Intellectual property

Why did Disney and the cops shut down a fan-run ‘Club Penguin’ site?

‘Club Penguin Rewritten’ allegedly has violated copyright for years, so users wonder what’s behind the recent arrests of three people.

Club Penguin Rewritten Wiki

Over the last five years, Club Penguin Rewritten — a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) founded and run by fans — has been a wholesome home for both children and adults to interact. At last count, it boasted more than 11 million accounts.

The original Club Penguin game — in which players portraying penguins would waddle around an ice-capped world — was launched in 2005 and purchased by Disney in 2007 for a whopping $700 million.

“The Disney acquisition was amazing for Club Penguin’s growth,” Lance Priebe, one of the founders of the game, tells Input. “Disney and the team were able to bring Club Penguin to the world and add [plush] toys.” But Disney closed the site in March 2017, citing declining user numbers. Disney's subsequent attempt at a mobile version, called Club Penguin Island, flopped.

For a generation of children, Club Penguin was their entry onto the internet — and they weren’t willing to let it go as adults. Launched a month before Club Penguin itself shut down, Club Penguin Rewritten (one of several fan-made alternatives) was a private server that offered much of the same functionality that the original did. Club Penguin Rewritten was a way to preserve cherished online memories without the fear of closure at the whims of a private, profit-focused company like Disney.

Or so people thought.

On April 13, users expecting to visit the usual colorful world of Club Penguin Rewritten were suddenly confronted with something altogether different: The site had literally gone dark. The logo of the City of London Police sat at the top of the website, and underneath it was a stark message: “This site has been taken over by Operation Creative, Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU).”

Detective Constable Daryl Fryatt of the City of London Police confirms to Input that three people were arrested on April 12 and subsequently released under investigation on suspicion of distributing materials infringing copyright. “Following a complaint under copyright law, PIPCU have seized a gaming website as part of an ongoing investigation into the site,” Fryatt says. “To aid with the police investigation, they agreed to sign over the website to the control of PIPCU.” Fryatt would not confirm the identities or ages of those arrested.

At the same time, the platform’s Discord server went silent, with a single message on the community saying it was “shutting down effective immediately due to a full request by Disney.” The Discord and Club Penguin Rewritten admins said in the message that they had voluntarily ceded control of the website to the police so that the authorities could continue their copyright investigation. (It’s not clear why action was taken in London.)

“There’s no question about ‘Club Penguin Rewritten’ infringing on [Disney] property.”

Neither of the site’s two administrators at the time of its closure, who went by the usernames stu and Thorn, were available to comment. Thorn has deleted their Discord profile, while stu’s is configured to not accept messages from people who were not their friends on Discord (while not accepting new friend requests). A third person associated with Club Penguin Rewritten, Gravix, listed as a developer on the site, declined to speak to Input, claiming he is underage. However, he did confirm that he was not arrested as part of what was dubbed Operation Creative.

“No one really knows why they’ve chosen this moment to take down Club Penguin Rewritten,” says Torres 126, an 18-year-old Club Penguin Rewritten enthusiast from the U.K. who first started playing the original game in 2010. He’s the founder of Club Penguin Mountains, a website that covers all the developments in the Club Penguin space. “It caught a lot of people off-guard,” he adds.

Initially, Club Penguin Rewritten’s website design and features were coopted from the original. (Rewritten has since introduced new elements to the game.) “There’s no question about Club Penguin Rewritten infringing on [Disney] property in that sense,” Torres 126 admits. But he questions why Disney decided to act at all. “They’re not profiting off the Club Penguin IP,” he says, pointing to the fact that Disney has not used the brand name in years.

‘A cash grab’

One reason that Club Penguin Rewritten may have drawn the attention of Disney and police is the way the game has changed. While Disney may not be currently profiting off the Club Penguin IP, those running the fan-made versions appeared to have been.

Lost Mitten, a 20-year-old user, joined the game in April 2017. “It had all of the things that made Club Penguin special,” Lost Mitten says. “Every day, people were streaming and releasing videos, and because of this, I became heavily involved in the Club Penguin Rewritten YouTube community.” He went on to meet up with fellow Club Penguin Rewritten YouTubers and players IRL.

But things changed in mid-2020. “I felt like the game shifted from being a healthy, tight-knit community to more of a cash grab,” Lost Mitten says. “As if the game wasn’t already covered with ads, CPR added a button for watching ads that would reward you with coins or items.” The administrators of the site purportedly purchased a house using ad revenue from the game, angering many in the community.

“At what point does it not become a hobby? At what point is it a profitable enterprise, or a criminal enterprise?”

“Around this time, several staff members resigned after being treated poorly by their superiors,” Lost Mitten claims. “All of this combined made the game feel incredibly artificial. When I log on to the game now, I hardly recognize anyone because most of the original community members have left. At this point, I feel like Club Penguin Rewritten's closure has been long overdue.”

Torres 126 worries that Disney’s draconian response to Club Penguin Rewritten will have a chilling effect on any other fan-run alternatives such as New Club Penguin. “There’s very much a feeling that these aren’t going to last,” he says. “I think it’s very unlikely that any form of Club Penguin will seriously carry on past the next few months. It’s sending a message: ‘If you’re on a private server, people will come after you in a way they didn’t before.’”

He points out that any Club Penguin knockoff sites should be asking a couple of simple questions: “At what point does it not become a hobby? At what point is it a profitable enterprise, or a criminal enterprise?”

The dream is over

Club Penguin cofounder Priebe has mixed feelings about fan server remakes such as Club Penguin Rewritten. “I think it is amazing how passionate the community is and how they want to keep Club Penguin alive,” he says. But he’s also concerned about issues of child safety on those servers.

The BBC reported in May 2020 that Disney forced Club Penguin Online, a separate fan clone of Club Penguin, to close after an undercover investigation highlighted a range of inappropriate content accessible to children. (Conscious of those risks, the administrators of Club Penguin Rewritten reportedly launched 24/7 moderation for its version of the world.)

As for the legal action Disney has taken against the latest and most popular fan-made iteration? Priebe chooses his words carefully: “I believe the community has clearly demonstrated that they would like Club Penguin to return. I would love to see an official Club Penguin entertain a new generation of penguins.”

Others were more blunt. Another Club Penguin founder, Lane Merrifield, tweeted this criticism of Disney:

Whether Club Penguin is likely to return officially is another question altogether. Disney did not respond to a request to comment for this story. But for Torres 126, who first logged onto Club Penguin as a nine-year-old, the dream is over. When we speak on April 18, he says that he has written a farewell post to Club Penguin Mountains, the site he’s meticulously maintained for nearly a decade.

His 3,000-word post was published a day later. “I’ve always been pretty open about my attachment to Club Penguin, including in real life, and there can sometimes be a tendency to disregard it as ‘childish’ or ‘just another game,’” he wrote. “Many of us will know both of those things to be false…

Club Penguin was a source of connection, even for people who had never met before,” Torres 126 continued, “and I hope that’s helped bring even a little bit of comfort for you when you’ve most needed it.”