UPDATED 16:23 EST / JULY 25 2013

300x300_darkelf_31may05 NEWS

Trademark Issue Leads to MMO Fan Site Removing Public-Data About EverQuest Character

Feldon of EverQuest 2 fan-site EQ2Wire was perhaps groggy with sleep when he first received an e-mail message from Thomas Freyer, apparent owner of Malshandir Limited, claiming that EQ2Wire’s publication of character information violated his trademark—the information belonged to one Malshadir, a male, level 92, dark elf dirge on EverQuest 2 Antonia Bayle server.

That sleepy fog quickly fled him as Feldon got into an ever-escalating argument with Freyer over the nature of the data regarding the character Malshadir and how trademark might interact with its display. Including that EQ2Wire is a publication in the United States and Freyer’s trademark is registered in the EU (Germany)—Freyer argued that because the website is available in the EU means that the trademark stands.

After further back-and-forth, a weary and annoyed Feldon gave in to the threats but not without engaging the Streisand Effect and publishing the exchange on his blog. The character Malshadir is no longer available on EQ2Wire (but being that it’s publicly published information from Sony Online Entertainment it doesn’t actually go away.)

The entire post about his exchange can be read on his blog, but it brings up a lot of confusing questions about publicly-available API data and republication on external sites. This isn’t the only Malshandir available from Sony’s XML web API—and the user’s information is still publicly available in XML format from Sony. As argued above, EQ2Wire is only republishing publicly available information produced and released via API by Sony to the world at large and with a license.

Sony Online Entertainment RESTful API

The site data.soe.com allows registered developers access to a great deal of data produced in Sony Online Entertainment games—including EverQuest 2—and releases that information publicly. Properly modeled queries receive JSON or XML replies that can then be translated by applications into readable information for clients. This is precisely what EQ2Wire does with their character database.

A simple query to soe.data.com brings back Malshandir’s bio—it’s silly, but very much steeped in the role playing aspect of the gamer culture:

– {bio: ‘((In LoH OOC to adventure with friends))

Malshandir”s friendly disposition belies the crimes he has been accused of commiting against Qeynos – murder, treason, and poisioning the Qeynos water supply.  Despite several eye witnesses, Malshadir has been aquitted of all charges.  While he is no longer wanted by Qeynos law, many in Qeynos still consider him a villain. ‘,

id: 446677832604, ts: 1343426338.653476}

limit: 1

min_ts: 1343426338.653476

returned: 1

seconds: 0.01556396484375

By harassing EQ2Wire about publishing information from SOE, Freyer is engaging in silly bullying against someone who is using information owned and published by another entity.

Worse, that other entity publishing this information is Sony—no doubt Freyer knows that he has little-to-no-chance getting Sony to do anything that they don’t feel is necessary. Like any other major corporation, Sony has a lot of money and very deep pockets to slow down any legal action against them (for publishing information on the user Malshandir) and as a result, Freyer decided to bully a fan site.

Trademark and MMO game usernames

Many MMO games have rules that require users do due-diligence with their usernames and not use the names of celebrities or obvious trademarks. For example, no doubt SOE would probably quickly reject a username such as Cocacola, Pepsi, or BurgerKing—if for no other reason than that they’re stupid and suspension-breaking when gaming.

The SOE Terms of Service are obfuscated in legal language, so let me pull out the relevant section of a similar MMO that will highlight industry-standard naming policies. This is from Blizzard’s world-famous World of Warcraft MMO naming policy:

Restricted Names

Names which fall under the following categories are restricted and will most likely not receive an account penalty on the first instance.

Trademarks

This category includes both clear and masked names which:

  • Are trademarked/licensed by a company or an individual

[…]

It might be the case that the character name could have run afoul a similar part of SOE’s Terms of Service. It is in fact possible for people and companies to trademark names in relation to video games. This isn’t unprecedented and there are obvious remedies to this: generally when there’s a problem, though, people go to the game and not the fan sites.

Instead of going after EQ2Wire, Freyer could have gone to SOE’s infringement department and explained his case to them. Then, Sony could have decided what to do with the character (or characters) named Malshandir and decided to reset that character’s name or leave it be. In the end, any change made to EverQuest’s database would have propagated out of the API and changed EQ2Wire’s information.

Bullies, bullies everywhere but what is a developer to do?

App developers and others who use publicly available information released via APIs by large corporations (such as those who display information from MMOs) could find themselves in equally “hot water.” App developers or fan-site operators such as Feldon may not know what to do in the face of legalistic-sounding threats from trademark holders and with the convoluted nature of intellectual property law—especially when it’s international IP law between the EU and US—it’s hard to say what to do.

Some will fold like Feldon, and it’s hard to blame them. Just like a fan-site operator, small app developers don’t have a lot of time or money or even the legal wherewithal to protect themselves from this sort of action. For those who want to learn more about how trademark bullies operate and what sort of damage can be done to a fan community should check out Ken White’s Popehat Signal tag on his blog where he discusses cases involving chilling effects and suppression of speech.

Legal resources exist for developers as well, and a good place to start is the discussion and primers put together by the F/OSS community, such as one at the Software Freedom Law Center.


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