TGC 2009: Your Cheat Sheet for Gaming Lawsuits


Confused by gaming lawsuits? Use this handy cheat sheet and you’ll be a legal eagle in no time.

The Escapist’s Alexander Macris, a graduate of Harvard Law himself, moderated a surprisingly entertaining panel about The Law of Gaming, during which Zach Bishop, Steve Chang, and Jeff Young discussed the unique challenges that the gaming industry faces when it comes to litigation. Legal trouble for gaming companies can come in all shapes and sizes, from something as relatively clear cut as trademark violations to grayer areas, like negligence. The biggest pitfall game companies tend to fall into is simply not thinking far enough ahead: as Bishop put it, “You have a huge Halo type hit and you take a look at the publishing agreement you haven’t thought about in five years and suddenly discover that you have no rights to the movie.” Or, more to the point, its profits.

It seems like there’s a new gaming lawsuit popping up every other day, and unless you, like our terribly clever CEO, thought ahead and got a law degree, it can get pretty confusing. So here’s a handy cheat sheet that will help a bit, by spelling out the five different kinds of IP, and the types of lawsuits they can cause:

1. Utility patents: This is what most people think of when they think of patents. With regard to gaming, this is most typically patents on hardware, like the motion sensor in the Wii, or the rumble in the PS3 controller. You can also get patents on gameplay elements, though. Remember the Kudos system in Project Gotham Racing, which rewarded you with points for driving with style? Ever play an online match with someone, only to have them quit at the last minute, rather than take the loss? Microsoft has a patent on a matchmaking system that forces quitters to play together.

2. Design patent: This covers the aesthetic side of things, like the look of your controller, or the shape of your console. This is why you can’t crank out something that looks exactly like a Wii, call it the Woo, and sell it.

3. Copyright: The Marvel vs. NC Soft case is a prime example of copyright issues. Marvel was pissed that players in City of Heroes were using the character creation tools to copy Marvel characters, and accused NC Soft of encouraging the behavior.

4. Trademarks: Every time Sega renews the Dreamcast trademark, it sparks a flurry of hope amongst the faithful few who still adore the console (including me), but it’s really just to protect the company’s good name. If Sega no longer owned the trademark, then you could slap the Dreamcast name on anything you liked, and dupe a foolish, but hopeful, public.

5. Trade secret: Any kind of information that has value to you and that you keep secret, counts as a trade secret. If you have a technique for maximizing the resources in the 360, or even for choosing the names of the characters in your games, that can be a trade secret.

And there you have it. This obviously doesn’t cover everything there is to know in the legal arena when it comes to gaming, but it’ll help you sound terribly impressive to your gamer friends the next time there’s a Rock Band lawsuit.

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