Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Send In the Lawyers

Dave Cook | 16 Mar 2010 12:29
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Identity Crisis

Increasingly realistic and violent titles have always courted controversy among the press, politicians and parents. That was especially noticeable in the early '90s, when the game industry was beginning to mature and push boundaries. Along the way, it became something of a misunderstood black sheep.


Lawyers found themselves in high demand when Mortal Kombat hit the arcades in 1992. The digitized sprites of actors set a new benchmark for realism at the time, making the game's gory fatality finishers all the more controversial. But in a series of legal challenges that mimic No Doubt's falling out with Activision, it didn't take long for Mortal Kombat's ensemble cast to throw a legal uppercut in developer Midway's direction.

Actors Daniel Pesina, Philip Ahn, Elizabeth Malecki and Katalin Zamiar - Johnny Cage, Shang Tsung, Sonya Blade and Kitana, respectively - all sued Midway, along with a plethora of publishers between 1996 and 1997. While the developer had secured likeness rights for the arcade release of the original Mortal Kombat and its sequel, it forgot to do the same for the game's console versions. Luckily for Midway, the judge ruled the actors had consented to use of their likeness and that their character movements were directed and therefore owned by the developer.

While the absence of home version rights may seem like a rookie error, bear in mind that there was no previous precedent on the matter. Considering how many games employ actor likenesses today and do so by the book, the lessons learned from the Mortal Kombat case are invaluable. However, as games bearing licenses become more complex and steeped in online capability, current legislature on the matter becomes hazy.

DIY Lawsuits

The online gaming arena is still cutting its legislative teeth as MMOGs and competitive multiplayer-enabled titles continue to thrive. One unexpected side effect of these active online communities was the flood of legal activism triggered by the implementation of user-created content. Particularly well-documented were copyright issues raised by Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet.

Shortly after its launch in 2008, a torrent of user-created levels infringing on numerous intellectual property laws were uploaded into the game's databases. Players had duplicated everything from Pac-Man to Donkey Kong to Mega Man in twee Sackboy fashion. Rather than risk a legal backlash from the copyright owners, Sony conducted an aggressive, immediate cull of all illegal stages.

When the mantra of your game is unbridled creative freedom, it's only natural that users will want to exert that freedom by paying homage to their passion, including their favorite games. So when the publisher performed a U-turn and started restricting that freedom to create, they came across as a particularly nasty company. Forums quickly lit up with spleen-venting attacks from players demanding to know why their stages had been deleted without warning.

Ultimately, their tardiness with a clearly defined end-user license agreement (or EULA) was the real issue. But in the meantime, Sony had little alternative besides nipping the issue in the bud before it escalated. The real lesson here is to tighten user agreements and create an open, fair and, most importantly, transparent moderation system before a game sees launch.

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