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Why the Hasbro Lawsuit Should Terrify Game Developers

Hasbro has filed suit against a number of small developers. Information about the suit can be found here. This lawsuit is a threat not only to the small companies involved, but to all of us in the game development industry. It is a disservice to the game playing public, and a potential disaster for game developers. We need to find out all we can about this lawsuit, because it could affect our ability to write the games of our choice in the future.

A little history

Many of us remember fondly the classic arcade games of the early 80's. Those games ruled the market for a few years, and then faded away, to be replaced by other genres which became fashionable. In many cases, the games were not upgraded or sold by the original manufacturers for years. Trademarks were ignored and left undefended. Hundreds of versions of games like Pac Man and Asteroids were developed by amateurs and professionals over the past two decades, and this was all but ignored by the original developers.

Then through hard work, clever marketing and original code, retro games became hip again. Like bell bottoms and tie dye, old fashioned twitch games experienced a resurgence. This trend was noticed by Hasbro, who tried to cash in on it in the eleventh hour. In 1998 they bought the rights to old Atari arcade games. They then took steps to force everybody else out of the market so they could own it themselves.

Hasbro has filed lawsuits alleging several companies violated their copyrights by selling games similar to those they just bought the rights to less than two years ago.

But... some of those games really do look similar.

Of course they do. Lots of games look similar to lots of other games. There are thousands of games out there and only about a dozen are truly original. Does this make it right? As a matter of fact, yes, it does. The game industry is dynamic. It is constantly growing. Innovation comes from all corners. Old ideas are improved upon and new ideas are added in. Without this kind of incremental development, there would be no games industry.


Who do copyright laws protect, anyway?

I am not a lawyer, so don't take this as legal advice. Copyright laws were not designed to prevent copying. Rather they were designed to codify legal rights with certain goals in mind: to preserve competition, to encourage innovation, and to reward authors for their labors. (See LPF article).

Outlawing the incremental growth of game genres does not meet those goals. In fact, if Hasbro's suit prevails and this case sets a precedent, the opposite will take place. Small development houses will be acquired or squashed, monopolistic corporate behemoths will eventually own all the rights to all games. Competition will disappear, prices will go up, and innovations will stall. This is not in keeping with the spirit or the intention of the copyright laws.

Are game rules protected by copyright?

Again, I am not a lawyer. But from my understanding, case law and copyright treatise would indicate no. Copyrights protect implementations, not ideas. The line between ideas and implementations is not always well defined, but in the case of games, it is widely held that rules and game play are not copyrightable.

What is at stake?

Only the future of the game industry as we know it. Think of it this way. All first-person shooters follow in the path of Wolfenstein 3D. What if id Software claimed a copyright on the game elements, and no other company could ever write a first-person shooter unless they wanted to pay royalties to id. What would we all do then? Give up? Try to think of some other kind of game to write? Buy John Carmack another car?

Don't think it is far-fetched. This is exactly the principle that is at stake in this case. It would mean that no person could ever write a game that was even remotely similar to a game written by anybody else. It would be the death of innovation in the game industry.

So what can we do?

Law or no law, this is our industry. It is a simple fact: there would be no computer game industry without the game developers. We have some say in the way things happen here. We don't need to be passive observers. We can form opinions, and we can take action. We can take steps to shape the industry into something we can live with. Here are some ideas.

  • Public Opinion Counts

    Hasbro has a public to please, stockholders to answer to, managers to mollify, editors to entice, and a corporate reputation to maintain. No company wants bad publicity. But sometimes a company really, truly earns it.

  • Spread the Word

    Talk about it in newsgroups and discussion forums. Let your thoughts be heard. Take it public, and do it loud.

  • Figure it Out

    Dig for the truth. Look up the laws and precedents. Look at the games in question. Are they clones? Are they different enough to be unique? How do their differences compare to differences between games in other genres? Where do we think the line should be drawn?

  • Tie a Green Ribbon

    The Green Ribbon campaign is was recently launched right here on a hosted site at GameDev.net. Put a green ribbon on your web site. Encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.

  • Send a Message

    Write to Hasbro. Let them know what you think. Circulate petitions. Write articles. Make web sites. Make sure Hasbro knows what you are doing. Don't let them think they are going to get through this unscathed.

This is our industry. Hasbro is a toy company, with a toy company mentality. Their lawyers are toy company lawyers. Are these the people we want setting policy for the computer games industry? I don't think so!

The game development community is chaotic and tumultuous, but it is not fragmented. We are a tightly-bound group, in constant communication with each other and sharing common interests. Hasbro has put itself outside the game developer community, and this strategy will backfire on them. We have the brains, the strength in numbers, and the resources to fight this. It is up to us now. Let's take it to the streets.

About the author:

Diana Gruber is senior programmer at Ted Gruber Software, Inc., and author of a number of books, articles, and web pages. She invites you to visit her website at makegames.com.

This article reflects the opinions of its author, and does not necessarily represent the position or opinions of GameDev.net, LLC or it's ownership, staff, or affiliates.

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