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Idea ‘theft’ rampant in mobile gaming

by Phil Hornshaw

It’s been a month of bad blood between game developers, and it’s all (kind of) because of the iTunes App Store.

A controversy of angry Internet community proportions occurred during the last few days between various developers and LimaSky, the company behind the very popular Doodle Jump. Developers got to talking to one another in forums over a mobile gaming website, and before long, it came out that many developers of games with “doodle” in the title had been contacted by LimaSky about changing the names of their games because of potential trademark infringement.

As is usually the case with situations like this one, forum posters and other Internet users backed the indie developers and blamed the bigger, more successful LimaSky for trying to muscle the little guys. LimaSky owns a trademark for “Doodle Jump,” but not for just the word “doodle,” and so indies (perhaps rightly) have been feeling attacked over properties like Doodle Hockey and any of the other 650 or so doodle-themed games in the App Store.

LimaSky responded in a statement at PocketGamer.biz and has apparently withdrawn any claims against the word “doodle” as it relates to trademark infringement. According to LimaSky’s Igor Pusenjak, the trademark notices were advised by his lawyer in order to protect the "Doodle Jump" trademark against real infringements. From Pusenjak’s point of view, if he didn’t file, others could claim he wasn’t trying to protect the trademark, and therefore didn’t care enough about it for it to be legally protected. Yes, copyright and trademark laws are strange.

But the LimaSky situation does illustrate a good point -- there are 600 or more games with the word “doodle” in the title and Doodle Jump is certainly not even all that original in its genre. As one forum poster pointed out, the vertical jump genre concept is certainly nothing new (and Doodle Jump doesn’t really add a whole lot to it), and the player character in the game could be argued was borrowed from, or at least inspired by, the old Atari game Q*Bert.

Growth of mobile gaming to blame?

The success of mobile gaming, the speed with which games are produced and the hugeness of the App Store are creating something of a new situation in gaming, in which games and concepts are constantly being appropriated, remade, capitalized on and expanded. The success of Doodle Jump probably led to the insane number of “doodle” games to appear since its release, and it was itself a borrowed concept. Gaming has always been an industry where ideas get passed around, but in the app space, IP “theft,” if you can call it that, is spreading like wild fire.

And it’s not just among small indie developers. A few days ago, developers from Twisted Pixel, the maker of the downloadable Xbox Live Arcade game ‘Splosion Man, got in a huff on Twitter over Capcom Mobile. Capcom is a big gaming company that’s been around for years and only recently expanded into the mobile market, and its new game, MaXplosion, hews pretty close to the ‘Splosion Man concept.

There probably won’t be legal action between the two companies, but there were a few insults and accusations slung across the Internet from Twisted Pixel. Capcom responded to the fervor in its defense and said it was “saddened” it had lost the trust of the gaming community. But MaXplosion is still out there, making money, whether Twisted Pixel thinks its idea was ripped off or not.

Who’s responsible?

When it comes to iPhone games, it’s hard to peg where responsibility lies in stopping game companies from taking one another’s intellectual property. It’s already a gray area -- a case could be made that MaXplosion and ‘Splosion Man borrow liberally from years of platformers like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog. And those games were built on the concepts of other games. There are differences in how they play and how they look, but to say any of them are original concepts is arguable.

The mobile gaming space moves so fast that lawsuits and legal actions, especially with the climate the Internet creates in giving indie developers the underdog role in almost all cases, may not be effectual or even possible.

So does that mean it’s up to Apple (AAPL) and other marketplace facilitators to do the policing? It seems like that should be the case, but surely Apple doesn’t want the responsibility of playing copyright enforcer. There are government agencies for that, after all.

What’s the recourse for game developers, large and small, when their intellectual property is infringed, then? Right now, if they’re not willing to go to court, there’s always the court of popular opinion -- which is where the indie developers took their gripes against LimaSky, to a favorable result. The same thing happened for Twisted Pixel, in at least getting players to see what has happened and also to draw more attention to ‘Splosion Man (although equal attention has been paid to MaXplosion as a result).

After that, developers can’t do much, except make better games, and hope they stand on their merits. Imitation might be flattery, but it’s also a challenge to game developers to stay relevant. And the drawbacks of the flood of small-time, quick-to-borrow developers in the mobile space are offset by the positives of being able to cheaply and quickly create new games and innovative concepts.