Neither Mojang nor Bethesda wanted a lawsuit, but international copyright law is a harsh mistress.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the Mojang vs. Bethesda lawsuit, here’s a brief summary: Minecraft creator Notch wants to call his next game Scrolls. Bethesda feels this is too close to its decades-old Elder Scrolls copyright. Now, sparks are flying as the two sides gear up for a court battle. Bethesda wants to protect customers from potential confusion, while Notch believes that Bethesda is being too draconian in enforcing its trademark.
Mojang’s efforts to assuage Bethesda by offering to forego a trademark fell on deaf ears. “We wanted to end things in a friendly way where we met them half-way,” said Markus “Notch” Persson. I am a huge fan of Bethesda’s work … Picking a fight with my idols seemed like a silly idea.”
Although Notch’s ideas are diplomatic, international copyright law is rarely clear-cut enough for a 50/50 compromise. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, after reviewing the facts at hand, concluded that “[Regarding] THE ELDER SCROLLS marks, the applicant has merely deleted the term ELDER from the registered mark. The mere deletion of wording from a registered mark may not be sufficient to overcome a likelihood of confusion.” In other words, the U.S. government believes that removing a single word will not make consumers any less likely to conflate Scrolls and The Elder Scrolls. This conundrum gets even more confusing, since the lawsuit will take place in Swedish courts, and U.S. copyright legality may not hold much water overseas.
Pete Hines, a VP at Bethesda, maintains that the lawsuit has nothing to do with the studio’s creative team and everything to do with the legal technicalities of trademarks. “This is a business matter based on how trademark law works and it will continue to be dealt with by lawyers who understand it, not by me or our developers,” he explained. “Nobody here enjoys being forced into this. Hopefully it will all be resolved soon.”
Mojang’s desired use of the word “scrolls” seems innocent enough, but if Bethesda does not protect its copyright, other companies could produce deliberately-confusing titles like The Eldest Scrolls: Skyrings and leave Bethesda with no legal recourse. “Failing to protect a trademark could be damaging to an owner’s rights,” said Angela Bozzuti, a trademark law attorney. “Not only could it result in actual consumer confusion, but it could also weaken the strength of the mark in the marketplace. Furthermore … it will likely weaken [Bethesda’s] mark and make protection difficult and limited.”
Now, Bethesda, Mojang, and the governments of Sweden and the U.S. all have resources invested in this case. Coming to a solution – much less one that pleases all parties – won’t be easy.