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April 20, 2009

Copyfight is Everywhere

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

No, not this blog. We continue to trundle on in our small way. The lack of outraged emails telling me what an idiot I am is evidence that we're no longer much noticed. Copyfight issues, though. Those are everywhere. Two examples came across my radar this week.

Emeril posing on the set of his show
1. Apparently, noted chef Emeril Lagasse made a stink on the show Good Morning America by claiming that one of its hosts "stole" a recipe of his. For, of all things, Dorito casserole. No, I'm not making this up. Seriously. As the blog post notes, you can't copyright a simple list of ingredients, any more than you can copyright most other simple lists. There needs to be some measure of creativity for the work to be considered an original item, and thus worthy of copyright protection.

Recipes are routinely traded (stolen) in the industry. Chefs visit, or send people to visit, competitors' places. Or they just out and out talk with each other about what they do, and as people will do they get ideas sparked by hearing or tasting or smelling or even just seeing what ingredients someone else has stocked their kitchen with.

It's true that there are new and innovative things coming out of kitchens all over the world, many from master chefs who are pushing the boundaries. One option for an innovator is to stay ahead of the competition by continuously improving. Another is to seek legal protection for innovations. But, really, Dorito casserole?

2. Over in the World of Warcraft world there's an ongoing flap among the mod writers and hosts. This requires a small amount of background so bear with me.

Curse Gaming logo

WoW allows people to write and load mods that change the game, even to the extent of replacing the whole default UI. Some mods are banned, but none of them are supported. To write a mod is a volunteer effort, and distributing a popular mod can incur significant hosting and bandwidth costs. To defray these costs, some mod writers ask for donations, or host their mods on distribution sites such as Curse Gaming. These sites make back their costs by showing people paid advertisements when they visit to download mods.

A heavy mod user can easily be running 50-200 mods and dependent components. And each time the game is updated there's a good chance that the mods need to be updated, too. So players return to the mod hosting sites over and over again. That's good for the hosting sites, particularly if they're getting paid by the page-view, but a really serious pain for players who don't want to be visiting mod sites - they just want to play the game.

There have been several attempts to make the process of maintaining and updating mods easier for players. For a while there was a program called WoW Ace Updater (WAU) which had some flaws but generally came close to the "push a button and update my mods" philosophy. But WAU couldn't survive its own popularity (the more people use you, the more it costs you) and got bought out by Curse, which re-issued it as their own client. Of course, that client sent you to Curse to get files and showed you ads that brought revenue to Curse. Plus it was buggy as hell and only ran on PCs (World of Warcraft runs on Macs and Linux machines as well).

To make matters worse, several mod sites have been the target of hacker attacks. Usually the hackers attempt to subvert one or more pages on the mod site to inject malicious code. When players visit these hacked pages, an exploit in the browser may be used to place a trojan on the player's machine. That trojan then dowloads further malicious code that may turn that PC into part of a zombie farm, or install a keylogger that permits the player's World of Warcraft account to be stolen and emptied.

With all that background, there was a large pent-up demand for a non-browser, one-button easy way to keep a mod library up to date. Enter Wowmatrix. This is a mod updater that runs on all platforms WoW runs on, installs with a simple download and provides quick and easy updating of mods. Heaven, right?

Well, not if you're Curse. Wowmatrix didn't necessarily ask permission to redistribute mods - after all, it's not hosting anything - just downloading publicly provided files. Many mods are released with GPL or other free licensing. But some are not. And since Wowmatrix isn't showing you Curse's ads, people using it are not bringing revenue to Curse even as they download files hosted on Curse's servers.

So about a week ago, without warning, Curse started blocking Wowmatrix. This was timed to coincide with a big release of a Warcraft update and of course a lot of activity in the mod community. That timing didn't improve things, and the boards are full of people sniping back and forth at each other.

Recently, Wowmatrix appears to have taken something of a conciliatory tone. When you try to update a Curse mod they put up a notice inside the app informing you that Curse is blocking them and indicating that if the code is available elsewhere under a free-to-use license then they'll re-point their client to get it that way. Failing that, it's laborious point-and-clicking all over again.

Perhaps Wowmatrix learned something from the Pirate Bay conviction (about which I have nothing new to say, sorry). Or perhaps they really are just trying to make things better for the player community. It's not clear to me that what they're doing is a violation of copyright, so much as it is contrary to the terms of use under which Curse and its mod writers are making their mods available.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies


2. DrWex on April 29, 2009 8:47 AM writes...

Very interesting link, thank you. I wonder why they would lobby for copyright protection, though. That would seem to cover only the physical embodiment of the design. If they're truly concerned about people copying the clothing itself it would seem like something more like a design patent would give them better protection.


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3. Anonymous on May 12, 2009 11:55 AM writes...

Well you certainly CAN copyright a receipe, at least to the extant that it creatively describes how to creat the underlying food. But that's the rub: Copyright doesn't protect a means of doing things. If Emeril want's to prevent others from making Dorito Casserole, he'll have to get a patent.

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4. DrWex on May 12, 2009 12:37 PM writes...

Here's what the USPTO has to say about copyrighting recipes:

So that agrees with your idea about copyrighting the creative expression, which I had sort of tried to say in the original post. I hadn't really thought about trying to patent the process, though.

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5. Anonymous on May 31, 2009 12:12 AM writes...

Why does the Patent and Trademark office have something to say about copyright???

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6. DrWex on June 1, 2009 9:20 AM writes...

You're right - that's not a USPTO page, even though I navigated to it from the PTO - it's a Copyright Board page. They've redesigned the site to make that clearer, and the URL above no longer works even though it still comes up as the #1 hit on their search page.

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