Com­mu­nity mat­ters

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

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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

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