Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children? Oklahoma Lawmakers Offer Sane Response to Silly Law

Video games have come a long way. Within decades, they have gone from a fringe hobby to a major industry. But as sales increased and the market expanded, small and significant debates took place. As a child, your parents are gatekeepers between you and the world at large. If you had your preference, you might wear a motorcycle helmet and a clown suit to school, eat candy for lunch, and train the dog to do your chores.

But, you do not have your preference. The adults in your life make decisions on the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and your behavior. For as long as video games have been around, those same adults have decided, either actively or passively, whether video games are right for their kids. If they are, they then determine what types of games are acceptable. This might have resulted in some slammed doors and harsh words over your copy of Mortal Kombat, but it was a matter to be worked out within your family, and not something left to the government.

The latest instance of legislators attempting to change that balance of power was a proposed Oklahoma tax on “violent" video games. It is “proposed," because, at present, it has been defeated in committee. The law, the ideas behind it, and the recent decisions are an opportunity to consider the status of video games as protected free speech. Brown v EMA was a huge step forward for gaming, and will be powerful precedent demanding consideration when regulation is proposed. But this debate is far from over.

For background, we should first look at what happened in Brown v EMA. (Mark did a great recap of the case on Joystiq.) California Assembly Bill 1179, passed in 2005, banned the sale of violent videogames to minors, ordering application of labels to offending titles, and fining retail employees up to $1,000 per violation. The law was struck down, first in the District Court for the Northern District of California, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case, heard arguments in November of 2010, and released their decision in June of 2011.

In upholding the lower courts, the majority (7-2) refused to consider video games the protections of the First Amendment merely because of their unique appeal to minors. It was a sweeping acknowledgement of games as expression worth protection. Decisions about what to say and how to say it “are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority." This type of legislation receives strict scrutiny, and could not survive. The State has a legitimate purpose in protecting children, but “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the speech to which children may be exposed." The interactive nature of games did not change that. Fees and penalties added up to $2 million for California.

Oklahoma House Bill 2649 proposed a 1% surtax on any video game rated Teen or higher. Proposed by Representative Will Fourkiller, the money was to support outdoor and counseling programs. On one hand, 1% would end up being about sixty cents for your average $60 game. That is not an amount of money likely to influence any buying decisions. This law was not as broad as California’s in Brown. But as people pointed out, for a law that claimed to target obesity, it would tax Get Up and Dance and Zumba Fitness 2. Both involve moving around, not sitting. Very few children buy their own video games, and for most that do they buy them with money given by their parents. The tax falls on adults, not children.

The common sense response to the proposal in the notes from the subcommittee showed skepticism on whether games deserved singling out. “Why not French fries or rap music or movies?" (At the same time especially!) It narrowly failed, 5 to 6. It may be the dissenters knew that if they ended up defending the legislation in court, it could get very expensive. But the reopening of the issue of whether there is correlation between playing video games and health problems is one worth considering.

Many things, in excess, are bad. Too much junk food is bad. So is television, and video games. But legislation designed to influence the decisions people make about these issues of child rearing have historically failed. The question of when it is appropriate for a child to consume “violent" entertainment is an important one. But ample entertainment already accessible to children is violent, as the majority noted in Brown. Involved parents make those decisions. Lawmakers have since backed out of similar proposals. It remains to be seen how other states will react.

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, March 13, 2012

Tween Pop Stars, Cartoon Animals, Parody, and the Right of Publicity

At Law of the Game, we pride ourselves on being fans of popular culture, games, and terrible puns. Imagine our glee when the following story emerged. Justin Bieber’s legal team is embroiled in a lawsuit with app developer RC3 over their game Joustin’ Beaver. The app features JB, a cartoon beaver with a stylish shag haircut and purple hooded sweatshirt. Players fight off greedy “Phot-Hogs" with a lance as they travel downstream signing “Otter-graphs." Bieber’s lawyers sent RC3 a cease and desist, claiming they had violated the pop star’s right of publicity by using his name and likeness in the game. In response, RC3 has filed suit in the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida. They are seeking declaratory judgment that their game does not infringe on Bieber’s rights, and that the app is protected as parody. To get a better idea of what is going on we will discuss the right of publicity, the Lanham Act, parody, and then examine the facts of the case.

The right of publicity will typically arise in cases involving advertising or merchandising. It is “the right of every individual to control any commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or some other identifying aspect of identity," limited by the bounds of the First Amendment. The image of a celebrity can be enormously valuable. Many companies will pay top dollar for a celebrity to associate themselves with their product. The right of publicity exists to stop people from getting a free ride on a celebrity’s name. It is important to remember there is no federal right of publicity. Nineteen states currently recognize it, although the level of protection varies. One of the strongest states is California: their Celebrities Rights Act extends it to seventy years after the death of the individual in question.

A great deal of the jurisprudence on the issue can be traced back to Elvis. After his death, mountains of “commemorative" merchandise appeared, but none of it had his estate’s endorsement. So, some courts began to acknowledge that letting places like the Franklin Mint pay bills using Elvis’s face was not fair. This has come up in the gamespace before, in cases involving Kurt Cobain in Guitar Hero 5 and the flash games involving politicians. As usual, there is no hard and fast rule for how these suits play out, they are fact specific. Mark had a good summary of the right of publicity. Think of it like a trademark for a famous person’s likeness.

Related to this is the Lanham Act, which codifies our national standards for trademark. Trademarks can be infringed when someone creates a mark that is the same or confusingly similar. This hinges on the “likelihood of confusion," or whether a consumer could see the allegedly infringing mark and assume the products or services are from the trademark owner. These cases will typically involve similar goods. For example, if you put an Apple logo on your laptops hoping they will sell faster, that is infringing.

Trademarks can also be diluted. Dilution happens when someone uses a mark “in a way that would lessen its uniqueness." Trademark dilution cases often involve unrelated goods. Considering our Apple example, this could happen if someone placed an Apple logo on a placemat. Not a related product, but still a case of someone attempting to gain commercial benefit from associating with a famous mark. The Lanham Act arose in the gamespace during 2009’s James “Jim" Brown v. Electronic Arts, Inc.. Jim Brown sued EA in the Central District of California for creating a player using his likeness in the Madden series. The court held that EA’s rights under the First Amendment “immunized" them to liability.

What about parody? Parody in trademark is fundamentally different from it in copyright. The elements are an original work, famous and known to the target audience, being used to create a new original work, but only taking so much of the source as to bring to mind the original. (You can read more about it here.) A useful way to think about it is that trademark infringement and parody are branches from the same tree. Both bring to mind a separate work and draw on the fame of that famous mark to be identifiable. What makes parody different than infringement is it takes an extra step to distinguish itself from the original. A successful attempt at trademark parody will go so far as to leave no doubt that it is a humorous take on a famous trademark. This standard gives people room to create humorous takes on trademarks, but the law also works to keep in mind the integrity of a mark and not let the parody go too far. When a parody starts inserting elements that could be considered scandalous, anyone trying to protect their trademark has a much stronger case.

Applying this web of rights and limitations to the case of Joustin’ Beaver is tricky. Taking Bieber’s perspective into account, he certainly has rights of publicity and an interest in maintaining some kind of control over his image. He is an international celebrity, and his career demonstrates that his name has value. Florida (where RC3 filed suit) does indeed have a right of publicity statute. You might remember that Lindsay Lohan sued E*TRADE for violating her right of privacy (New York’s right of publicity) and got the company to settle.

This segues into the Lanham Act issues of trademark. The offending beaver certainly uses elements of Bieber’s signature outfit (although he appears to have given up the bangs) so the outcome could depend on whether a court looks at the game and believes consumers could be misled into purchasing the game thinking that Bieber signed off on it. Considering dilution, it does not appear Bieber is attempting to market games using his likeness, so if infringement fails, his legal team could argue the game lessens the unique quality of his brand. We are still not far from filing, so it is tough to say where this will head. Maybe the suit could have been avoided entirely by placing a disclaimer on the game. (This is how Elvis impersonators can imitate the King without paying his estate.) That option could still be there, but considering how famous this case has become, it may be beyond an amicable solution.

So what about Joustin’ Beaver as trademark parody? The game certainly creates an immediate association with Bieber, evoking his famous persona. However, and this may depend on your appetite for puns, there is a solid argument to say the game goes far enough to be a humorous riff on Justin’s worldwide fame. The mop-topped beaver does bring to mind his Canadian counterpart, but it is arguable that it goes just far enough, and does not create confusion. It does not use any of his songs or other intellectual property. The game also does itself a favor by being non-controversial. There are no lascivious or scandalous elements…it is just a simple app where a beaver rides a raft down the river. This could turn on whether the court believes consumers are likely to be confused, but it seems that RC3 has a fairly strong argument here for trademark parody.

This type of celebrity-based game is not a big genre. The outcome of this case could give developers an estimate of the leeway allowed when incorporating a celebrity into their work. If RC3 can get judgment in their favor, we might see an uptick in these apps. Regardless of how this turns out, it is hard to believe this will ever be a substantial part of the industry. What makes a game truly valuable is its ability to build its own brand, not piggy back off of someone else’s. You might gain immediate recognition by association with someone or something famous, but whatever you create will always be tied to them. One of the most exciting things about the Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and mobile game markets has been the explosion of titles made by independent developers. One of the all time successes, Angry Birds, took game mechanics we have seen before but created a unique world so popular it became a Halloween costume. For a lasting presence in this industry, that will always be the way to go.

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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Zynga vs Everybody: The Battle Over Online Game Intellectual Property

As we have pointed out before, it is always useful to examine any game industry lawsuits by considering what they say about the business of buying and selling games. The longer you have been playing, the more you know how much things have changed. As the pixel count climbs upwards, so have the costs of development. It used to be possible for a few friends in a basement to build a console-quality title from scratch. Now, if you want to take full advantage of the power of the PS3 or the Xbox360, this is not realistic. Big games are now big business, with million dollar budgets and advertising campaigns to match.

That does not mean that there is no more room for the little guy. One of the biggest cost barriers to market entry is distribution, and the explosion in broadband has whittled down that block, bit by bit. Also, people have gradually figured out that a game does not need to knock your socks off with incredible graphics and effects to be popular. If people enjoy playing it, the design can be a throwback and still do quite well. The smaller development costs make such games ideal for slim, streamlined teams of programmers. And if it becomes a hit, the lower overhead means you could see a profit much quicker. The growing popularity of social media games gives you another venue to reach potential customers.

But where there is opportunity, there is bound to be competition. With competition comes conflict. At the center of many of these conflicts has been Zynga. The company has published popular games for social media and mobile phones, including Mafia Wars, FarmVille, and Words with Friends. Along the way, they have also amassed their fair share of critics, particularly smaller studios who argue that Zynga has ripped off their work. For example, see this graphic depicting similarities between NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower and Zynga’s Dream Heights. Or, this one from Buffalo making similar complaints about Zynga Bingo. But is what Zynga does illegal? Probably not. In this post, we will discuss why that is the case, and examine a pending cases with a stronger potential for success.

To understand the nature of copyright infringement, you first must grasp the difference between an idea and an expression. For example, an idea would be a “game about farming." The expression of that idea would be the game itself, complete with source code and unique graphics. Ideas are not available for copyright protection, but expressions are. (Ideas are protected by patents, which have been used to protect game designs in the past.)To summarize, you could not sue someone simply because they made a “game about farming" after you did, but if their game substantially copied your source code you would have a strong case. Our fearless leader Mark outlined a lot of these issues in interviews with Opposable Thumbs and Industry Gamers, along with a previous post on similarities between Dante’s Inferno and God of War. To put it bluntly, So many of the new social games have created their own “sub-genres" that are narrowly defined such that similarity is inevitable.

It is worth noting that copyright protects traditional board games as well as video games. Board game aficionados have created some legal resources on the issue, but the basic concept is the same. The copyright protects the expression (for example, the design of the board), not the game’s mechanics. Some of you may remember this issue in the Scrabble and Scrabulous dispute from 2008. The issue there was not only the trademark similarity, but the direct copying of the game board itself. Words with Friends avoided this design mistake, and therefore avoided an infringement suit.

Copyright law is far from perfect, but there are reasons to believe this level of protection is appropriate. Copyright is intended to serve twin goals that sometimes are in opposition. Ideally, it will reward creativity by protecting the right for creators to be compensated for their work. At the same time, it will encourage innovation, leaving room for people to experiment using work that has come before as inspiration. A great example of this dichotomy is the mechanical license. Over the history of music, one of best ways for a new artist to reach a large audience is by playing a popular song the listening public already knows, called a “cover". Some of the best covers are not direct reproductions of a classic, but instead add their own quirks and sounds to the mix. For instance, compare Pavement’s original Spit on a Stranger with Nickel Creek’s more folky take.

Where does the mechanical license come into play? Imagine you are a young, developing artist with only a little money in the bank, and the song you want to cover is by an established band. If you tried to negotiate with them directly, the bigger band would be at a huge advantage. They could either refuse to let you use their work, or make the license prohibitively expensive. The mechanical license solves this problem by allowing you to cover a copyrighted song provided you pay a set statutory rate per copy, distributed by the Harry Fox Agency. While there is not a parallel concept in the gamespace, the theme of encouraging innovation crosses into both formats. As Mark pointed out in his interview, if a game company had received intellectual property protection (patent) for the concept of a “platform game" in general, games today would be much less rich and diverse. That basic concept has been repeated (or “covered") millions of times, and the successful titles that borrowed that concept added their own innovations bit by bit.

So where could Zynga be in trouble? First, there is the case of Personalized Media Communications suing for patent infringement. A patent is very different animal, as noted above, protecting an actual idea. The subject of a patent must be the invention of a “new, useful, and non-obvious process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, and claims that right in a formal patent application." So, for Personalized Media Communications to succeed, they would need to show that Zynga treaded on their inventions that use “control and information signals embedded in electronic media content to generate output for display that is personalized and relevant to a user." We here at Law of the Game love engineers, but we are not engineers. So all we can do at the moment for this particular case is pledge to monitor it and pass along information once it has been translated for our liberal arts educations. Another case was filed by GameTek, LLC, and Mark offered some commentary on this case on Ars Technica, which you may want to take a look at. Generally speaking, as he notes, there will be a question of fact as to whether this patent was filed before the invention was used in the real world, and there is some question about the patent’s validity for this reason. More importantly, as the claims in the patent go beyond the games space, there is a potentially big impact for a victory by GameTek. It presents an interesting situation where the idea of FRAND licensing may be applied outside of the standards setting process based on the potential impact for the whole mobile app ecosystem, not to mention the potential antitrust issues, either of which may lead to compulsory licensing.

Another case that could spell trouble for Zynga is the lawsuit by SocialApps LLC. This involves the enormously popular Farmville game. SocialApps alleges that after releasing their title myFarm on Facebook in November 2008, they were approached the following spring by Zynga, apparently interested in acquiring the intellectual rights and code to their work. As part of the negotiations, SocialApps shared their source code, at which point they claim Zynga became non responsive. Zynga then released Farmville in June of 2009. In early February, the suit survived an attempt by Zynga at dismissal. If it progresses further, Zynga may be faced with the choice of either settling out of court to cut their losses, or letting it go to trial with the risk of extended bad publicity and potentially greater damages. Obviously, taking source code would likely be an infringement, and the facts of this case present that as a real possible finding.

For the indie developers without such complex claims, their best option may be exactly what they have done so far – call attention to the issue through publicity. Zynga has an enormous infrastructure and large audience in their corner, but the internet has had a long history of championing the little guy. You may draw customers your way by pointing out that you believe your work has been borrowed. As long as Zynga does well it would be unrealistic to expect their business model to change. Even in new markets with easy opportunities for entry, it is inevitable to see one party become the 800 lb gorilla. Whether Zynga has actually done anything that could hurt their status remains to be seen.

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.