CRACKING THE CODE
Online IP Theft Is Not a Game
It must have seemed like the perfect scheme—buy
the stolen source code of a popular online
game, rent some servers to run the game as
your own, and then hang a shingle on the
web inviting gamers to come play at a steep
A California man who followed that path
must have thought he’d never get caught.
He was even warned once by the game’s
rightful owner, a large South Korean company,
to shut down. He didn’t.
“They don’t think that a company
is going to come after them at any point,” says
Christopher Thompson, a special agent on
a cyber squad in the FBI’s office in
Austin, Texas. “He said he was going
to stop doing it and he didn’t.”
So the company, which has offices in Austin,
called the FBI. The suspect was apparently
lining his own pockets from “donations” and
ads on his site while his pirated version
of the game, “Lineage II,” was
siphoning $750,000 a month in potential revenues
from the company.
According to Agent Thompson, here’s
how the scheme evolved:
In 2003, a computer user in China obtained
the “Lineage” source code from
an unprotected website. The proprietary code
was then placed on the underground market,
where a Texas man, among others, bought it
in 2004. He then passed it along to his business
partner in California, who set up a website,
www.l2extreme.com, to offer the “Lineage” game
at a discount. Gamers arrived in droves—as
many as 50,000 active users by 2006—which
pinched the legitimate game’s bottom
“It’s comparable to the music-downloading
and file-sharing problem in the late ‘90s—thousands
of people engaging in activity that is inherently
illegal,” Agent Thompson said.
The California man soon assumed full control
of the site and ramped up operations. In
late 2005, just months after promising to
shut down the site, he rented more powerful
servers—enough to accommodate 4,000
simultaneous gamers. He solicited donations
from users to help defray the costs and collected
more than $25,000 in less than two days.
“Even if game sites collect no money,
they still operate in violation of copyright
laws,” Agent Thompson said. “But
he just got greedy because the money was
there.” Indeed, online gaming is estimated
to be a $1 billion industry and growing.
And massive, multi-player online games (MMOGs
in the gamers’ parlance) are one of
the leading categories.
November, Agent Thompson led a raid on
the California man’s home, shut
down the game, seized the l2extreme domain,
and posted the FBI anti-piracy
on the site. Meanwhile, the company
posted a press release on its website announcing
the raid. “We’ve taken this action
because we strongly believe in defending
the intellectual property rights that we’ve
worked so hard to create,” the company
said in the release.
The result: several other servers running pirated
games “ran for the hills,” Agent
Thompson said. There are others, to be sure,
but the case serves as a reminder that stealing
intellectual property is a criminal offense.
As our warning clearly states, “ Criminal
copyright infringement, including infringement
without monetary gain, is investigated by the
FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal
prison and a fine of $250,000."