Private servers being shut down is nothing new, and as much as players like to discuss the legality of them, at the end of the day they are illegal. Now, being illegal and warranting action are two separate things. Lawyers cost a lot of money (generally around $500 an hour), so paying a lawyer to draft up a threat against little Timmy’s private WoW server that peaks at twenty people who don’t pay anything and crashes every couple of hours makes no sense from a business perspective, and odds are neither Timmy nor his friends on the server are going to just go and start paying for WoW afterwards.
It is this idea that directly corresponds to why you see only certain servers shut down, and generally they fit into two categories: Massive amount of users and profit. You may see developers shut down the private servers with the most amount of players, and that is likely because, unlike Timmy’s server, they can presume a number of those players will indeed go back to playing regular WoW, owing to a newfound belief that any large server will be inevitably shut down and their progress gone. Free servers rarely see the ire of the developer, as they can be somewhat seen as free advertising: a lower quality version to incite people into paying for the full product.
Servers that make profit, either through charging subscriptions or introducing cash shops, are the type that are most likely to face litigation, and this is exactly what happened in the case of Scapegaming. In the case of this lawsuit, launched in October 2009, the operator of the server (Allyson Reeves) was operating a microtransaction system on her server, and according to the lawsuit managed to accrue more than $3 million in fees from players.
I will admit that the extra $80 million or so that the judge slapped on for willful infringement is a little exaggerated, and unfortunately it is required by law and will be appealed (and most likely reduced), but it takes a lot of stones to set up a server you know is already legally dubious, and then go ahead and start making a profit off of it.
More on WoW as it appears.