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Indie iPhone Devs Feel the Copyright Wrath

The count of copyright holders pressuring games off of the iTunes App Store continues to increase as Atari gets in on the action.

Still the best version.
Apple's App Store, which delivers free and paid applications to iPhone and iPod Touch users, is a really entertaining thing to watch. It's especially interesting as games have, for perhaps the first time in Apple's history, become a driving source of revenue. At the moment, 17 of the top 25 commercial applications currently available are games. The big publishers like Sega, EA, and THQ are represented with games like Super Monkey Ball, Spore Origins, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, while you're starting to see more and more smaller game development operations popping up, as well.

These single-person "teams" are running into a bit of trouble, though, when it comes to games that are an awful lot like real, commercial products. And, as you might expect, the license holders of the games being cloned (or, you might say being "used as inspiration") are doing what they can to clamp down.

The most famous example is a game called Tris, a Tetris clone developed by Noah Witherspoon. The free app was, you know, Tetris. So it didn't take too long before The Tetris Company came knocking. As a guy and not a company, it wasn't realistic for Witherspoon to put up a fight, so he pulled the game. I'm no lawyer, but I watch enough Law & Order to think that it was the name of the game--which would certainly cause "confusion in the marketplace" when compared to the official, $9.99 version of the game--that caused the problem. There are a billion free Tetris clones out there that TetrisCorp hasn't cracked down on... yet.

Blocks, diamonds, digging, Rockford.
The second case that I caught wind of over on recently launched iPhone gaming site, Slide to Play, and it involved a blocks and diamonds digging game called Rockfall. If you had the same upbringing that I had, when you see "blocks, diamonds, digging, Rockfall" together like that you immediately think of First Star Software's Boulder Dash, starring a little dude named Rockford. This one was for sale, and the developer, a guy named Jason Wright, freely admitted that the game was "inspired by" First Star's game.

Now, Touch Arcade has the story on Atari getting into the legal pressure game, with three Breakout clones, BreakClassic, BreakTouch 3D, and Super Pong 2, in the company's crosshairs.

This stuff pulls me in both directions. On one hand, a lot of these guys are just, you know, guys. Single individuals making games for their phone. That's pretty cool. On top of that, all of these games have been cloned to death on other platforms without much of a stink from the copyright holders. So it seems like the companies are playing the heavy, just pressuring out the little guys because they're willing to bet that they won't get much resistance.

On the other hand, as soon as you start selling your clone of a classic game, you're effectively making money off of something that isn't yours. Just because it's old doesn't automatically make it fair game. In some cases, some simple name changes would probably do the trick, if only to make it harder to people to confuse it for an official product. But again, I'm not Sam Waterston, so don't take this as legal advice.

So what do you think? Are the companies evil for going after individuals? Or are these developers total thieves that shouldn't be making games that aren't theirs in the first place?
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
14 Comments
Posted by Jeff
Still the best version.
Apple's App Store, which delivers free and paid applications to iPhone and iPod Touch users, is a really entertaining thing to watch. It's especially interesting as games have, for perhaps the first time in Apple's history, become a driving source of revenue. At the moment, 17 of the top 25 commercial applications currently available are games. The big publishers like Sega, EA, and THQ are represented with games like Super Monkey Ball, Spore Origins, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, while you're starting to see more and more smaller game development operations popping up, as well.

These single-person "teams" are running into a bit of trouble, though, when it comes to games that are an awful lot like real, commercial products. And, as you might expect, the license holders of the games being cloned (or, you might say being "used as inspiration") are doing what they can to clamp down.

The most famous example is a game called Tris, a Tetris clone developed by Noah Witherspoon. The free app was, you know, Tetris. So it didn't take too long before The Tetris Company came knocking. As a guy and not a company, it wasn't realistic for Witherspoon to put up a fight, so he pulled the game. I'm no lawyer, but I watch enough Law & Order to think that it was the name of the game--which would certainly cause "confusion in the marketplace" when compared to the official, $9.99 version of the game--that caused the problem. There are a billion free Tetris clones out there that TetrisCorp hasn't cracked down on... yet.

Blocks, diamonds, digging, Rockford.
The second case that I caught wind of over on recently launched iPhone gaming site, Slide to Play, and it involved a blocks and diamonds digging game called Rockfall. If you had the same upbringing that I had, when you see "blocks, diamonds, digging, Rockfall" together like that you immediately think of First Star Software's Boulder Dash, starring a little dude named Rockford. This one was for sale, and the developer, a guy named Jason Wright, freely admitted that the game was "inspired by" First Star's game.

Now, Touch Arcade has the story on Atari getting into the legal pressure game, with three Breakout clones, BreakClassic, BreakTouch 3D, and Super Pong 2, in the company's crosshairs.

This stuff pulls me in both directions. On one hand, a lot of these guys are just, you know, guys. Single individuals making games for their phone. That's pretty cool. On top of that, all of these games have been cloned to death on other platforms without much of a stink from the copyright holders. So it seems like the companies are playing the heavy, just pressuring out the little guys because they're willing to bet that they won't get much resistance.

On the other hand, as soon as you start selling your clone of a classic game, you're effectively making money off of something that isn't yours. Just because it's old doesn't automatically make it fair game. In some cases, some simple name changes would probably do the trick, if only to make it harder to people to confuse it for an official product. But again, I'm not Sam Waterston, so don't take this as legal advice.

So what do you think? Are the companies evil for going after individuals? Or are these developers total thieves that shouldn't be making games that aren't theirs in the first place?
Posted by MrSkids

I think anything that raises awareness of where gaming came from is good.  I think people just need to be careful of treading on toes.  Iphones are bad anyway, get yourself an Atari 2600 off Ebay and bring it old school!

Posted by lamegame621

I think this makes me brain hurt. too much contemplation involved.  It's easy to understand why these companies want their royalties for what is rightfully theirs, but i dont know.

Posted by L

There's nothing that beats Tetris on a Game Boy.

Posted by DukeTogo

Hippie fuck nerds thinking "free technology" of something that's 30 years old is bullshit.  A group of dudes far more talented than you made these games before you were fucking born, and they need to get paid.  These were the "Gears of War" and "Metal Gear Solid" of the dawn of video games, age doesn't make them public domain and making money off it makes you a fucking thief.

Posted by Torb

If these little guys are actually and truly taking business from them, sure. I can't see why, if the people can make these clones so easily, they dont try to come up with their own unique quirk for their game in their defense

Posted by Brontes_Muse

I feel that indie developers have to be really innovative to get momentum in the industry.   Making a pac-man, or tetris clone, should be treated as a tutorial in game development, not a sellable product.  When I started programming I made a pac-man clone with more sophisticated AI.  I and a few of my friends played it, but that's all.  I can't put that up on the web, because I didn't come up with Pac-man, I just added to it.   There's million of idea's out there.  Just do your own if you want to make money.  

Posted by Bastion_buddy

Thieves!

Posted by TrulyAlive

Still the best version? Jeff...have you never played Strip-Tetris?
...No?
...Just me...?
...oh...

Posted by RenegadeSaint

Stealing is stealing and I don't mind companies coming down hard on these people.  The creators should use their talents to make something original.

Posted by ColinD

The idea of maintaining a specific intellectual property under a copyright protects 'little guys' from the bigger companies. When Braid was created Microsoft could have came out with a similar game called Brad. Jonathan Blow would have never been heard of and probably still in his parents basement. While I'm torn over how these developers have brought back many otherwise dead games, honoring a copyright is ultimately more important.


I don't think you would want GiantBob marketing for their video game website. (Despite the fact that GiantBob.com does already exists in a very scary way.)
Posted by ahoodedfigure

The way I think about it is what it does for game innovation, and how it protects the work of designers. 

I'm totally for an author nailing someone for plagiarizing their writing, or a musical artist going after someone who copied their song, and games have, for a long time, been subject to very lax standards when it comes to copying.  Games in general, I believe, have been treated as second class when it comes to creators.  This goes for all games, board games included, where the industry basically accepts that the rules they write for a game are going to be snapped up by competitors.  Outright copying of a game may still be prohibited (may, I might be wrong), but you can make a decent facsimile and likely get away with it.

It gets tricky when you think about how software writing has two sides to it, though.  What you see on the screen is an end result, there's a lot going on in the code that you'll likely never know.  If someone can program a clone of a game on a system that's never had it before, or they write very elegant code that totally trounces some bulky original version, this needs to be recognized too.  With writing and singing, what you take in is what's there.  There's thought behind it, but thought is never in danger of being copied (and is thus the subject of endless debate: what did the author mean when he wrote this?).  Computer programming has thought, then code, then user interface.

What they're trying to nail people for is the user interface part.

But this user interface part, when we're using the word clone, means it's a copy of something someone else designed.  It's what matters to most of the people who see it, it's what drives the games market (though I have strong appreciation for anyone now who can code a game that doesn't force you to upgrade one's damned hard drive).

In this particular instance it's more about guys who own the properties (that others created a long time ago) are having their properties copied, and those copies are pulling money away from them, so they are finding a way to stop this.  The effect is it stifles innovation of this particular game's concept, but since we're all concentrating on the fifty versions of tetris there are out there, it also suggests that innovation of games as a whole is slowed down when people are still producing breakout games.  Really, how hard would it be to add some sort of feature to make it different?

The sticky problem with this is not so much that people are copying games, though.   Would a graphical overlay be enough (how many first person shooters copy each other, and just cover this up with different graphics? how many of them really innovate?  They try, but I'd say a good number fail), or maybe adding a new feature or two?

As long as we're talking straight clones, like 100% copies including misleading titles that make you think it's made by the original property holders, and exact graphics there'd be no question that the market is set up to stop this, even if the code is more elegant.  But how much do we have to change a game to make it unique? 

I guess I should just put this on my blog.

Posted by Anders

Making a game that plays exactly like an older game should be A OK. Ripping graphics, or naming it in a way that potentially makes people think it is the original shouldn't be.

I mean come on, pretty much every shooter has the same mechanics, with a few minor changes at best. Same goes for most genres of games. Its the content in the game that is relevant and not the mechanics.

Posted by vinull

You cannot copyright the rules of a game - a fact lost among these heavy weight bullies.  One mans Uno is another man's Crazy 8's.

So long as these games don't use the name or it's likeness (which would be trademark, not copyright) or use game assets like images from the older game (I won't say original because that let's you think Atari invented breakout from thin air) it's fine.

It's the fact apple as demonstrated it will delete/block/ban apps it just doesn't like that has the fat cats looking for a captive audience.

BTW - copyright is not theft or stealing.  To steal you have to take away the original, not take a picture of it.

Last, a point missed by the GiantBomb crew in the spore DRM podcast talk, is that these games and even "piracy" has only ever been shown to increase sales.  People who downloaded from music from Napster bought more CDs than those who didn't.  Sharing games among friends back when we used a Xerox to copy manuals got us buying more overall games.   If someone had data to show it really hurt sales overall, I'd feel differently, when the opposite is shown to be true it's hard to buy these claims.