Back in November 2010, a former World of Warcraft game master sued Blizzard alleging copyright infringement based on use of her voice with the adorable baby murlocs in the game. According to the facts presented in that case, Blizzard had sent an email to all GMs inviting them to audition for vocal parts in July 2005. Around 120 GMs, including the plaintiff signed up and attended two recording sessions with Blizzard sound engineers. Later, the plaintiff discovered that her recordings were used in baby murloc sound effects (and also a song for when the baby murloc breaks into dance). The plaintiff contended that the recordings were outside the scope of her employment, that she owned copyright in them, and that they were used without authorization in the game.
In 2012, the Northern District of California ruled in Blizzard’s favor. The court in that case pointed to the employee handbook for Game Masters, which included this portion:
Game Masters are customer service specialists with
expert knowledge of the game who are  present as
characters within World of Warcraft’s epic fantasy
setting to provide assistance and guidance to players
while also coordinating world functionality. In this
capacity, GM’s serve as the direct link between Blizzard
and its customers. Additionally, GM’s are responsible
for in-game customer support, helping manage our online
community, and assisting with the creation of content
during the ever ongoing development of the game.
(emphasis added). The fact that the plaintiff was paid for her sound recording audition carried significant weight with the court as well as that the plaintiff knew that the recordings would be used in promoting the game. The court held that the work was a work made for hire and that copyright solely belonged to Blizzard, and rendered summary judgment in Blizzard’s favor. The court also awarded attorney’s fees to Blizzard.
Now the case is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Per Law360 (subscription required) and an audio recording of the hearing, the plaintiff argues that the lower court misinterpreted the GMs job responsibilities and that the quoted portion of the handbook is in direct contradiction to other portions of the handbook. The plaintiff continues to argue that the sound recordings were made outside the scope of her employment and thus should copyright should belong to her. Blizzard argues that her job responsibilities as stated involved content creation and that the lower court’s decision was sound.
The issues in this case were made a lot easier for Blizzard due to their employee handbook. It is a good practice to ensure that content included in your game was made by employees acting within stated job responsibilities, or subject to an express work for hire agreement / copyright assignment.
We will continue to watch this case for interesting developments.