Thursday, April 12, 2012

Good News for Small Developers: Crowdfunding in the JOBS Act

As we discussed recently, today’s gaming market has ample opportunities for independent developers. There is distribution across multiple consoles, personal computers, and smartphones. Development costs for a top-tier title on the Xbox360 may prevent a start-up company from competing, but you do not have to push the graphics to the limit to find an audience. While indie game development might be cheaper, it is not free. If you do not have money to finance your project, what are your options?

Many people have been looking to the crowd. “Crowdfunding" is a variation on crowdsourcing. The idea is elegant, simple, and well suited for the internet. Rather than taking inputs from just a few sources, crowdsourcing casts a wide net. By receiving feedback from many individuals, you are more likely to arrive at a better solution. As internet connectivity has proliferated, people have taken this basic concept and applied it to many different situations.

It has been used in public safety. In the aftermath of the devastating Haiti earthquake, geographic information systems experts and programmers pooled their efforts to build working maps of ground level conditions. During the recent civil unrest in the Middle East, journalists looked to the crowd on sources like Twitter to place their coverage in context. Tracking the crowd is also being applied to global development, as experts hope it can forecast shifts in commodity prices and economic conditions.

Crowdfunding works by gathering funds by receiving smaller amounts of cash from many people rather than big contributions from just a few. President Barack Obama famously looked to the crowd for a significant portion of his 2008 campaign financing. Comedian Louis C.K. made $1.1 million from a stand up special financed by the crowd, and other creatives are following his lead. For those without an established audience, there are sites like Kickstarter where people with ideas can propose a project and receive crowdfunding. Recent successful proposals have included REM dreaming sleep masks, an encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes, and a side-scrolling adventure game. There have been some very famous projects in both the game and tech space.

While Kickstarter and similar sites offer incentives for funders, such as a personalized copy of the project, post cards, or exclusive content, they do not offer ownership. By opening your e-wallet to an idea that looks good to you, you receive no share or stake in their success, other than a name in the credits (which brings no financial benefits). With the recent passage of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Strength) Act, that could change. The new law has numerous regulatory adjustments meant to help small businesses get access to capital. It works to make private capital formation simpler, and reduce the administrative burden for a fledgling business looking to go public.

A particularly exciting portion of the law shows that Congress has been watching crowdfunding, and believes it could provide the economy a shot in the arm. The JOBS Act amends the Securities Act, allowing a company that does not register with the SEC to raise up to $1 million in a year. There are a few requirements to qualify. First, if the interest sold exceeds $1 million, the company no longer qualifies. Second, there are limits to the amount a company can receive from individual investors. If a funding party has a net worth or annual income less than $100,000, they cannot provide more than $2,000 or 5% of their annual income or net worth. If an investor earns more than $100,000 a year or has a net worth above that number, they cannot invest more than 10% of their income or net worth.

The JOBS Act also requires that a company seeking investment through this exemption to use a broker or funding portal, similar to Kickstarter, and has a series of basic guidelines for the broker or funding portal. They have to register with the SEC, provide necessary disclosures to investors, and perform due diligence on companies seeking investment. They may only provide funds once the target is reached. They must protect investor privacy, avoid conflicts of interest, and make sure any individual investments do not exceed the limits described above. The Act also requires that companies seeking investment limit their advertising, file a disclosure document with the SEC, avoid undisclosed compensation for promoting the offering, and provide the SEC with an annual report. (This is a brief digest, but the law firm Akin Gump has released a much more detailed explanation.)

Why does this matter? Looking over these regulatory adjustments, the law recognizes the potential of crowdfunding and shifts the burden away from the company seeking investment and towards the processor of investments, be it a broker or a funding portal. For a small company looking to get the ball rolling, this is a big deal. Companies will still have to make sure they are keeping their financial statements in line and being very careful with investor funds: that does not change. But by relaxing these registration regulations, a growing company can let a broker or funding portal do the heavy administrative lifting. This makes sense. As a company that handles investments for a lot of different companies, a broker or portal will already be familiar with how to navigate the SEC and can remove a lot of anxiety, stress, and time for someone who needs crowdfunding. It also gives creators an alternative to bootstrapping or asking friends and family for investments. It may be an intermediate step before seeking angel funds, or a viable alternative to traditional angel investors. It is a much needed step for early entrepreneurship to have access to this kind of capital.

These regulations could support a huge variety of crowd-funded projects, including games. As long as a company was looking for under $1 million within 12 months and obeyed the individual investor limits, they could receive support from many different everyday investors instead of a few big ones. This also creates an incentive for investors. Kickstarter is great, but what if the rewards such as a copy of a game are not interesting to you? The JOBS Act means you could end up with a stake in the success of a particular project, or the company as a whole. There will likely be a lot of flexibility in what is crowdfunded and how these opportunities are structured and offered by the crowd portals. See a proposal for a game you think is the next big thing, and believe that the developers can make it a reality? By getting in on the ground floor, you could see a financial return if the project succeeds.

There are caveats. Although this law has passed, it still needs to be interpreted by the SEC in light of its current regulations. There is strong bipartisan support for the law, so it is unlikely the SEC will throw any curveballs. Still, always better to wait for the agency to make a statement before plowing ahead. Also, anyone who chooses to invest in a project should do their homework and make sure they are not over committing themselves. Investments of all kinds have risks, and crowdfunding does not change this fact. Funding portals will need to decide whether they are comfortable crossing into the area of providing a real public offering. Some companies might think it is too much trouble and stick with the Kickstarter “reward" model.

Still, it is exciting to see legislative acknowledgement of a technological tool that has been applied in fascinating ways around the world. The crowd has come to the rescue many times over the last few years, and now it could be used to finance the next great indie game.

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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dallas IGDA - Crowdfunding and Kickstarter

For anyone in the Dallas area, the Dallas IGDA is hosting an event on crowdfunding and Kickstarter on April 11, at the Fox and Hound in Richardson. More details can be found here. Please feel free to come out and join us if you can!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Your Nostalgia, While Charming, Is Illegal: the Problem with Fan Remakes

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.