In the cyber world called Evony, players move armies through a medieval landscape with only a vague sense of the locations of their allies and rivals -- unless they buy one of the digital maps made by Mt. Lebanon gamer and programmer Philip James Holland.
In the real world of federal court, the makers of Evony are marching on Mr. Holland, 23, saying in a civil complaint filed last week that he's violating their copyright and breaking their terms of service, advantaging some players over others, and thereby knocking their world off its axis and undermining their multimillion-dollar investments.
In response, Mr. Holland and his business partner, Drew Ewing, 21, of Phoenix, are trying to fortify their defenses. They are portraying the coming clash as a battle over whether the technology tools used by gigantic companies are off limits to the kinds of freewheeling independents who pioneered the Internet.
The clash between the game company and the gamers in some ways stretches the limits of esoterica: It is, after all, about a digital map of an imaginary world.
To intellectual property experts, though, it reveals the problems inherent in applying laws from the era of books and paper contracts to the Web.
"The idea that we can bring the guns of copyright law to bear on you for breaking terms of service, [and] bring federal law to bear to enforce your [online] community rules ... is not really appropriate," said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director for Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for open use of digital knowledge. "What grounds do you have to sue somebody in a court of law because they're cheating in a game or breaking the rules of games?"
To Evony LLC and Regan Mercantile LLC, Mr. Holland has done more than cheat at a game. According to their lawsuit in U.S. District Court, which names Mr. Holland and his firm, Xandium Studios, they've broken the terms of service, sold information about the game, unleashed robot players called "bots" that have unfair advantages over human contestants, and offered an alternative to their faux world.
"Our number one priority is to protect the game and user experience for our millions of players, and software hacks like those involved in this situation are a violation of our terms of service for that very reason," said Benjamin Gifford, vice development director for Evony, LLC, in a written statement.
Evony declined to submit to an interview.
Evony is one of numerous MMORTS -- Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy Games -- in which players worldwide create characters or even civilizations that cooperate and compete with others. In Evony, according to Mr. Holland, you can gather resources and create a little empire of as many as 10 cities by building or conquering.
The game is free to play, but you can pay the game's makers to speed the town-building process.
Mr. Holland, a Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, said he is a player, and his work enhances the playing experience.
"Players of my alliance and I ... had trouble finding our enemies and trouble locating our own allies," he said Friday. So he and Mr. Ewing built a program that maps the work of Evony's million or more empire builders.
"We scan the data that they are allowing us to connect to," said Mr. Ewing. "It should be up to the security team of the company Evony to make sure that this doesn't happen."
"That's theft!" countered Chris Klug, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, who has created two online worlds. Xandium's argument is "like saying, I have a jewelry store in Shadyside, and one night I don't lock the door. ... And you walk in and steal my jewelry. It's not theft because I left the door open?"
Mr. Holland said that mapping Evony started as a hobby, but is now his business, and subscriptions to their service run from $3 to $15 a month. Evony claimed in its lawsuit that the pair charges as much as $100 a month, which Mr. Holland denied.
Mr. Holland said he has never unleashed bots, which have been the bane of some game worlds. In a pair of dueling federal lawsuits filed in 2006, Blizzard Entertainment Inc., maker of World of Warcraft, is jousting with a software developer who sold bots for $25 each to players who wanted to advance rapidly in that online world.
Claims that Xandium created a parallel Evony are also false, Mr. Holland and Mr. Ewing said -- although they admitted to considering such a move.
Still, they cater to the people who continue to pay for Evony, taking "donations" from their few hundred subscribers. "What we're offering is a game guide," said Mr. Ewing.
Evony's complaint used the words "cheaters and hackers" to describe people like Mr. Holland who, in the company's view, exploit the game for their own ends. It's one of a small number of lawsuits that stems from the lucrative world of online role playing.
"Online information, especially the gaming, is the entire experience, and software development is very costly," said Joseph Kabara, a professor of telecommunications and networking at the University of Pittsburgh. "If they go and spend a large sum of money developing this, they would like for people to play online in the way that was intended."
While conceding that what they do is frowned upon by some gamers, Mr. Holland and Mr. Ewing said they are not hacking or breaking the law.
They've found ways to operate in the Evony universe, they said, without ever accepting the company's terms of service. And they use tools that are philosophically similar to Google Inc.'s core technology to scan the imaginary world. Just as Google uses programs to explore and categorize the vast Internet, Mr. Holland and Mr. Ewing said they have a program that scans the "tiles" that make up Evony and turn what they've gleaned into a usable map.
"Basically, what [Evony's lawsuit] is saying is that I can't use the protocols available to me to scan your website, to scan your game server, and collect data from it," said Mr. Ewing. In his view, if he's not taking Evony's programming code, and if he's not violating terms of service because he never agreed to them, then there's no legal issue.
Evony has tried to use technology to stop them, and has forced them to rebuild their map several times. Evony has also, twice in the past 13 months, sent them demands to desist, citing the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, which is now the basis of one of the seven counts in their lawsuit.
Among other things, that 1998 act makes it illegal to break the technological locks that protect copyrighted material, even if that breakage did not precede theft of the protected content. "For 12 years now, companies have abused the DMCA and the court system with false claims because they want to get their way," said Mr. Holland. Some have folded up their tents in the face of DMCA lawsuits, but he said he won't. "I just hate being pushed around."
Mr. Siy said Public Knowledge will watch the case and may get involved. The courts face an interesting challenge in weighing the right to access information against the rights of the creators of that information, said Dr. Kabara. "It's not a situation where somebody is clearly right and somebody's clearly wrong."
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542.