Stoic’s legal battle with King is over, but it might still be going if it weren’t for a little help from its fans
How the Internet helped Stoic battle King’s trademark dispute
Back in April, Stoic won a landmark victory. It was a fight the three-man studio couldn’t afford to lose, but after almost a year of turmoil, the legal dispute in which it had been embroiled fizzled away so quietly that you may not even have noticed. With a few lines of text, the Texas-based indie announced that the legal machinery of King.com – the monolith behind Candy Crush Saga – had been halted, ending its trademark action against Stoic’s The Banner Saga over its ‘deceptively similar’ title.
It didn’t do it alone. As Stoic programmer John Watson puts it: “Public awareness made it so that three guys in a shack making a game were in a superior tactical position to a five-billion-dollar company with global reach… But that only happened because of the public.”
In the US legal system, where money can buy a lot of expensive stalling time, that kind of support is priceless. Watson himself is realistic about indies’ chances without help. “They’re screwed. Usually a big company that has a lot of resources can simply bully you into doing whatever they want, because they can outspend you. They come to you with this thing that they can’t [enforce]. Technically, they’re in a weaker position. The King objection – they couldn’t win it.”
“We would have won,” interjects Stoic artist Arnie Jorgensen.
“If it went all the way through the procedure,” says Watson, “they would have lost, but they would have bled us of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Stoic’s plight caught the public’s attention in late January 2014, despite the action having been filed in summer 2013, quickly becoming a lightning rod for support against a perceived culture of litigation. Many angry words were typed, but what really outraged a few was the sense of a big corporation steamrollering the little guy on a technicality. “It was just a matter of procedure for them,” Watson says. “They didn’t know anything about our project; they didn’t care.”
It’s a frustrating and frightening position to be put in, and corporate face-saving didn’t help. “Their PR team put out a statement that said something like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t think The Banner Saga is in conflict with our thing at all. Their statement was completely in conflict with their legal action.”
On its lawyer’s advice, Stoic was going to let it go unchallenged, but Watson tells us a lunch meeting with “some pretty high-powered guys” in the industry convinced the team otherwise. Stoic’s reply “was a bit snarky, but it was basically pointing out that their statement was bullshit”.
With King preparing to go public, it could ill afford the sustained negative publicity. “We got a call from the head of the company, from King. He was very polite, very consolatory and wanted to make it stop,” says Watson. “We ended up working out an agreement with him.”
“The cool story here for us,” Jorgensen says, “was seeing the groundswell of people on the Internet. Had that not happened, we’d still be fighting this trademark dispute. No question.”
The Stoic-King saga may have drawn to a close, but its legacy is important. After all, according to Jas Purewal of interactive entertainment law firm Purewal & Partners, while suits like this one are rare at present – at least by contrast to the film or tech industries – they may become less so: “As the industry continues to grow and mature, we can expect a natural increase in disputes between its members, and a minority of those will inevitably end up in full litigation”. It’s a natural outcome of the way the law works, says Purewal. “Where a trademark holder feels that his/her trademark is being infringed, they have no choice but to pursue that claim against the infringer or risk damaging their own legal rights. This is common in every other industry, too; it’s not unique to games. However, the great majority of claims settle. Bethesda settled with Mojang over Scrolls, for example.”
The King-Stoic saga, then, highlights a legal absurdity. While companies are obliged to fight over titles and dictionary words, the likes of Vlambeer seem nearpowerless to stop blatant cloning of original ideas. But while that’s unlikely to change soon, Stoic’s win also provides hope. With a community behind them, even the smallest creatives can stand their ground, and few mediums attract such passionate crusaders as this one.
“We got a call from the head of King. He was very polite, consolatory and wanted to make it stop”
King tried to trademark ‘candy’ to protect its hit, too, hoping to force a slew of clones off app stores
From top: Stoic artist Arnie Jorgensen; coder John Watson