The next Auto Chess or DOTA probably isn’t going to happen in Warcraft 3: Reforged. And if it does, Activision Blizzard is automatically going to own it. The publisher just launched the updated version of its real-time-strategy classic yesterday, January 28. As part of that release, the company published a new policy that gives it total and immediate copyright claims over all custom games.
“Custom Games are and shall remain the sole and exclusive property of Blizzard. Without limiting the foregoing, you hereby assign to Blizzard all of your rights, title, and interest in and to all Custom Games, including but not limited to any copyrights in the content of any Custom Games. If for any reason you are prevented or restricted from assigning any rights in the Custom Games to Blizzard, you grant to Blizzard an exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, unconditional, royalty free, irrevocable license enabling Blizzard to fully exploit the Custom Games (or any component thereof) for any purpose and in any manner whatsoever. You further agree that should Blizzard decide that it is necessary, you will execute any future assignments and/or related documents promptly upon receiving such a request from Blizzard in order to effectuate the intent of this paragraph.”
Put simply, Activision Blizzard doesn’t want a repeat of Dota 2. That Valve Software megahit is a quasi-sequel to the Warcraft 3 custom game Defense of the Ancients. But, as you can probably tell, Valve and Activision Blizzard are two different companies.
Blizzard sued Valve over the use of Dota 2, but the two companies eventually settled. And as part of that agreement, Valve kept the Dota name. With this new policy, Blizzard would have a lot more legal control in a similar situation.
This could hurt Warcraft 3’s custom-game ecosystem
It makes sense that Activision Blizzard would want to maintain control over what it likely views as derivative works. And even if it does get copyright over custom games, that’s not going to stop external developers from making clones.
Copyright doesn’t cover ideas. That includes gameplay mechanics. So if someone makes Defense of the Ancients in Warcraft 3, someone else can make the similar League of Legends without much worry about copyright. But a company like Valve would have a much more difficult time making a claim that it could own the name “Dota 2” if Blizzard owned a copyright on Defense of the Ancients.
And if you are a corporate lawyer at Activision Blizzard with any memory of how DOTA went down, you would probably want to make sure it couldn’t happen again.
But while it might make sense for an attorney, the policy feels out of touch with the spirit of custom games. The idea is that the community can help a game stay fresh by regularly releasing new ways to play. But the work that a developer does should belong to them to some extent.
We’ve also seen this play out again since DOTA with Auto Chess. That is a megapopular custom game for Dota 2 on Steam, and it already has a number of clones. The original creators of the mod still own the name Auto Chess, though. And they are making their own standalone version with Epic Games and not Valve.
And if I’m a community creator, I get where Blizzard is coming from. But I wouldn’t put any real effort toward a custom game for Warcraft 3. Epic, Riot Games, and Valve all have policies that permit them to build on community content. But they also acknowledge that the original is still your intellectual property and copyright. And that is an important enough distinction that I’d probably skip Blizzard with my funky new custom-game idea.