Game industry titan Blizzard is now taking fellow game titan Valve to court over trademark rights for the name "Dota." As to why this matters, this calls for a bit of a history lesson.
Our story so far...
The first reason this issue raises an eyebrow is because of the two companies it involves. In a game industry where many developers have reputations of abusing both their employees and their customers for profit, Blizzard and Valve have sat on the opposite end of that spectrum, standing as paragons of community building and compromised work ethic. Neither of these companies has thus far ever given people cause to expect them to take part in cutthroat legalese, let alone square off against each other.
As to the content in question, DotA is an acronym for a game mod called "Defense of the Ancients". When Blizzard developed and released their game Warcraft 3, they also provided a series of tools so that people could modify the game. These tools would allow players to make new maps, modify the game, or even create completely new game modes that could be played as custom matches using Blizzard's online matchmaking service.
Using these tools, a community of players was able to modify the game and create a new set of rules that resulted in a completely different style of game than the original. That game was then provided by the community free of charge for anyone to download as a Warcraft 3 custom map. Defense of the Ancients went on to become extremely popular within this niche, and has since spawned several stand-alone games based on its mechanics.
Now to take another step further back to see how this all started...
Another Blizzard game, StarCraft, also had tools that allowed players to create mods, maps, and new game types using the StarCraft 1 engine. Players from that game created a mod called Aeon of Strife. This was the first version of the game type that the DotA mod is based on. When Warcraft 3 came out, people tried to recreate the Aeon of Strife mod in the new engine. A mod developer going by the handle Eul took the most popular features of all these clones and created what came to be known as Defense of the Ancients.
When Blizzard released the expansion to their Warcraft 3 game, extending the capabilities of their mod making tools along with it, Eul tried to make a new version of DotA but eventually stopped working on the project and made his existing code open source. Several new versions of the game spawned from this for a while, and eventually the most interesting characters from each of these versions were combined into what became known as DotA Allstars.
A new mod developer, going by the alias Guinsoo, took charge of the DotA Allstars project around 2004. Over the next few major releases of the mod, it went on to become relatively stable and a large formal competitive scene started to form around the game. The game started to develop community sites outside of Warcraft, and competitive leagues and guilds were formed all around the world. Official tournaments were held, and would eventually go on to include sponsorships and cash prizes for the winners.
As the development upkeep of the game started to become even larger, Guinsoo brought in two more developers from the DotA community to help head the project, Neichus and IceFrog. In 2005, Guinsoo eventually stepped down from working on the DotA mod, so the reins got passed on to Neichus and then IceFrog respectively.
Realizing the break out success of this type of game, Guinsoo was inspired to create a new game from the ground up, based on this style of game play. Guinsoo and several other contributors of the DotA Allstars community would go on to start their own company and make one of the first stand-alone DotA style games.
Drawing lines in the sand
Now that the back-story and players are in place, we can move on to the next part of this saga.
Guinsoo, the second main community developer of DotA went on to start the company Riot games. They have since released the game League of Legends (LoL) which is based heavily on the DotA style of play. Like most DotA style games, it shares the exact same map layout and core mechanics of the original; but they are differentiated through tweaks to game play mechanics, interface, balancing, visual styles, and characters.
LoL has gone on to have a successful free to pay model. The game is free to play, but additional features can be purchased piecemeal by anyone who is interested in spending the cash. Several other stand-alone releases of this game type include Heros of Newerth (HoN), another game heavily influenced by the original DotA; and Demigod which has a much more varied design but is not as popular.
Eventually, the successor of the DotA mod development, IceFrog, was hired by Valve in order to make a competing DotA game. In fact, they intend to call this new game Dota 2, and either sell it or have a free to pay version up on their steam service. When they announced this, they also set out to trademark the acronym "Dota" in August 2010.
In response to this, Riot Games filled a counter suit to trademark the term "Defense of the Ancients" in order to preserve it for the modding community who are still maintaining the Warcraft 3 DotA Allstars mod to this day.
Not long after, Blizzard announced they were now interested in developing "DotA Blizzard". They are now filing a claim to trademark "DotA" for themselves, claiming they have a greater right to it than Valve does since the game has been part of the Warcraft 3 modding scene for seven years now.
As of now, Guinsoo is still happily running LoL; Valve has already had Dota 2 in open beta and held tournaments with their current version; and Blizzard is unleashing their lawyers.
I'm fairly interested to see how this will actually be interpreted in court.
On one hand, the DotA mod was created using Blizzard tools and was only playable within their multiplayer matchmaking system. All of the art aspects and many of the interpretations for the characters in the game were based on Blizzard's work. The name "Defense of the Ancients" is even a reference to part of the Warcraft story line. Blizzard is arguing the game has been part of the Warcraft community for seven years, and a lot of the association, goodwill, and name recognition was built up through and because of Blizzard. They might also be able to argue that mods made using their tools, whether made through an open source community or not, would belong to them. This is a fairly common stipulation in any developer-provided modding kit, including Skyrim's new Creation Kit.
If Blizzard does win the trademark, what happens to all the existing work for Valve's Dota 2 game? In addition to having the same name, their game also has a lot of the same characters, character names, item names, and more lifted directly from the first DotA. Will the trademark only apply to the game's name, or will a ruling in Blizzard's favor cause Valve to have to rename the majority of the assets in a game that is already near completion?
On the other hand you have the people who headed development of this mod and game style. In this case the two main players would be Guinsoo and IceFrog. Guinsoo has been doing his own thing, and the fact that LoL and HoN have been unchallenged for a while now shows that the core mechanics of the game type are fair use. The issue at question isn't the game rules of a DotA style game, it is about the brand recognition of DotA itself.
So if IceFrog works at valve now, would he have the right to carry on the brand of DotA because of his association to it? Valve might also argue that they have been advertising and developing Dota 2 for a while now. It has been in open beta and even used in active tournaments; and it's only recently that Blizzard is trying to make their own trademark claim.
Then there is the third route that deals with the nature of the open source modding community. While Eul, Guinsoo, and IceFrog all headed the development of the DotA mod at various times, there was still a large community of people who added to and contributed to the work. While one person or another unofficially headed up the project, who really owns the IP of an open source project? What's more, while the core mechanics of the game play were developed using Blizzards editing tools, the actual brand of the product was developed by the DotA community. They have had their own separate web hosting, forums, and community for years now and they were the ones to build the brand name recognition of the game. In that case maybe no single member of that community can have the right to simply sell off the rights to that IP to a company.
This raises several questions to be answered in a court of law. How do you determine who owns the IP to an open source community project? Does the fact that the original mod was made using Blizzard tools mean it belongs to them, and even if it does will that apply to the IP or just the specific custom map and game mechanics created with it? Is it possible that neither of these companies have a fair claim to the trademark, based in existing legal precedent?
There's also the moral/ethical question: should a game whose original spirit was community driven and free to play be able to be licensed and sold by a company?
Given how many times during the SOPA discussions lawmakers admitted ignorance to the technical details, I also wonder if the judge given this case would understand the nuances of an open modding community or what kind of unintended consequences a ruling in this case could have on the bigger picture of software IP and ownership.
As it stands, DotA is probably one of the top three competitive game styles used in the growing professional gaming scene. It's kind of a big deal. Other breakout mods, such as Counter-Strike, have gone on to huge success and big profits. Until now, these kind of issues of inheritance have been handled kind of informally, so now that two big players are taking this matter to court we will have to wait and see what kind of fallout this has in the future.