Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Legal Dicta

As my third and final year of law school draws near, you're going to start noticing me focusing on the reality that I need to have a job when they finally hand me that expensive piece of paper in May. I don't think many longtime readers harbor this illusion, but if you've got any fantasies about me "Fighting the Good Fight" by staying unpaid or not working for a major corporation because they're "The Man", you're on the sunny side of confused. After watching people whine about Rohrer commit the atrocious crime of doing contract work to help fund his kid's education, I thought I'd make this clear now. I fully intend to keep this blog up as long as I can along with several side projects I'm working on. But eventually that bridge is going to come.


If you're an indie developer, I-Phone Apps developer, or just curious about a fairly big shift that's about to happen, there is a lawsuit coming down the pipeline you should keep an eye on. Two people who made competing farting games for the I-Phone are getting into a lawsuit over who stole what. It's making the news rounds because it's hilarious to watch the two sides argue and because on the surface it seems mostly harmless. You can't claim a copyright on fart noises, 'Pull My Finger' (the name of one of the Apps) cannot be copyrighted because it's in the general domain of public use, the programs use different code, different features, and other than both involving farting have nothing in common. If I had to bet money, I'd say the lawsuit claiming infringement will go out with a noise resembling the kind its App generates.

The reason this is a problem underneath the surface is that, between the media coverage and the fact that we're talking about a person indignant over a farting game, that case is going to hit the mat. It's going to go to court, be argued, and have a final ruling. In a large student essay I worked on concerning modding issues, one of the problems I had to deal with was that you really can't find much litigation on this precise topic. Microsoft and Apple got into it a while back over their respective OS's but that ended up being argued over their visuals being too similar because they couldn't find any past court rulings supporting a function argument. A lawsuit on whether or not two programs, based purely on their function, is going to have a final ruling.

If you're not a lawyer, the reason that's important is that most lawsuits are built out of 1) what the law says about the facts of the case and 2) what court rulings on similar lawsuits say. Copyright law for video games was always just a panoply of legal principles meant for other media. I don't even know if laws for games are deficient, nobody does, they might turn out to work fine. The problem is that they aren't particularly clear about when someone has copied a video game too much. They say when they copied the code or the visuals too much...but what about the basic function of the program?

So all things considered, the indie gaming scene and I-Phone App store are ripe for these kinds of lawsuits precisely because there are so many people generating clones and copies of one another. As Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and numerous PC gaming websites all enter the online gaming and App market featuring similar games they will soon develop the same kinds of problems. Of all the things that will help start off this legal frenzy, I suppose a dispute over a farting game is appropriate.

Anybody can make a video game these days. They just might be making yours.

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