First Monday

Who owns the mods? by Yong Ming Kow and Bonnie Nardi

Modding, the development of end user software extensions to commercial products, is popular among video gamers. Modders form communities to help each other. Mods can shape software products by weaving in contributions from users themselves based on their own experience of a product. The purpose of this paper is to investigate a conflict between a modding community and a gaming company which reveals contested issues of ownership and governance. We studied an online game, World of Warcraft, a large multiplayer game produced by Blizzard Entertainment. From content analysis of forum posts and interviews with modders, we explore the connected but divergent ethical systems of modders and Blizzard. The question — Who owns the mods? — arises through different perspectives of mods ownership rooted within contradictory ethics and practices in the two communities.


The policy: The hammer falls and — silence
The modders’ ethical system of creative production and the policies’ impact
Blizzard and the common player
The modding community responds: New considerations and configurations
Discussion and conclusion




Modding — the end user alteration of commercial hardware and software products — is a way users participate in the evolution and development of video games. Popular games such as World of Warcraft, Warhammer, Lord of the Rings Online, and Runes of Magic, have opened their software through application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable user modification. Generally mods are restricted to the alteration of a limited set of user interfaces, functions, and game contents. Even with these limitations, mods are hugely popular with players and millions of players download and use them, enhancing their play experience (Sotamaa, 2003; Kücklich, 2005; Postigo, 2008; Taylor, 2006a; Taylor, 2006b; Kow and Nardi, 2009).

Modders form communities to help each other. A modding community establishes and maintains an ethical system of beliefs and practices that direct members to mod in ways that are considered responsible by the community. Ethics comprise an evolving set of social values attached to a particular social context. They enable people to assess their own habits and actions, so that their activity collectively results in acceptable consequences for the social unit (Dewey and Tuft, 1908).

Modders are players who mod for fun or occasionally to make money. They are not game company employees, and their ethics and interests do not necessarily always coincide with a corporate agenda. To align modding to corporate intents and priorities, game companies govern modders through rules and assessment of the impact of mods on the integrity of their games. Ideally, good governance should establish suitable controls while providing contingencies for unexpected creativity (Malaby, 2006). Governance, which we may distinguish from management, does not direct actions, but limits them. Companies may administer rules in two ways: by coding them into the software product, and through litigation (threatened or actual).

Copyright, a legal means of protecting commercial software, was established on the belief, contestable in the case of modding, that copyright owners produce and users consume (Burk, 2009). In this framing, computer software is a “utilitarian work of engineering” but is protected by copyright as a “literary work” in the same way as poetry, essays, and novels (Burk, 2009). Copyright protection covers all forms of derivatives of the original work including translations, sequels, adaptation, distribution rights, public display, and public performance. Mods may be considered a form of adaptation. On the other hand, users appear to bring their own unique sets of behaviors and creations into the gaming world. For this and many reasons discussed by Burk (in this special issue), the scope of mods ownership with respect to the corporation and modders is in a state of legal flux.

Game companies, informed and protected by traditional copyright laws, have acted under the assumption that they own the product as well as its derivatives (Burk, 2009). Modding communities, more often than not, have adopted beliefs and practices of shared ownership. Modders view rewards such as the common good as more important than monetary compensation (Postigo, 2008; Humphreys, 2008; Kow and Nardi, 2009; Sotamma, 2009). Modders often share their mods and code freely. Free sharing arguably enhances the rate of information exchange without the burden of legal definitions and enforcements (Ardichvili, et al., 2003).

Incommensurate views of ownership between corporations and modders, each born of a different set of interests, may give rise to systemic contradictions. We take a contradiction to be a set of events in which values that impinge a community jar the community’s reality, demanding a resolution of the differences (Ilyenkov, 2008). We ask the question — Who owns the mods? — to reflect a contradiction between profit–oriented corporate interests, and modders motivated by a perceived common good. As we attempt to determine how assemblages of players, modders, and corporations can fruitfully develop positive, mutually efficacious relations (see Taylor, 2006a), it is necessary to consider how this contradiction can be resolved.

We will discuss an event In World of Warcraft (WoW), a game developed by Blizzard Entertainment, that caused the contradiction to surface. World of Warcraft is one of the most popular online multiplayer video games with millions of players worldwide (see Nardi, 2010). We have studied WoW for more than three years (see Nardi, 2006; Nardi, 2010; Kow and Nardi, 2009).

WoW’s modding community created nearly 4,000 mods (also called “addons”) (Curse, 2009). Blizzard’s support for modding is circumscribed; Blizzard employees answer modders’ questions in the official Blizzard UI&Macros Forum and provide an Addon folder in which players place the mods they download so that they will be read by the game on login. Blizzard has traditionally made sure that modders have access to beta versions of World of Warcraft. All other modding infrastructure is the modders’ own responsibility. Modders themselves have produced programming guides, wikis, download sites, community chatrooms, a programming framework, and other modding forums in addition to the official Blizzard forum (see Kow and Nardi, 2009).

The majority of WoW modders distribute their mods for free. But many modders set up a homepage soliciting donations. Not donating does not prevent a user from using the mod. The majority of mod users bypass these homepages and download mods from sites that host thousands of mods, such as Owners of popular mods told us in interviews that their homepages barely generated sufficient funding to maintain their servers as players downloaded their mods from sites such as

Alternatively, some modders put up Web links to their homepages inside World of Warcraft, in their mods’ windows. When they need to configure their mods, players visit these windows. These in–game Web links are more visible than a homepage out on the Internet, and result in more donations. In–game donation Web links have allowed a handful of modders to generate enough income to sustain full–time modding. In the past some mods also offered “premium” or “for–pay” versions. One of these mods, Carbonite, advertised its premium version at every login on a splash screen, which greatly annoyed many users.

For our investigation of modding ownership, we analyzed posts on the official Blizzard WoW UI&Macro Forums, as well as other forums. We conducted 15 formal interviews with modders, including leaders of the WoW modding community. We engaged modders in informal conversations in participant–observation field work. We refer to modders by their aliases used in the forums. In cases where an alias may be traced to a real world identity, quotes from interviews and informal conversations are used with permission.



The policy: The hammer falls and — silence

On 20 March 2009, Blizzard announced, in the UI&Macros Forum, a set of modding policies that outraged many modders. Two of the policies took center stage in a series of heated arguments.

Blizzard decreed (Blizzard Entertainment, 2009):

Policy 1 — Add–ons must be free of charge. All add–ons must be distributed free of charge. Developers may not create “premium” versions of add–ons with additional for–pay features, charge money to download an add–on, charge for services related to the add–on, or otherwise require some form of monetary compensation to download or access an add–on.

Policy 5 — Add–ons may not solicit donations. Add–ons may not include requests for donations. We recognize the immense amount of effort and resources that go into developing an add–on; however, such requests should be limited to the add–on Web site or distribution site and should not appear in the game.

“Add–ons must be free of charge” required that add–ons not have for–pay versions. There were only two for–pay mods that we were aware of — Carbonite and nUI. Modders, however, generally believed that they had the right to decide what to do with their mods, including the option to sell, even when they had generally not exercised that right.

“Add–ons may not solicit donations” required that donation requests not appear in–game. Requests could be posted on homepages or download sites. This policy greatly reduced the visibility of the donation requests. Many WoW modders were offended by these policies, and in the next two months, the modding forums accumulated thousands of posts.

Modders were given 60 days to comply with the new rules. Shefki, the developer of the popular WoW mod Pitbull, posted a message on the Forum seeking clarification on the company’s position. Blizzard replied saying it was going to block all for–pay addons in the game, but had “no intention of claiming copyrights over all add–ons” (Shefki, 2009). None of Shefki’s add–ons were for–pay; he had nothing to lose due to the new policy. But he was deeply offended and signed off with the message, “No longer doing add–on work due to UI Add–on Development Policy.” Reactions from modders like Shefki signified that the policies touched something deeper than practicalities of making profits from modding.

Modders felt betrayed. Many had previously believed there was an unwritten agreement with Blizzard, and that Blizzard was different from other companies. Batrick, who created the mod Spellcraft, told us in an interview:

For a long time [four and a half years] Blizzard made no attempt to influence the add–on community in any way other than to maintain the sandbox we played in. The tacit agreement was that we could develop add–ons for them that would both help us [the players] have fun and help them [the company] make more money.

Another modder, Venificus, expressed a similar thought on the Forum, directly addressing issues of ownership:

The author community collectively believed that Blizzard was, well, sane, and didn’t actually believe they owned everything. Now that they’re threatening to sue over it, this assumption no longer holds, if it ever did. (Venificus, 2009)

Prior to the announcement of the new policies, modders perceived Blizzard as “sane” and had worked under a kind of implicit good faith agreement between them and the company. The relationship with Blizzard was seen as one of mutual respect and benefit. Blizzard had been supportive, however minimally.

The new policies exposed the perceived agreement as a falsity, a violation of modders’ trust. Blizzard’s image turned from a group friendly developers to a monolithic, wealthy company with an army of lawyers.

While the modders’ posts accumulated, Blizzard remained silent. But a series of aggressive Blizzard actions starting on 2 April caught everyone’s attention. Cogwheel, formerly a “Most Valuable Poster” (a title awarded by Blizzard to 12 of the most outstanding posters), had been among the most prominent voices against the policy. On a Facebook group dedicated to the policy discussion, he summarized his argument:

While it may at first seem limited to World of Warcraft add–ons, Blizzard’s new policy may have far-reaching effects in the world of software development. Asserting that they have a right to enjoin add–on authors from profiting from their work may ultimately affect the entire market for third–party plug–ins.

For the record, the main problem lies in [policy] 1, in light of the threats to take legal action against anyone who disobeys. It’s one thing to control what users are exposed to in–game, or to prevent add–ons from violating the other terms of use. But to claim they have any control over the distribution of the add–on is distasteful and possibly unenforceable.

Cogwheel had made many similar posts. Among them, he had accidentally modified one of his old “green posts” on the UI&Macros Forum. MVP forum posts were made distinctive by appearing in green text rather than the usual white.

On 2 April, Blizzard sent a warning stating that Cogwheel was misleading others to believe that the post was official, i.e., sanctioned by Blizzard by virtue of Cogwheel’s designation as an MVP. Cogwheel was suspended from posting for a week.

Cogwheel apologized. However, what happened next was wrenching — Blizzard deleted all of Cogwheel’s posts, along with his macro guide, a clear, comprehensive guide to macro writing cherished far and wide by WoW modders. Cogwheel (2009) wrote:

Ok … what exactly is going on? I thought I handled this graciously and now I find out you’ve wiped every single post of mine … You know, the removal of all my posts probably did more harm to the forum than [just the] removal of my stickies [permanent posts]. Google searches for help on macro topics often led to posts of mine (non–sticky). Several people kept bookmarks of my threads to offer as reference to other people. There was only ONE green post of mine where I left that notice, and I have no qualms about its deletion.

Sure, I’ve expressed myself with great passion in on–topic threads about the policy change. I haven’t made any overtly hostile posts toward blizzard, and I’ve continued to post helpful responses in threads where I could be of help.

Whatever hostility I WASN’T feeling over the ban earlier today is now here in full force. As soon as my contractual obligations with the book [a hardcover book on WoW programming] are over, I’m canceling my subscription. Thank you for adding further insult to injury. I hope you treat your future MVPs with a bit more class.

Cogwheel had written so many posts that after his were deleted, the discussion appeared disjointed. One of the forum user commented:

I think this thread is even more entertaining that it’s missing a whole bunch of posts. (Tokrim, 2009)

Another poster replied:

Yeah now that they deleted all posts from Cogwheel this thread doesn’t make much sense.

Indeed, many modders felt that Cogwheel did no harm, and Blizzard’s reaction was excessive. Another modder revealed the amount of donations he was receiving and stood to lose; he too had his posts deleted. The attempt by Blizzard to suppress the defiance attracted attention and sympathy.

Despite many disappointments, Cogwheel was not yet ready to give up serving the modding community. He and Cladhaire, his co–author on the World of Warcraft programming: A guide and reference for creating WoW addons (Whitehead II, et al., 2008) were still working on the second edition. In an interview on 6 April 2009, Cogwheel said that if there was anything was keeping him around, it was the book. The fallout was not going to influence its outcome — or so he hoped.

Modders felt that they deserved a response from Blizzard. But apart from reprimanding Cogwheel and deleting the posts of critical modders, Blizzard chose silence. That silence was rude; an old partner had betrayed the trust, and refused to discuss the reasons for their actions. The years during which modders had modded for free–adding value to the product at almost no cost to Blizzard — did they count for anything? A few sentences were sufficient to remove modders’ rights to speak and to erase valuable work, such as the guide, that undeniably enhanced the experience of countless players of World of Warcraft, and hence the monetary value of Blizzard’s software product.



The modders’ ethical system of creative production and the policies’ impact

Modding is not a job; it is a form of voluntary play (see Nardi, 2010). Full–time modders do exist, but they are only a handful, and even they work independently and are not burdened by bureaucracies or employment restrictions or corporate obligations. A modder may stop maintaining his mods or leave the game entirely, at his discretion, without fear of reprisal from an employer.

When someone leaves the game or abandons a mod, another modder, seeing one of his favorite mods going into disrepair, may volunteer to become the new owner. ZorbaThuT, for example, the current modder for the popular mod QuestHelper (QH), picked up QuestHelper from Smariot. ZorbaThuT told us in his interview that Smariot left modding because he “got tired of working on QH.”

Despite this seeming communitarianism, the modding community has a strict sense of ownership. One owner per mod. Other modders can help with a mod, but cannot “own” a mod that currently has an active owner. Ownership has no definite duration. Ownership is transferable with permission of the current owner. Ownership is transferable if a mod has clearly been abandoned. AnduinLothar, a modder since the WoW beta, told us in an interview:

There is generally a point at which modders feel it is acceptable to resurrect another’s work and it’s significantly shorter than the traditional or legal copyright period.

The ownership rule, a departure from copyright, juggles two important ethical elements: innovators and their innovations. The rule respected innovators by unambiguously designating the active modder as sole owner of the mod. But the rule allowed innovations to continue to be developed if the original innovator had ceased working on it. The ability to resurrect an abandoned work was an indication of the community’s ethical belief in the primacy of creativity over personal ownership.

The ownership arrangement was not legally enforceable, but was upheld by the community’s own mechanics. The leaders of Curse and WoWInterface, two key download sites supported by plentiful advertising, were able to remove non–conforming mods from their download sites. WoWMatrix, a download site that did not recognize the community rules, was shunned by modders. Modders preferred to congregate within the cozy bounds of WowAce and WoWInterface; they knew that in these places community rules would be observed.

Modders rarely requested donations. Cairenn, a founder and community manager at WoWInterface, told us:

But for — I think the most part everything’s — all the authors, you know … It’s sort of a labor of love. It’s a hobby … . A lot of them have donation buttons up, so if you want you can send them ten bucks … in PayPal or whatever, but very few require payments … Most of them, they just love it.

Modders seeking donations hosted them at their homepage or inserted a Web link within their mod’s UI window. Donations were satisfying, even when the amounts were small.

Another source of satisfaction was download counts. Download counts varied widely, from millions for some mods to below a hundred. At the download sites, every mod downloaded would have its count increased by one. Download counts approximated the mod’s popularity among players, something closely watched, and valued by modders.

The modders’ ethical system is shown in Figure 1. Individual ownership encouraged modders to make autonomous decisions as well as to share their mods and code. Modders were confident that despite sharing, their ownership would still be respected. The value of mods was judged through download counts. Ownership transfer was an arrangement built on top of the individual ownership agreement, as a contingency to sustain creativity (Kow and Nardi, 2009). By allowing an abandoned mod to be picked up by another modder, the maintenance and improvement of mods was assured, as well as continued availability to the community of players. The nearly 4,000 player–created mods constituted immense value to players; Blizzard could not cost–effectively create the myriad options embodied in the suite of mods produced by players (see Nardi, 2010).

Game patches are periodic updates to the game. Players must download and install the patches to continue playing. Patches include new game features as well as changes to the platform such as the API. Sometimes a new game feature is based on a mod. The earliest game features based on mods that we are aware of were included in the 20 July 2006 patch (WoW 1.12). Mods are legally protected by copyright but not patents; players cannot afford the expensive patenting process. When Blizzard incorporates a mod into the game, it does not violate copyright. Blizzard simply adopts the ideas of the mods and recodes them (ideas cannot be copyrighted). For example, a popular new feature in WoW is the “Equipment Manager” (Schramm, 2009). The idea for the Equipment Manager was taken directly from the Outfitter mod (Mundocani, 2009). Other popular mods folded into the game include KTM Threat Meter, Omen Threat Meter, GroupCalendar, and SellFish.

Modders were not upset when Blizzard incorporated mod features into the game. Rather, it was a sign of their work done right. One of Cogwheel’s first mods, Flexbar, was made obsolete by the WoW patch 2.0 (mods are downloaded by players in periodic patches). He explained to us in an interview:

My first add–on [Flexbar] was an answer to a bunch of Forum questions on how to cast a spell on yourself because there was no way to simply cast a spell on yourself … . when 2.0 came out … they added the macro option system which allows you to pick spells based on your stance or cast spells directly on yourself or your target or your focus or your party members … So, that was my first add–on and also my first add–on to be made obsolete by a patch.

SellFish was a mod that displayed the in–game currency value of items in WoW. Tuller, SellFish’s author, informed his users at WoWInterface that Blizzard introduced a similar feature on 4 August 2009 in patch 3.2.0., outdating the add–on. Tuller thanked SellFish users for their past support.


Figure 1: Ethical systems of modders, the corporation, and players
Figure 1: Ethical systems of modders, the corporation, and players.


Cases such as Flexbar and SellFish indicate that modders recognized that their ownership system was valid only within their community. The community was part of the “sandbox,” a place where their rules would apply. In return for their contribution, they had believed that Blizzard would respect their autonomy. They would, in turn, respect how Blizzard shaped the virtual world.

A handful of mods were popular enough to support their owners full time. They earned a substantial income through donations or subscriptions. These mods included nUI (Spiel2001), Carbonite (2009), and QuestHelper (ZorbaThuT, 2009). nUI and Carbonite sought income by selling for–pay versions with added features. QuestHelper did not have a for–pay version, but received enough donations to support its author. QuestHelper was the most downloaded WoW mod with 23 million downloads on

For ZorbaThuT, QuestHelper was an experiment, a step towards his dream of owning a gaming workshop. Modding and living through QuestHelper was to some extent the dream coming true. Modding was hobby and work blurring:

Researcher: To you, where does hobby stop and a job begin?

ZorbaTHut: To me, they’re the same thing. If it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing. “Worth” is part money and part enjoyment, but it’s all part of the same equation. I don’t really describe it as “hobby” or “job” anymore. It’s just “what I do.’

A mod like QuestHelper, with 23,000 lines of code, was an unusually elaborate mod. A typical mod simply makes visible hidden information, presenting it in windows (Kow and Nardi, 2009). QuestHelper generated new information, calculating the most efficient ways to move from one point in the game to another based on the user’s current location. Generating new information required programming longer algorithms. ZorbaThuT explained to us:

It’s a lot of complicated algorithms. Most WoW UI mods are just user interface mods — new windows, new ways to display information, new interfaces. QuestHelper’s completely different from that. The actual interface to Questhelper is very simple. The complex parts are the data gathering and the routing code … There’s only a few UI mods that do anything which is actually complicated.

To modders like ZorbaThuT, modding involved continuously updating and improving his mod. ZorbaThuT continued to make “routing better, the system stabler, and more maintenable.” QH users would e–mail ZorbaThuT new in–game destinations. Every week, ZorbaThuT would recompile and compress the mod to generate a new version.

Before the announcement of the new policies, ZorbaThuT was on his way to developing an add–on system for QuestHelper. He wanted a means by which other modders could write mods for QH. ZorbaThuT envisioned a QH modding community nested within the current community. What was emerging from ZorbaThuT’s story could be the next phase of development for modding communities.

Meanwhile, at the same time that QuestHelper was developing into its next incarnation, free versions of Carbonite began displaying splash screen advertisements urging users to buy the premium versions. Players were fearful; they wondered about such disturbances to the game experience. If they were not quashed, what might it mean for the game’s future. Soon, Blizzard’s new add–on policies were published in the UI&Macros Forum.

Policy 5 disallowed any form of donation Web links in–game. Erranthor, creator of nUI, explained the significance:

I have always had donation links on my home page … [but made almost no money]. In the week and a half since I made that change [added the in–game request], nUI switched from being something that made $20 a week into something I thought I could count on to put food on my table when I get laid off again in June … I’m not sure there’s a reason for me to continue to invest the 20–30 hours a week I do now. (Erranthor, 2009)

Erranthor pointed out that the policy introduced a structural problem in the donation system. If in–game Web links were disallowed, players would not see modders’ donation requests since they rarely visited the modders’ own Web sites.

ZorbaThuT told us that he was scrapping most of his future plans:

Well, I’ve got a lot of ideas that I’m simply not going to get to. It [the new policies] reduced my incoming donations quite a bit, and it also eliminated some ways I was thinking about getting more income later. One of the things I thought interesting about QH was that I might be able to form a business around it. I don’t think that’s possible any more, and so, once 1.0 [the next version] is done, I’m probably going to largely stop working on it … Before the policy change, I had a lot of future plans without a real end date in sight. Now I’ve got an end date, and a lot of those plans will probably never happen. That’s the real difference.

There were other modders whose withdrawal from modding stemmed entirely from ethical differences with the policies. Cogwheel, Shefki, and Mundocani had distributed mods free of charge and were not dependent on donations. A modder posted on a blog:

I can see many of the developers out there with this mindset: Well, I used to code addons just for the fun of it, but now they tell me I HAVE to do it for free?!?!?! Screw them, I won’t do it. (Billydasquid, 2009)

Mundocani (an alias for John Stephen), was the owner of GroupCalendar and Outfitter. He was the most experienced modder we interviewed and had been programming since he was 13 years old. Over a career that spanned 25 years, he had held positions in large companies including Apple and Aldus (now Adobe), and was, for a time, the principal UI designer at Microsoft. Now retired, Mundocani built free software for Apple and sidebar gadgets for Windows Vista. Though Mundocani had always provided his mods without advertisement or donations, he was clear about his disapproval of the new policies. In a message posted on 21 March 2009 on, he wrote:

Blizzard has every right to control the in–game experience and to regulate add–ons in that manner, but when Blizzard announced a policy that effectively asserted distribution control over add–on authors’ copyrighted material (as all add–ons are, unless they explicitly state otherwise) I was livid. I know how much time and effort it takes to develop, maintain, and support a major add–on and I know that the code in most add–ons has nothing to do with anything Blizzard owns beyond that they run inside Blizzard’s sandbox environment. Having all that work devalued by rude users is one thing, but having it devalued by Blizzard is too much. So I pulled my add–ons from public distribution in protest.

… [T]here are so many players who’ve made it painfully clear that they consider add–ons to be nothing more “typing a few words onto the screen” or something else just as trite, and Blizzard’s policy has given them even more reason to believe they’re right. “AND JUSTICE IS SERVED” one poster commented recently.

These days even my friends who’ve reminded me over the years of all the people who appreciate what I’ve done, even those friends have to pause. Even they don’t know what to think of the add–on–using community anymore … .

I want the fun of my hobby back. (Stephen, 2009)

The new policies violated modders’ conception of mod ownership, and in consequence, diminished their commitment to modding. So long as Blizzard had stayed out of their community, thus respecting their rights within it, they were happy to help improve the game — up to and including the adoption of their mods as features incorporated into the game by Blizzard. The Forum discussions were modders’ way of reflecting upon the meaning of the policies, which came into conflict with beliefs so fundamental to their community.

The modding community has been evolving since beta, and full–time modding and commercialization had begun to occur. Full–time modding brought stability and new opportunities to popular mods. However, with the advent of the new policies, this process came to an abrupt end. While the number of full–time modders was small, their mods commanded millions of downloads. The result of the new policies was an interruption to potentially valuable developments within the modding community.



Blizzard and the common player

Players pay monthly to play WoW. They demand a quality gaming experience. Scott Jennings, an experienced game designer and frequent blogger on online games like WoW, wrote about the inappropriateness of intrusive advertisements in the Carbonite mod:

If anyone sells in–game advertising, it should be Blizzard itself. Not that they should. But for others to is pretty clearly skeevy, on a level with Web sites that yoink news stories from RSS feeds and wrap ads around them pretending to provide their own content. (Jennings, 2009)

Many players who had no direct experience of modding were not sympathetic to the modders. These players did not understand why modders thought that they might generate income from modding. A player posted a question on a blog:

Why is it necessary that some add–ons be limited to only people who can afford to pay for them in order for the add–on community to reach its full potential? (Wanderer, 2009)

Some of the players’ remarks were grating exaggerations, such as the idea that QuestHelper would pop up an advertisement at every possible moment. Some players betrayed their ignorance of the work of programming:

Sure it must be nice to turn writing a mod into a full time job, but it can’t take all THAT much time to keep a mod up to date, can it?

Players’ distress arose from their desire to maintain a positive gaming experience — something they felt they owned by virtue of their monthly subscription. In–game ads and requests for donations threatened to degrade this experience. On a game news site,, a player expressed worries:

Blizzard seems very interested in the overall user experience in their game, and they go to some lengths to ensure that the player, while playing, has a particular quality of experience. If the player has to put up with cripple–ware, nag–ware, or spam–ware, then this is detrimental to the player experience as a whole. (Antiphonal, 2009)

Blizzard is a profitable company listed on Nasdaq as Activision–Blizzard with a capitalization of $US 14 billion. At the time of this writing, World of Warcraft was the most profitable part of their business. Satisfying the majority of their players is of course good business sense.

At a dinner for modders held at BlizzCon 2009, to which we were invited by Cairenn (a founder of WoWInterface) as part of our participant–observation research, we met Blizzard’s Software Engineer and UI Lead. He told us that at the top of the developers’ concerns was gaming experience. He felt that non–mod users should not be disadvantaged in comparison with mod users. Blizzard’s incorporation of new features based on mods was to ensure that the default UI maintained a robust “lowest common denominator” (see also Reece, 2009). Blizzard had only incorporated basic features of the mods; they were not copied wholesale. The lowest common denominator referred to the basic features of popular mods relevant to most players.

In addition to the notion of a lowest common denominator, Blizzard also acted to protect its vision of the game. Blizzard used its legally conferred authority in mods ownership to disable mods that did not conform to its idea of good play. One famous WoW mod, Decursive, had automated, into a single mouse click, a task comprised of a series of actions. Decursive was a hugely popular mod, but Blizzard deemed that its execution oversimplified WoW by Blizzard standards of play. Decursive was rewritten by its owner to provide some relief from the tedious actions required to remove diseases, poisons, and curses, but in a way that was not as simple as the single–click version.

In the ethical set of the corporation (see Figure 1), intellectual property, profit for investors, and product quality are core values. While some modders are also concerned about overall product quality, there exist those who are not, and the modding community, prioritizing individual freedom and creativity, offers no mechanism to limit what they do. Modders established individual ownership of mods as a core value, although valid only within the boundary of their community and under the circumstance that the owner is actively modding. Download counts were valued by modders to indicate player acceptance. These values sustained creativity; modders labored to develop new and useful mods. Players believed that they had paid for the game and had rights to both game contents and mods. They felt that mods should not negatively impact their gaming experience.



The modding community responds: New considerations and configurations

After Mundocani’s decision to pull GroupCalendar from distribution on 21 March 2009, players were upset at the loss of this popular mod (Stephen, 2009). GroupCalendar allowed a guild (a named club of players with resources such as a guild chat window) to share a common calendar of events. Between 21 March and 6 April 2009, the comments section of GroupCalendar’s hosting page at, included comments such as the following:

LadyPashta:The [calendar] Blizzard provides does not show a time signed up, nor many other things yours does … Please bring it back to Curse. I am sure people will donate if its money you want. Personally I have 3 kids and am broke … I do offer my thanks and appreciation. (Stephen, 2009)
Wizfinger:I just want to express my gratitude to the work you have put in over the years. We are, in my guild, very sad that you, [at the moment], aren’t updating your add–on. Don’t let Blizzard or 12 year old twats get to you. (Stephen, 2009)
Valormane:It is by far, the most essential guild mod that I have ever come across. I lead a 130+ account guild and the organization is made so much easier by your mod … Everyone loved it and a small panic started when you announced that you where done … Those that would bash your work are just punk kids who have no idea how to wipe their own a$$ much less see a good mod. (Stephen, 2009)

Mundocani, like other modders, contemplated players’ compliments and slanders as they played out in the forums. At this time, players were anticipating a new patch to come out on 14 April 2009 (WoW 3.10), with significant new content. Mundocani knew that a lot of players would not enjoy the game as much without his mods. So he decided to continue modding, but not in the same way as before. Mundocani instituted two changes. He would not respond to players’ comments as he had previously, and he would not mod full–time. In our interview, Mundocani noted that GroupCalendar and Outfitter’s potentials were now limited:

I knew that a lot of good players would be hurt by all of this and I felt bad about that, so I decided to resume uploading. I didn’t plan to answer questions on the forums though and I avoided reading the public forums as well as my own addon forums on Curse and WoWI [WoWInterface]. I had caught glimpses of what some people were saying and I wanted nothing to do with those users ever again.

I used to spend 8 hours or more most days working on the add–ons and browsing forums to provide support for them. Since the Blizzard policy change I have cut back a lot and now spend maybe 4 hours on a busy day and 1 or 2 hours most days. Today I spent about 2 hours working on Group Calendar 5 and that’s probably all I’ll do for today.

The longer Blizzard’s silence continued, the more the expectation to fix the situation shifted to the download sites — WoWInterface and Curse (Torres, 2009). There were growing concerns among modders about how complex mods like QuestHelper were going to be maintained under unprofitable conditions.

On 24 March 2009, WoWInterface and Curse joined hands to find a solution for full–time modders. Cairenn posted on the WoWInterface forum:

Authors spend countless hours developing, debugging, and supporting their add–ons. WoWInterface supports these authors’ contributions to the community, and has provided them with another visible way to receive some form of benefit for these contributions. Now in addition to allowing authors to show a donation link on their file description page, we have created a donation overlay that will show any time someone downloads an add–on on which the author has enabled donation requests. Authors have the ability to turn on this overlay when they update their add–ons.

WoWInterface and Curse implemented donation buttons on their sites. Figures 2a and 2b show examples of donation requests made possible through this feature.


Figure 2a: A WoWInterface donation request to users
Figure 2a: A WoWInterface donation request to users.



Figure 2b: A Curse donation request to users
Figure 2b: A Curse donation request to users.


After the implementation of the donation buttons, modders like Mundocani received about US$500 in donations in the first few days. But this trickled off to about one small donation per day — typically around five or ten dollars. Mundocani told us in his interview:

I’m not concerned about money personally, but I do know first–hand how much time it takes to provide a major add–on. The [mod] developers most affected by this policy were those who depended on income from it and they seemed happy with the third–party donation solution.

I put donation links on my own add–ons once those went live. I received a lot of donations in the first few days. I would estimate that it was around $500 or $600 in donations, and that was exciting. Since then it’s slowed considerably to around one donation per day, most around $5 or $10. That puts my “pay” at less than a McDonald’s worker, but it’s still nice and I’ll use the money to buy Christmas gifts this year or maybe to upgrade my computer next year.

Mod users had to visit download sites once every few months for updates when WoW was patched. Seeing requests for donations was thus not as frequent as if players were to see a donation link in their mods’ windows every time they configured a mod. Nonetheless, modders were pleased with the implementation of the donation buttons. The modding community, specifically the download sites, had once again proved resourceful in constructing and enhancing their own community infrastructure.



Discussion and conclusion

Mods affect gaming experience in both positive and negative ways. In general we might say that the modding community is good at creatively enhancing play experience through mods that flow from the direct experience of a large heterogeneous pool of players, but that the modding community lacks the power to keep control of certain high–level concerns. These concerns include the impact of advertising in a pristinely ad–free environment and the need to keep the game challenging. Blizzard thus imposed software changes restricting the negative impacts of mods while continuing to permit, and to some extent, support mods. Blizzard’s legal authority to restrict modding affords measures to sustain the product’s quality, thus fulfilling its commitment to shareholders and customers. The importance of these commitments cannot be overstated.

However, there is a fragile synergy between leveraging the creativity of modders — and let’s not forget this includes free mods in the Addons folder and mod features incorporated into the commercial product — and keeping the product under firm control, consistent with a larger vision. Sweeping policies insisting that mods not include premium versions or for–pay features angered modders, depressing creative energies. The policies violated fundamental ethical assumptions of ownership within the modding community. The policies cut short a natural evolution towards complexity in the form of complex, stable mods such as QuestHelper which require full–time commitment.

Every purposeful community is “a fully concrete sphere of social life with its own laws of motion.” (Ilyenkov, 2008) An ethical set is enclosed within the bound of the community’s activities. A modder is flattered when Blizzard integrates his mod’s features into WoW. The modder does not see this integration as an ethical violation — it has taken place outside of the bound of his community. Within the modding community, the mod is still his. Changed in form, the mod is now symbolized by words on a Web page giving thanks. The process of integration is a knowledge transfer of a material form, from the modding community into the company’s product.

Mods can go, but the sandbox must stay.

Mods can go, but the sandbox must stay. This was what the modders asked of Blizzard in return for their commitments. Blizzard’s introduction of the add–on system was noble, for it opened the game to player contributions, and with them, the responsibilities of governance. While the heavy–handed censorship and denigration of valuable work such as the modding guide are not to be taken lightly, Blizzard, and other gaming companies, are moving toward modes of production in which user experience materially reshapes products. Such a form of participatory culture is to be cherished, and is, we contend, “noble” in its potentials for engaging people as active participants in the consumer culture in which we are all embedded, and where we undeniably spend so many of our waking hours. We stand to become more than fans as our sense of autonomy and control grows, and as reflexive responses to experience can be made to count for something, whether we are voting with our downloads or authoring modifications.

Capitalist motives will not wither away no matter how participatory consumer culture becomes. Blizzard gains monetarily from modding, as it must as a capitalist firm. At the same time, Blizzard is supporting a new form of participation with the capacity to engage consumers more deeply. The mode of production entailed through such participation is not one that Blizzard is familiar with, or is required to support, but is an experiment that can ultimately yield mutual benefits. The experiment has risks and pitfalls. Blizzard is undertaking the task of reimagining customer relations, creating for itself the work of governing a motivated, opinionated, articulate, headstrong community of players.

Governance in the context of the participatory activity of modding is not just an engineering activity of renewing the software platform — allowing new mods and removing harmful mods and mods elements — but also empathy and support towards the modding system of production. The modding system, alien to certain powerful interests in the corporation, found itself vulnerable to changes in corporate policies.

This is the point at which our question “Who owns the mods?” seeks an answer. Only in empirical examples with concrete means and ends established in particular contexts can we derive the ethicalness of an act. Professional ethics so reasonable within a company, when intruded into a different ethical system, such as that of the modders, become unreasonable. A highly respected WoW modder we interviewed after the new policies derided Blizzard: Legalists and a company of lawyers! Community members must defend their own ethical beliefs because these ethics support, indeed they fundamentally enable, their own activities.

The enforcement of an idea, a policy, that is general and abstract may prevent certain disruptive practices, but at the same time it may also prevent legitimate practices (see Ilyenkov, 2008). Blizzard seeks profit, the modding community seeks creative expression of reflexive play experience, and players seek value in their leisure pursuits. At a high level, these purposes are complementary. But at a concrete level, the imposition of a policy can alter previously agreed upon relations between actors, lead to temporary confusion, and hinder normal work. Elements of ethics composing a set come into conflict with elements outside its own boundaries. Problems emerge and the community requires a resolution. The policies disallowing donation seeking threatened the survival of complex mods. When an incompatible ethic is imposed on a community, the new ethic will cause structural stresses on the system, requiring actors to identify new relations on which their intended goals are again attainable.

When the WoW modding community experienced stresses, the community organized to effect structural changes. These changes required centralized planning, born chiefly on the shoulders of the commercial download sites. The download sites adapted the modding system to changing conditions by placing donation buttons in more visible locations.

Despite this welcome change, modders were shaken. While only a small number appeared to drop out of modding or reduce modding activities, the modders who did so were the elite modders commanding the highest number of downloads. They contributed the most mods and they wrote the most forum posts. They were the modders who best understood modding and had the most potential to influence its continued development on a path toward stable, complex mods and even mods–for–mods. Modding reverted, at least for the moment, to an activity motivated by playful intentions, unleavened by more committed efforts and even career ambitions.

Companies cannot assume that methods of co–production, in which distinct communities interact to produce a product, result in a sure formula for design success. Rather, they must be aware of how co–production policies and supporting tools influence ethics and practices, particularly those that hinder acquisition of resources and collaboration between community members.

As much as we have argued that a corporation’s ethics may seem unreasonable in certain instances of governance, we must also reverse the argument in favor of the corporation, in particular when mods intrude into the corporation’s own sphere. The modders’ ethics of free sharing and autonomous development with no quality control depart radically from a corporate agenda of enforcement of standards of quality, the regulation of play experience, and profit. The disparate actors participating in co–production of commercial products must come to mutual understandings of the ethics of their partners. A company and its user community’s purposes may be mutually beneficial, yet their respective methods elude one another. As we increasingly move toward a world in which authentic communities are established in cyberspace on the substrate of a commercial product such as World of Warcraft, it is imperative that we continue to examine intersecting ethical sets and to encourage actors with shared interests to probe beneath the surface of the products to the systems of production and their ethical sets.

A company has at its disposal two mechanics of governance in such systems: (1) legal enforcement; and, (2) the software platform. Our analysis leads us to favor the use of the software platform. Legal enforcement leaves behind a negative emotional residue, with hostile connotations of control and power in communities that should, in a win–win situation, enjoy cordial relations of mutual respect. Instead of the highly unfriendly “You have 60 days to comply!” software platform changes are described in neutral, impersonal programming terms. The modding community’s reaction to the disabling of Decursive, for example, was unemotional; modders simply altered the mod to fit the new software requirements. In fact, up until March 2009, modders had, for four years, reacted to the add–on system changes without complaint.

Software changes state clearly what forms of modding are authorized by the company (see also Burk, this issue). As modders develop new mods that threaten product quality, software changes can control undesirable effects. Software changes can also enable new types of mods, if new and beneficial possibilities are identified by modders or by Blizzard. This way, the evolution of mods and the software changes are a concrete form of negotiation, in programming terms, between the company and the modders, as each develops code that suggests a new path forward to the other. Mutually exclusive values in different concrete situations can thus, in a way, be reconciled, without the need for one to succumb to the other. End of article


About the authors

Yong Ming Kow is investigating modding communities as a subset of the emerging new media culture. His other works, co–authored with Bonnie Nardi (advisor), include a book chapter on cultures of modding communities in the U.S. and China, and on the new media construction of distorted images of the Chinese gold farmer (forthcoming in First Monday). His research interests include creativity and the new media, cross–cultural research methodology, anthropology in design, and network analysis. Yong Ming is currently working on his Ph.D. dissertation at the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine.
E–mail: mail [at] kowym [dot] com

Bonnie Nardi is a professor in the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of many scientific books and articles concerning technology in human activity. Her most recent book is My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft (University of Michigan Press, 2010).
E–mail: nardi [at] uci [dot] edu



We thank the National Science Foundation and the Intel Corporation for their generous support of the research. We thank the anonymous reviewers and Edward Zhang for their helpful comments on early versions of the paper. We thank Dan Burk for discussions that helped us understand the legal context of our work. Cairenn has been exceptional in providing access to members of modding communities. We are also indebted to Cogwheel, ZorbaThut, Mundocani, AnduinLothar, and Xinhuan. We can never thank enough all the modders who have contributed to a vibrant culture on the Internet.



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Editorial history

Paper received 8 April 2010; accepted 17 April 2010.

Creative Commons License
“Who owns the mods?”
by Yong Ming Kow and Bonnie Nardi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Who owns the mods?
by Yong Ming Kow and Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 5 - 3 May 2010