Valve Goes Back To Court Over ‘DOTA’ Rights

Valve Corporation is going to court once again to defend their rights to Defense Of The Ancients, better known as DOTA, this time against mobile developers.

According to Kotaku, two developers, Lilith Games and uCool, have made (very) slimmed-down DOTA 2 clones for smartphones, which are popular in China. Lilith’s DOTA Legends, which has been out for over three years, has at times climbed to the very top of China’s mobile app charts; at one point, it was the top-grossing Chinese mobile game. uCool’s Heroes Charge has never made it quite that far, despite being around for a similar amount of time, but nevertheless carries a 4.4-star rating on the Android app store and has been downloaded some 10 million to 50 million times.

Both games make extensive use of DOTA assets, and both Valve and Blizzard are suing, but uCool has fired back at Valve, citing a forum post from 2004 in which the original DOTA developer (who is now employed by Valve and worked on DOTA 2 for them) gave up his rights to the game’s intellectual property.

And therein lies the problem; DOTA started life as a mod for Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III, creating a sticky legal case for anyone trying to figure out who owns what.

Naturally, Valve and Blizzard have already had this one out in court; as CinemaBlend reported at the time, Valve and Blizzard went back and forth on DOTA several times, after Valve hired DOTA developer IceFrog (his actual name is still unknown) to develop their own version of the game. By that time, DOTA had become the most popular map for Warcraft III by a wide margin and spawned an entire genre of games: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, or MOBAs, which are still some of the most popular in the world today. League Of Legends, by Runic Games, is still possibly the most-played PC title in the world, and Valve’s DOTA 2 continues to dominate Steam charts.

MOBA games ultimately hinge on their characters, and a lot of the ‘DOTA 2’ characters were brought over from the original ‘Warcraft’ map. [Image by Valve Corporation]

It’s a big market. And Blizzard first attempted to cash in on it by developing Blizzard DOTA, claiming that the property was theirs, as it had been a mod developed inside their own game and following their Terms Of Service; they also claimed that Valve’s DOTA would imply that it was a Blizzard product, or that they supported the game. In essence, they said, Valve was stealing their brand name.

Valve eventually won the right to use the DOTA name moving forward in a settlement, and Blizzard changed their MOBA to Blizzard All-Stars.

But the question was never really answered — who, legally, owns those rights? And while a federal court judge this week denied uCool’s movement for summary dismissal, he agreed that the question of abandonment by the original developer, known as Eul, could go forward to a jury trial.

Blizzard fought in part because the original ‘DOTA’ was responsible for a significant amount of ‘Warcraft 3’s enduring popularity online. [Image by Blizzard Entertainment]

Eul, who developed the original DOTA, made a post back in 2004 relinquishing his rights to the mod’s content and freeing anyone up to make their own version so long as he got “a nod in the credits” of anything created. That included the game’s lore and characters, which are pretty much what Lilith Games and uCool used. So while Blizzard’s EULA may have prevented Eul from having any rights to his content in the first place, characters are a bit of a gray area; does story written for a game mod become a legal part of that mod?

The question of who owns those rights, and whether Lilith and uCool are in violation of those rights, are what a jury is ultimately going to decide. Judge Breyer ultimately concluded that the original DOTA developers are arguably the “authors” of the works. It probably won’t have much impact on anyone but Lilith, uCool, and other companies attempting to develop DOTA “clones” but it could set an important precedent moving forward.

[Featured Image by Valve Corporation]

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