Long-time edutainment software group The Learning Company thinks that Zynga's "Oregon Trail" missions for FrontierVille cross a line.
If you were a student at any point during the late 80s and early 90s, it's a safe bet that you played The Learning Company's frontier sim Oregon Trail. There, you learned the dangers of dysentery, fording deep rivers, and shooting dead 800 lbs of meat when you could only carry 50 back to the wagon.
Thanks to its role in the childhoods of now-adults, Oregon Trail has a certain place in pop culture - and Zynga is hoping to take advantage of that with an "Oregon Trail" themed mission pack in its wildly successful FrontierVille Facebook game. However, the original creators aren't down with this, and have filed a lawsuit in a Massachusetts district court accusing the Facebook game magnate of trademark infringement.
The complaint, which you can read in .PDF form here, says that The Learning Company (TLC) has been using "The Oregon Trail" since "at least 1974," and has had a userbase of over 65 million players. Zynga is deliberately trying to take advantage of the beloved Oregon Trail brand, alleges the suit.
What's more, reads the complaint, is that Zynga's FrontierVille pack offers many of the same activities found in the real Oregon Trail games, like "setting up a wagon, provisioning, hunting, fording rivers, and helping others." This is clearly intentional, argues the TLC suit, and amounts to "deliberate theft of the goodwill associated with the iconic The Oregon Trail Mark, which the company has spent millions of dollars promoting since 1971."
According to the suit, TLC approached Zynga in 2010 to discuss making an official Facebook version of the game, but talks fell through. Afterwards, TLC partnered with Blue Fang for the official release, though its 1.2 million players pale in comparison to the many millions Zynga sees per month.
I think that TLC definitely has a case here, though there's one possible snag. It's not out of the realm of possibility for the judge on the case to rule that "Oregon Trail" has become a generic trademark, losing its legal protection. On the other hand, TLC could be bringing this suit against Zynga to specifically prevent such a thing - because if you don't defend your trademarks, you lose them.