In contrast to Cory Doctorow's recent novel For the Win, which made gold farming appear liberating and focused on the players, a court in Shanghai earlier this month chose to take aim at the two operators of a gold farm, one of many across the country, plotted between Nanjing and Shanda‘s Mir 2 servers in Shanghai.
With all the means, notes Shanghai blogger Ruan Yifeng, who has been following [zh] the trial since it began in 2007, available to a company as large as Shanda in dealing with things like power-levelers, game bots and mods, nobody expected that the court would go so far as to sentence the husband and wife team who ran this gold farm to six and three years in prison, respectively, with RMB 1.6 and 1.4 million in fines, and an additional four years probation for Dong Jie's wife, Chen Zhu, who suggests she was pregnant for most of the ten months during which the farm was in operation.
It is, Ruan writes
It's loathsome to see the state judiciary serve to protect the interests of a company in such a way, and to issue a judicial interpretation which benefits Capital and sends those who haven't committed any crime to prison.
Now, with this judicial precedent, it'll be far easier for Internet game companies to profit as anyone who dares use a mod can be sent straight to jail! Faced with such roaring profits, who will care about the rights of the little people? Dong Jie and Chen Zhu have had their lives destroyed, but who cares if, this way, we succeed in putting the fear in other thieves? In any event, nobody forced Dong and Chen to lose their heads and go start plucking the hairs off a tiger.
Among the news articles and court documents relating to the case and Shanda's war against gold farmers going back to 2006 that Ruan has collected is a letter sent to him by Chen herself. In it, she notes that in addition to the couple's fine of RMB 3 million, 90 desktop computers and RMB 80,000 were seized separately on the grounds that they had been illegally obtained, as well as a range of items including bank cards, phone cards and bank books to access previous wages and property income, leaving the couple destitute; she adds:
As a pregnant woman, I never went into the work area, and the kids doing the gold farming never came into my bedroom. In the testimony, someone claims that I would check the bank accounts online every day to keep track of how much was coming in, but I ask, did that person actually see me do this? Or did they just suppose I had? The court just told me to wait until a second hearing to bring this up.
I had many questions for the judge today, but the judge wouldn't answer a single one of them, telling me just to appeal. I'm so disappointed, it's like I've fallen straight into a deep, black hole. The judge just says that the verdict isn't decided by them, so I have no idea who to talk to. They say the verdict gets sent down from above, so then what's the point of appealing?
Back to Ruan's blog, the text of the final judgment goes into detail regarding the scope of the couple's gold farming enterprise, from the name of the mod (Legend of Freezing Point) which was custom-adapted for the venture, how much customers were charged and gold farm hands paid, and the QQ (chat transcripts included), bank and broadband accounts used to process the nearly RMB 2 million that was earned over ten months.
It also gets into the technical details of how Legend of Freezing Point functioned, confirming that it was in fact a mod, that it circumvented standard client-server protocol for Mir 2, tampered with systems for identifying users, and disrupted normal operation of the game, leading to numerous complaints and Shanda's inability to properly operate the game, all violations of Mir 2 terms of service.
Public prosecutors argued that, with multiple instances of Legend of Freezing Point running on each computer in the gold farm, considering the scale on which Chen and Dong were able to power-level for customers, and that ‘Freezing Point’ relied on decrypting intercepted packets and intruding servers, among other things, the actions of the gold farm constituted disruption of financial transactions for Shanda, making this a violation of national law, a criminal act.
Lawyers for Chen and Dong, on the other hand, argued that at most the actions of their clients violated administrative regulations surrounding computer and network security and, possibly, the operation of a business without a license, warranting fines, not felony convictions.
The court, it seems, went with neither argument, and instead ruled that Chen and Dong's gold farm, specifically with the distribution of ‘Freezing Point’, definitely constituted operation of an unlicensed business, and cited major violations of China's laws concerning Internet publishing and digital rights, as well as of Shanda's copyrights.
So, does the punishment fit the crime?
Ruan's post has already received nearly 200 comments, here are a few:
I'm not really concerned about harm done to the interests of providers or developers.
Gold farming, however, truly does harm the interests of average players who don't rely on power-leveling.
I pay to play online games, and that includes having a fair playing field.
For years, I thought game owners were the bad guys, lacking the ability to maintain an equal playing environment, but even worse are these trash who take advantage of people's weaknesses, scheming to make money and wasting people's time.
You seem to have a sense of intellectual superiority
Use of gold farms should be criticized, but come on, seven years? At most this is a civil case, so how could this happen?
Where has justice before the law gone? It seems that the law in this country has long since turned into a tool for the establishment to use to bully the public around. Does turning to the media solve any problems? I don't see much use in our country's media these days.
The key question here is whether those responsible ought to be dealt with under civil or criminal law. Was this merely illegal or was it a crime? Was it a commercial violation or was it commercial fraud?
Officials have money, they can take down whomever they choose. Tragic.
I think we should put pressure on Shanda. People only hustle when their interests are at stake, and I think that if Shanda hadn't done any PR over this, there's no way the court would have been so forthcoming in bringing this to trial, and at the same time delivering such a heavy sentence. Shanda definitely stuck their fingers into this, and at the same time that we're raising doubts about the court, we should also be putting pressure on Shanda.
Shanda just wants to make an example out of this. I'm not sure if criminal proceedings can arise from a civil suit, but if that's not possible, then Shanda wouldn't have made any money from this.
I read the verdict, and there seem to be some problems in the evidence used for the conviction. The court said that the mod used constituted an “illegal publication”, and that this illegal publication led to disruption of the market, therefore was in violation of the law. The key is whether standard applications can be said to be publications. If I write some random piece of software and put it online for people to download, does that also count as an illegal publication?