Pokemon GO Lawsuit Settles for $83,000

Remember that Pokemon Go lawsuit I posted about a few months ago?  It turns out that , as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has agreed to settle the case for the sum of $83,000, with the entire amount reportedly going to the plaintiff’s legal fees. The park board will also agree not to enforce the ordinance at issue, which creates an awkward permitting process for any augmented reality games to be played in Milwaukee public parks.

This settlement comes after a July court ruling where the court found that it was likely that the plaintiff would succeed in establishing that the park board ordinance banning augmented reality games from public parks violated their right to free expression under the first amendment, and granting an injunction preventing the park board from enforcing the injunction.

This is as close to a 100% win as you get in law, with the board agreeing to give the plaintiffs everything their were asking for, and pay their legal fees. Score one for the forces of justice and freedom.

Is EA Greedy?

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In a rare misstep for an otherwise much beloved game company (OK I’ll stop), it looks that EA has gotten itself into a bit of a hot water over the microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront 2.

While it was probably a matter of time until some company went too far and something like this happened, it’s sill surprising to see how far this scandal has gone – from the most downvoted reddit comment of all time, to even making CNN.

I have to say, though, while I’ve been as entertained as the next person by seeing the Reddit snowball of hate roll down and crush everything in its’ path this past week, I’m kind of of two minds about the way everything has unfolded.

I’m usually a bit turned off by all the moralizing that happens when companies are accused of being “greedy.” My question whenever the issue of “greed” comes up is this: how much money is someone allowed to try to make before they’re considered too “greedy”? Is there a specific line that needs to be crossed? If someone tries to make a 20% profit margin on a product they sell is that too greedy? How about 10%? Is that morally acceptable? Who gets to decide these things?

Greed is when there’s 10 kids and 10 pieces of cake at a birthday party, and some kid takes two. Greed isn’t the baker making that cake and selling it to the parents for a profit. He made the cake, and he’s free to charge as much as he wants for it. He doesn’t owe the parents cake, and if they don’t like what he’s charging they don’t have to buy it.

EA doesn’t owe anyone a game any more than the baker owes those parents cake. They sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into making a Star Wars Battlefront, and if they feel the best way they can make that money plus a profit back is charging players 5 cents every time their character ties his/her shoes, then they have every right to try that. That decision may be stupid and counterproductive, it may turn off players and end up sinking the game, but it’s not “morally wrong” and not really a basis for any kind of ethical outrage. In any event, that’s usually my glassy-eyed, right wing free-market fundamentalist view of these kinds of things.

At the same time, though, I’m sure if people playing Battlefront after launch and getting destroyed by a Darth Vader character that someone spent $1,000 to unlock wouldn’t really comforted by the idea that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is working in the background making all right with the world. They just want to have a good time with the game they spent $60 on, without having to shell out next month’s rent to be competitive. Are they “wrong” to be angry at whatever executive at EA decided to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the player base at the expense of everyone’s good time? In theory, based  my little rant above, I guess you could argue that in a way they  are.

But then again…I mean…really…Fuck that guy.

MLB to File Trademark Dispute Regarding Overwatch League Logo

From the “this is why people hate lawyers” file, it appears that Major League Baseball has filed a notice with the US Patent and Trademark Office stating it intends to dispute Blizzard’s registration of the logo for its upcoming Overwatch league, on the grounds that it may be confusing with its own logo. Here’s the two logos side by side for comparison:

Logo ComparisonConfused? Me either. The main similarity between the two appears to be the image of a white silhouette bordered by a two tone background. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Oh right.

                    NBA Logo

So watch out NBA. After the MLB’s inevitable crushing victory against Blizzard, you’re next.

My favorite thing about this story though? Technically this isn’t really news. The MLB actually filed the notice at the heart of this story almost three months ago, in late April. No one reported on it at the time, and since then there’s actually been no new developments on this (the MLB has until July 26 to file their legal argument in the dispute).

As far as I can tell, the only reason this has become a story now is that New York entertainment law firm Morrison Lee posted an item about it on their firm blog and everyone else just ran with it, with the story even ending up in non-gaming publications such as Deadspin, and CBS Sports. This probably says a lot of things about how the media works that I’m not smart enough to encapsulate in writing here. In any event, it looks like one little law firm blog can change the world after all. In keeping with that, if anyone out there has any sweet, sweet industry gossip they’d like to leak, please know that I am available.

Who Owns Your Steam Games? (Hint: It’s Not You)

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Now that game sales are moving more and more into the digital realm, a question I sometimes hear is whether this changes anything in regard to game ownership, and whether users really “own” the games they buy through services like Steam.

The short answer to that question is no, users don’t really “own” their Steam games. However, they never owned games they bought on CDs either. When someone buys a game, all they get is a license to use the game, usually for personal, non-commercial purposes. The game company still owns all the intellectual property related to the game, all the buyer gets is essentially a right to play it. This has been true since the beginning of the industry, and the shift from selling physical copies of games to electronic copies has done nothing to change this from a legal perspective.

From a practical standpoint, however, things have changed considerably. Electronic delivery of games has made it far, far easier for companies to actually enforce the terms of their game licenses. For example, while in the days of CDs game companies had essentially zero chance of enforcing prohibitions on making copies of games or sharing them with others, nowadays that’s not the case. Services like Steam can keep far closer track of what you do with your copy of a game, and make it far harder for users to “circumvent” any such restrictions.

Moreover, if someone breaches the terms of a game license, it’s a lot easier for for companies to terminate that license (i.e. cut off that person’s access to the game). For instance, Valve regularly bans Steam users caught cheating by their software.

While Counterstrike cheaters aren’t too high on anyone’s pity list, other Steam users have also been banned for other, more vague transgressions against Valve’s terms of service, losing access to copies of all games in their library. For instance, this story highlights the story of a who was banned by Valve for vague violations of its terms of service, without any clear explanation for what he did wrong. The user lost access to a game library containing approximately $1,500 worth of games, with no refund, which appears to be Valve’s policy in the case of these bans. The ban was eventually lifted after the story made the rounds on some game publications, however the user was never provided with an explanation for what his alleged transgression was.

Admittedly stories like the one above are few and far between at the moment, however as electronic sales become more established, and other companies become more involved in online game sales *cough* Origin *cough* they’re bound to become more common.

Right now the only legal recourse someone who feels they were unfairly banned by Valve or another company from their service would be taking that company to court or arbitration, which makes no financial sense, even for $1,500 worth of games. At the same time, this is still real money that people have spent on their games (not to mention what can be hundreds or thousands of hours of progress, which must have some value), and allowing companies to essentially act as judge, jury and executioner in cutting off their access to their game library, without giving the these persons some practical recourse to dispute their ban (beyond the pipe dream of a lawsuit) seems entirely unfair. What the practical solution to this problem is I don’t know, but it’s something to think about as the era of physical game copies winds down.

 

Is Pokemon GO Protected by the First Amendment?

A Wisconsin court is set to decide whether augmented reality games like Pokemon GO are free speech protected by the first amendment of the US constitution. The background: In the few weeks of collective public madness that followed the release of Pokemon GO, many parks and other public areas were flooded by Pokemon GO players, causing problems with litter, overcrowding, and likely freaking out people who had no idea about the game or what was going on.

Not wanting to deal with scenes like the one below on a regular basis, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring the publishers of all augmented reality games to obtain a permit if their apps can be used in Milwaukee parks. Among other things, the bylaw requires publishers to come up with plans for medical services, on-site security, garbage removal and liability insurance. Compliance with the bylaw is of course wildly impractical for any game company, so its’ effect is to essentially ban augmented reality games from all Milwaukee public parks.

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Someone must have dropped a lure.

While all this may have been forgotten as the Pokemon GO craze died down in the months after the game’s release, recently Candy Lab, a Southern California company responsible for “Texas Rope ‘Em” an augmented-reality game similar to Pokemon GO, brought a suit against the park board on the ground that the bylaw violates its free speech rights under the US Constitution, and the two sides are currently battling out in court over the issue.

While the US Supreme Court has already decided that video games as a whole are constitutionally-protected free speech, the park board is trying to convince the court that augmented reality games specifically lack the elements of expression necessary to qualify as speech. Basically, the board is arguing that if a game has no real plot, characters, or storyline, but just involves you walking from place to place looking at things through your phone, then it’s not protected by the first amendment because it lacks any any expressive content.

While it will be interesting to see what the court decides on this issue, I find it a bit surprising that this matter ended up in court in the first place. I’m sure a much cheaper and quicker solution to this problem for Candy Lab would have been to simply disable access to the game in Milwaukee’s parks. This would have likely been trivial to do from a technical standpoint, and I very much doubt it would have had any meaningful effect on the game.

Instead, the company has chosen to bring a lawsuit, and all the expense and hassle that entails. This approach simply can’t make financial sense for them, which begs the question of why they’re going through with it. Maybe they’re trying to set a precedent which will stem a potential future wave of similar regulations in other cities, maybe they’re looking for publicity, or maybe they’re just huge fans of free speech. Either way, irrespective of their motivation, if their lawsuit is successful the precedent they set will make other jurisdictions think twice before adopting similar regulations, and the entire gaming industry will have benefited from their actions.