is at work (Glider still requires a valid copy of WOW and a paid-up subscription to work). This has the potential to cause tremendous problems for the open-source software movement in particular.
The ruling is expected to go to the Court of Appeal, so we haven't heard the last of this yet.