Skyrim mod drama gets ugly with allegations of stolen code and misappropriated donations

The people who volunteer their time modifying and updating old games are among the most generous of developers. So when drama erupts theres not just irritation and testy emails but a sense of a community being betrayed or taken advantage of. A recent conflict over work on the perennially renewed classic Skyrim may seem small, but for those involved, its a huge upset.
I dont mean to make a bigger deal out of this niche issue than it is; I feel though that sometimes its important to elevate things not because they are highly important in and of themselves, but because they represent a class of small injustices or conflicts that are rife on the modern web.
The example today comes from the Skyrim modding community, which creates all kinds of improvements for the classic fantasy adventure, from new items and better maps to complete overhauls. Its one of the most active out there, as Bethesda not only is highly tolerant of modders but tends to ship games, if were honest, in pretty poor shape. Modders have taken to filling in the gaps left by Bethesda and making the original game far better than how it shipped.
Skyrim mod drama gets ugly with allegations of stolen code and misappropriated donations
One of the more useful of these mods, for developers but indirectly for players, is the Skyrim Script Extender, or SKSE. It basically allows for more complex behaviors for objects, locations and NPCs. How do you have a character seek shelter from the rain if theres no weather-based behaviors in their original AI? That sort of thing (though thats an invented example). SKSE goes back a long way and the creators provide much of the code for others to use under a free license, while declining donations themselves.
Another project is Skyrim Together (ST), a small team that since 2013 has (among others) been working on adding multiplayer functionality to the game their Patreon account, in contrast, is pulling in more than $30,000 a month. The main dev there allegedly independently distributed a modified version of SKSE several years ago against the terms of the license, and was henceforth specifically banned from using SKSE code in the future.
Guess what SKSEs lead found in a bit of code inspection the other day?
Skyrim mod drama gets ugly with allegations of stolen code and misappropriated donations
Yes, unfortunately, it seems that SKSE code is in the ST app, not only in violation of the license as far as not giving credit, but in that the dev himself has been barred from using it, and furthermore that although there is some debate here the ST team is essentially charging for access to a closed beta. Some say that its just a donation they ask for, but requiring a donation is really indistinguishable from charging for something.
A response from the devs downplayed the issue; they say its just a bit of old junk in the codebase:
There might be some leftover code from them in there that was overlooked when we removed it, it isnt as simple as just deleting a folder, mainly our fault because we rushed some parts of the code. Anyway we are going to make sure to remove what might have slipped through the cracks for the next patch.
Instead of SKSE, one developer said, they had substituted other code, for instance from the project libSkyrim. But as others quickly pointed out, libSkyrim is based on SKSE and theres no way they could be ignorant of that fact. So the assertion that they werent using the forbidden code doesnt really hold water. Not only that, but ST doesnt even credit libSkyrim at all, a standard practice when you reuse code.
This wouldnt really be as big of a problem if ST was not only making quite a bit of scratch off their project via donations, but required donations for access to the code. That arguably makes it a commercial project, putting it even further outside the bounds of code reuse.
Now, taking the hard work of open and semi-open source developers and using it in other projects is encouraged in fact, its kind of the point. But its meant to be a collaboration, and the rules are there to make sure credit goes where its due.
I dont think the ST people are villains; theyre working on something many players are interested in using and paying for, if the Patreon is any indication. Thats great, and its what the mod community is all about. But as in any group of developers, respectful and mutual acknowledgement is expected and valued.
Honesty is important here because its not always possible to audit someone elses code. And honesty is also important because users want to be able to trust developers for a variety of reasons not least of which that they are donating to a project working in good faith. That trust was shaken here.
As I said at the beginning, I dont mean to make this a huge deal. No one is getting rich (though even split 10 ways, $33,000 a month is nothing to sniff at), and no one is getting hurt. But I imagine theres hardly an open-source project out there that hasnt had to police others use of their code or live in fear of someone cashing in on something theyve donated their time to for years.
Heres hoping this particular tempest in a teapot resolves happily; but dont forget, there are a lot more teapots where this one came from.
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