Do Valve own Dota? A jury may decide

Valve may make Dota 2 but who actually owns Dota? A jury trial may be called to decide who — if anyone — owns the copyright, Ars Technica report. Two mobile developers who are making Dota-y games and facing a legal attack from the combined forces of Valve and Blizzard have argued that the Dota copyright was abandoned so they’re free to use it, their logic rooted in Dota’s complicated origins in the Warcraft 3 mod scene. Given that Valve’s lawyers have previously fought the mighty Blizzard’s lawyers to a standstill in a trademark fight, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t go their way, but we’ll see!

Lilith Games and uCool, who respectively make the Dote-inspired games Dota Legends and Heroes Charge, are currently staring down the barrel of copyright claims from Valve. I’ve played a few minutes of Heroes Charge, discovering that it’s a party-based combat RPG whose characters look and function a whole lot like Dota (and DotA/Warcraft III) characters. It is not a good game. Dota Legends looks about the same. The developers have tried several defences that haven’t stuck but one might warrant a jury trial: that Valve can’t own Dota because its original creator abandoned rights to it. This calls for a history lesson.

Dota begin life, you may know, as the Warcraft III custom map Defense of the Ancients (known as DotA, as opposed to the modern Dota) made by Kyle ‘Eul’ Sommer. Eul initially protected the map file to stop other people editing it but in 2003 he went to university and invited others to make their own DotA. The court document shared by Ars quotes him as saying “[. . .] from this point forward, DotA is now open source. Whoever wishes to release a version of DotA may without my consent, I just ask for a nod in the credits to your map.”

Many versions of DotA followed, made by many people. One, known as DotA Allstars, combined elements of several to make a, y’know, Allstars version. DotA Allstars is the one really took off, over the years, control of this core version was passed between a chain of developers. The last of these is the pseudonymous IceFrog, who eventually teamed up with Valve to make Dota 2. Valve say Dota is theirs now.

Lilith and uCool argue that none of that matters because, in making DotA “open source”, Eul abandoned the rights 14 years ago. The judge reflected:

“And indeed, a reasonable jury could conclude that Eul’s 2004 online post was an ‘overt act’ indicating complete abandonment. [ . . .] It said, ‘Whoever wishes to release a version of DotA may without my consent,’ which might mean that anyone had permission to build their own versions of DotA on any platform—and to sell their versions of Eul’s creation. Or it might not. Eul’s post also asked ‘for a nod in the credits to your map.’ That suggests two things. First, the request for a ‘nod’ suggests that Eul wanted credit for creating DotA even after open-sourcing it, which cuts against abandonment. Second, and more importantly, the reference to a ‘map’—a synonym for ‘mod’—suggests that the post was in fact a limited license. Although Eul intended to let others build further DotA mods using the World Editor, he might not have intended to let them build stand-alone DotA games for sale.”

“See Micro Star, 154 F.3d at 1114 (holding, in a copyright case about video game mods, that ‘abandoning some rights is not the same as abandoning all rights’). uCool, the story goes, exceeded the scope of this license by building a smart-phone version of DotA and selling it [. . .] What is more, a reasonable jury could also conclude that the word ‘whoever’ referred only to the motley group of modders making up an informal DotA online community. Eul’s post, in other words, was aimed only at fellow teenagers building fantasy worlds for fun—not companies exploiting them for financial gain. So uCool was arguably no licensee at all.

“The upshot: the question of copyright abandonment must go to the jury.”

There’s only one way to settle this: 1v1 me mid.

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I feel like, generally speaking, the person with the most money decides cases like this.

    So, you know, Valve will probably win it.

    • wombat191 says:

      and valve have all the money

    • AngoraFish says:

      Indeed. Further to which, US game developer in US court with US jury have an obvious bias towards US-based litigants.

      See, for example, Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co, where the US court awarded massive damages against Samsung while international courts almost entirely found in Samsung’s favour.

  2. Sakkura says:

    Even if Eul didn’t fully release the name and copyright to the masses, it should still lie with him though. How could it end up in Valve’s possession if Eul started the whole thing and never sold it to Valve?

    • LewdPenguin says:

      Pretty much what I was thinking as well, either it’s truly free and open to all, or Valve have no more of a leg to stand on than anyone else since it seems fairly unlikely they can produce any sort of competing documentation trail going back to Eul showing the tranfer of rights from one mod developer to another until they ended up with their version of dotes.
      All they can really lay claim to are characters and features added by them not in any way present in the earlier/original version(s), although first poster was right, money more often than not wins these things, if only by bleeding the other party dry for years before a final judgement can be reached.

    • dmoe says:

      Eul works at Valve with Icefrog. So I assume he’s okay with Valve having a hold of said material.

      • Cederic says:

        Thanks, that’s a key piece of contextual information. I was also confused until you added clarity.

        (heck, this sounds sarcastic. it’s not.)

      • Luperts says:

        Just thought I’d add the information available on Curse’s dota 2 wiki: “Disappointed of the outcoming of Thirst for Gamma, Eul left the development of Warcraft III maps and for many years no one could know what he was doing. He resurfaced in 2012 when he was invited by Valve to assist at The International 2012. He also ceded to Valve every rights of the name “Defense of the Ancients” and supported them in court after the legal action took by Steve “Pendragon” Mescon (of Riot Games) and Blizzard over the copyrighting of the name. He said he loved how DotA has evolved from his first map.”

        No sources cited on that wiki, but I assume there’s at least some truth in there.

  3. mattevansc3 says:

    Whatever the outcome this is going to be perpetually appealed. The Ars comments thread is literally people trying to out lawyer each other and arguing over the technicalities and interpretations of vague law speak (yep, I’m in there too).

    The outcome of this case could have huge repercussions because of an omission by Blizzard and is a secondary issue brought up by the judge.

    Blizzard’s EULA prevents modders from using Blizzard’s tool for commercial benefit. The issue is that Blizzard did not include anything about them taking ownership. That creates this huge IP blackhole whereby the sale of DotA Allstars to Valve was illegal AND Blizzard cannot legally licence it.

    This presents a possible situation whereby neither Valve nor Blizzard can sue for Copyright infringement because neither own the rights to DotA. Then you’ve got the issue of extending Blizzard’s EULA to 3rd parties and saying Lilith and uCool cannot use DotA for commercial purposes when they didn’t agree to the EULA or use Blizzard’s tools.

    • AngoraFish says:

      Indeed.

      The fact that Blizzard’s EULA prohibited commercial use of product made BY IT’S WORLD EDITOR would seem enough on its own to throw the whole bloody case out. Clearly not one of the current products was made by the Warcraft III World Editor.

      Products ‘inspired by’ products made with the Warcraft III World Editor seems a pretty long copyright bow to draw.

    • April March says:

      The Ars comments thread is literally people trying to out lawyer each other and arguing over the technicalities and interpretations of vague law speak

      It’s quite likely that this is how the trial will go, as well.

  4. Jack Johansson says:

    I would simply fight as hard as possible if i were Eul or Guinsoo. The whole idea of such a MOBA game came from these 2 guys, and then a cheap company like valve snatches their hard work and 75% of whatever people spend on this game.

    Although the spells, most of the names, icons, etc. came originally from WC3, so blizzard has some rights too.

    Simply better to say: I wish blizzard would have made DotA2!

    • Luperts says:

      As mentioned in the comments above: Eul now works at valve and seems to be very much ok with the situation of them continuing work on his initial ideas.

    • Agota says:

      Jack Johansson : You couldnt be more wrong.. The cheap company that tryhard to make profit out of it are S2 and Riot..

      Think of it this way, the people at valve love dota so much that they approach icefrog with the whole idea of Dota 2. Dota = Dota.. Whereas S2 approach with the idea of their own game, not to mention the copycat Riot.

      True fan = stay with original.. Cheap and copycat take it their style.

      If one day you would have the ability to be e president of your country, would you rename the country and change everything to your way and start looking at profit? Or would you improve your nation and give a huge profit for the whole nation (the huge amount of prizes to be won from d2tournament)?

  5. wisnoskij says:

    Wait, so Value and Blizzard are trying to say that they own the entire genre of DOTA?

  6. redivider says:

    Mobile games – the garbage of todays gaming.

    There were higher quality games in 2005 when we were playing them in our elementary schools library. So hard to lookup a tutorial and copy paste someone elses success. Hope they get rammed in the ass by valve and blizzard.

    • dmoe says:

      I would have agreed about a year ago but Vainglory is probably one of the best mobile games I’ve ever played. It doesn’t look or behave like a mobile game either.

  7. GLaDOS says:

    Same with those shady devs, that buy rights for flash games, and reintroduce it to steam store, equip the games with trading cards, and makes profits by farming the trading cards by themselves.

  8. Agota says:

    IMO by far Dota 2 still have the most old timer players and still excite gameplay everytime with their countless update to balance the gameplay out and make it competitive for all level kind of players.

    I’m sure old players here could relate to me that during the Warcraft : Dota period, althought there were constant update for the Dota map itself, the Warcraft III engine is slowly fading away due to better graphic from other games, Warcraft III started looking like shit… Custom theme changer, in-game skins slowly surface as an improvement… I guess players just got sick of blizzard not having a major upgrade.

    When HON was out for the first time, almost 100% of the players who were for beta testing were all WC III : Dota players, I was one of them and I could say during the beta test period, everyone said the same thing, they play HON just for the better graphic and see if there were any new mechanism on the gameplay itself (better than wc III)

    And since Dota 2 was release, most of the players were back.. If there anything true about origin, Dota 2 stay true to it.

  9. qwer4790 says:

    Both lilith game and UCool game are Chinese companies and they are fighting each other over the copyright too.

  10. Narg says:

    This subject has been of so much debate, I often find people arguing about it from the “dota vs lol”-perspective, so much in fact that it makes me want to rip my hair out. There is a youtuber called Tjzinzo, who has made very thorough research on dota and the people behind it, and if you have any interest in this, I think you should watch this trilogy on the subject and decide for yourself.

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