Some experiences are hard to reproduce. Things come along at a unique moment in your life and make an indelible mark on your brain. They become a standard by which you measure every other piece of art in that genre. There are albums that will always remind you of a wonderful summer, books that evoke the magic of new ideas, or paintings that give you life changing beauty. Revisiting art of this caliber can fuel you. It can inspire new creations, or place others in context. Truly special work is flexible, durable, and available for appreciation across generations.
Great video games are no different. Among RPG fans, there is a contingent that pines for the mid-to-late 90s, a golden era of console gaming. The genre was moving away from card tables in basements and into living rooms. The development art was incredible. Storytelling shifted from standard fantasy templates, to nuanced epics. Plots touched on mature themes like religion, corruption, and death. This reverence inspires animated adaptations, sequels, and re-releases.
Some take their fandom further. When it comes to fan-fiction, (writers using the original games’ plots to create sequels, alternate realities, and etc.,) rights-holders generally look the other way. (The Wikipedia article on the topic is not authoritative, but gives a good broad look at the issues.) First, fan-fiction is traditionally free. The writers do not make money. They just want to share their appreciation for the source material with others. The other problem with legal action against fan fiction is public relations. Someone who takes the time to write because of your work will be one of your biggest supporters, until you sue them.
Attempting to port, update, or create your own version of an existing game is not similarly tolerated. 1UP posted last week about an HD remake of Chrono Trigger. (Mark previously covered the related issue of fan sequels on Joystiq.) A group of programmers previously attempted to publish Chrono Resurrection in 2004. Everything was going fine, until they received a cease and desist letter from Square Enix. 1UP reached out to Mark and asked about Chrono Trigger HD. They wanted to know, what type of legal difference does it make if the programmers do not attach their names to the project or make a website? As he said, none, it is illegal. We will discuss this type of creation, a derivative work, and the options available for fans to keep things on the up and up.
Derivative works are an important branch of copyrightable material. They are based upon one or more already existing copyrightable works, and can include “translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgement, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted." That was a mouthful, so why not check out an example? If Halo is the copyrighted work, then the (late, lamented) film version is derivative, as is Red vs. Blue.
Protecting this class of copyrighted works provides a powerful incentive for people to create, because the rewards from creating are not limited to the work itself. If you find an audience, you have the option of expanding your creation into different genres, or continuing your story or universe in sequels. On the other hand, you can choose to not expand. Some people want to make a game and brand it on everything from paper plates to mobile apps. Some people do not. If you own a copyrighted work, it is your choice, and no one else’s. The absence of a lunchbox displaying your creation does give people the right to fill that hole in the market.
Since Chrono Trigger HD would be a derivative work, we will look at a case where the concept was applied to the gamespace, Lewis Galoob v Nintendo. Nintendo was unhappy with Galoob’s very popular Game Genie. For our younger readers, the Game Genie was a cartridge made for the Nintendo and other systems with a slot to insert another game. Once you turned on your console, the game would be ‘unlocked,’ allowing you to skip levels, gain invincibility, and so on. Previous cases had established that video games were copyrightable, so Nintendo hoped they could nip this type of modification in the bud, and maintain tight control over their products.
The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and concluded the Game Genie did not violate Nintendo’s copyrights. The court compared it to someone buying a book and then reading ahead to the end, or skipping to the credits of a movie. Just because your work is copyrightable does not give you unlimited control over how your customers use it. As Judge Fern M. Smith put it, “Having paid Nintendo a fair return, the customer may experiment with the product and create new variations of play, for personal enjoyment, without creating a derivative work." Since Nintendo had received a preliminary injunction banning sales of the Game Genie during the lawsuit, Galoob received $15 million along with legal fees.
While this gave some breathing room for the Game Genie, it is not a green light for Chrono Trigger HD. Galoob’s product allowed end-users to tweak their console titles without permanently altering the game. That is fundamentally different than releasing an upgraded version of an old title with better graphics. Nor does it help that the would-be programmers will not be selling their work at retail. Allowing that to be determinative of liability would be unfair to the creators. If they ever decided to release an HD port, their market would be harmed by the existence of a free version.
Keeping things anonymous and not building a website does not change the situation. It would certainly slow down the process of enforcement. But as Mark pointed out, Square Enix has other options available to protect their work. Cease and desist letters could be served on hosting companies, catching innocent users in the crossfire. That brings up a larger point about the direction of gaming culture and the internet at large. Torrents are a clever, 21st century solution to the challenge of mass file distribution. They, like the cloud, have many incredible legal uses.
They can be abused, and everybody gets hurt when that happens. Yes, it is frustrating to feel a company has let a title you love lie fallow. Many gamers have daydreamed about how they would make their favorites better. But trying to sidestep the law by torrenting an illegal derivative version shows why many rights holders are queasy about new file sharing techniques. The internet went crazy over the Stop Online Privacy Act. You could not go anywhere without being told, in all caps, that the law would turn the web into a police state or break the Internet completely.
If you think those types of laws are heavy handed, then please do not use torrents to share an illegal game. Every time we see BitTorrent and unlawful activity associated in the same sentence, it is a step backward for the technology. If you miss the golden era of 16-bit gaming, why not get together with some friends and make a title of your own? The market is there, as Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Store have shown. Legitimate distribution options are reasonably open; from Steam, to iOS and Android, to the Xbox Live Arcade Indie Marketplace, there is no shortage of ways to get a creation out there. To be blunt, if you are talented enough to make Chrono Trigger HD, you are talented enough to make an original game.
Many share your frustration that developers have not taken full advantage of their old games or localized every game overdue for translation. Using means that highlight the unsavory uses of useful technology is not a solution. In fact, recent examples like The Last Story show that developers and publishers may be listening now more than they ever have been in the past. Move forward, not backward.
Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A third year student at George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.