March 12, 2002 4:35 PM PST

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation announced Tuesday that it will provide legal representation for a St. Louis Internet service provider threatened by media conglomerate Vivendi Universal for hosting online versions of Vivendi games.

Vivendi's legal counsel sent Internet Gateway, a regional ISP, a letter late last month demanding that the company stop offering downloads of bnetd, volunteer-created software that allows individuals to run servers to host several popular online games. Games supported by bnetd include "Diablo II" and "StarCraft," both published by Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of Vivendi.

Blizzard runs its own servers for "StarCraft" and other games as part of its free Battle.net service. Players have complained that the Battle.net servers are slow and prone to crash, however.

"When 'Diablo II' came out, there were times the first month where I could hardly ever connect to actually get into a game," said Tim Jung, president of Internet Gateway and one of the developers of bnetd. "Their severs were completely useless when the game first came out."

With bnetd, which has been available since 1999, players can host their own games and enforce their own rules, Jung said, which eliminates the rampant cheating that spoiled many Battle.net-hosted games.

"If somebody pisses us off, we get to decide to kick him off," he said. "Whereas trying to get something done through Blizzard, you're lucky to even find anyone who will respond to you."

But Vivendi claims that bnetd infringes on the company's copyright protections under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) because it "illegally modifies and/or alters Blizzard Entertainment copyrighted software or bypasses anti-circumvention technology," according to a letter from Vivendi lawyers.

Jung said that in his one conversation with Vivendi lawyers, they said the problem was that bnetd doesn't verify whether the games running over the service were legally purchased. Jung said he offered to enact some version of the CD protection key Blizzard uses in its software, but the company refused to make the technology available.

Vivendi media and legal representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Jung said he has a hard time understanding Vivendi's piracy argument, since players need to have the game installed on their PC before they use a bnetd server.

"If they're using pirated software, they've already broken the law long before they get to us," he said.

Cindy Cohn, legal director for the EFF, agreed the piracy issue doesn't make sense.

"I think this is just a control thing," she said. "They don't like the idea that people can take their products and make them work better."

Cohn said Vivendi will have a hard time proving any violation, because the DMCA does not mandate adherence to any copy-protection schemes.

The EFF has become one of the most prominent critics of the DMCA, a broad package of federal laws passed in 1998 that prohibits the circumvention of copy protection and the distribution of devices that can be used to bypass copyrights--even if their users don't do anything illegal once they've broken the security. Software, music and film publishers argue the laws are necessary to protect their interests as venues to disseminate digital goods proliferate.

Internet Gateway has taken down the bnetd software from its Web site for now, but Cohn said that unless Vivendi follows through on its threat to sue, the software will be available for download again next week.

"I hope they'll recognize they were wrong and just drop it," she said.

All in all, Cohn added, it's a strange way for a company to treat some of its most loyal customers.

"These people are just trying to make this game they love a little better," she said.

 

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