Saturday, August 6, 2011

V&V Lawsuit

Rogers Cadenhead dropped me a note, letting know about an article on his blog discussing the ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit between Jack Herman and Jeff of Monkey House Games and Scott Bizar of Fantasy Games Unlimited over the old school superhero RPG, Villains & Vigilantes. The article even includes a PDF of the filing for the lawsuit.

I don't know much more about the suit other than what I've read in a couple of places. Plus, I'm no lawyer, so the niceties of the case are probably lost on me. Regardless, it's fascinating to me, as someone with an interest in old school RPGs, that in 2011, there actually is a lawsuit pending pertaining to one of those old games. In a strange way, it's encouraging to see that the creators and publisher of an RPG of yore still consider it valuable, however unfortunate the legal action itself may be. Here's hoping that, whatever the outcome, Villains & Vigilantes is here to stay; it's a classic old school RPG and deserves great success.

14 comments:

  1. FGU is, in my understanding, somewhat notorious for this sort of thing. I believe I've read other stories of people attempting to buy back the rights to their games from Bizar, only to be met with outrageously high price tags. The possibility that FGU - at least, the FGU with whom designers originally signed their contracts - ceased to exist in 1991 is an interesting wrinkle to the story.

    I think FGU keeps things like Aftermath! and Swordbearer "in print" in an attempt to stop actions like this from happening.

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  2. Wow, I read something about all this a while back but thought it was all resolved.

    "the contract clearly stated that if FGU, Inc., ever ceased to exist, then the publication rights reverted back to us."

    Seems pretty cut & dried to me

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  3. Back in the early part of this century, I was working on a book for Guardians of Order's anime RPG, Big Eyes, Small Mouth, which was to be entitled BESM Space Opera. Before the book could be published, GOO received a cease and desist order from FGU on the basis of the fact that it still had a RPG in print called Space Opera. Rather than get involved in a lawsuit, the title was changed to BESM Space Fantasy.

    That's my one and only direct experience of FGU and the tight control it exerts of its properties. On the other hand, I'll admit I'm very grateful FGU continues to make its catalog of games from the 80s available.

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  4. Entirely off-topic.

    Rogers Cadenhead dropped me a note

    Wow. Rodgers Cadenhead of Cruel Site of the Day fame? There's a name I haven't seen in a while. Cool.

    Sorry for the hijack.

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  5. I hope Jeff and Jack biker-stomp FGU into the ground. What Bizar did is absolutely unconscionable.

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  6. Unless there is something outside of pen and paper RPGs here the only financial winners will probably be the lawyers.

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  7. Wow. Rodgers Cadenhead of Cruel Site of the Day fame?

    Apparently so, though I must confess I'd never even heard the name before now. I guess I live in a bubble :)

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  8. These guys can afford lawyers? V&V was great for it's time (I played it alot before Champs), and has some nostalgia value. But really, this thing has enough juice left in it for people to fight for? Does anybody stand to get rich off RPG's these days? It's less than niche.

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  9. Sometimes it's not about "how much money" is in it, but for what is right. I know people more famous that RPG creators (outside of Gygax) who fought for their rights to use a trademark, at considerable cost, but they didn't give up because they felt they were right, and they won.

    I suspect that V&V means a lot to its creators, especially if (from what I can tell) they were supposed to get their rights back from the publisher once it went out of business, so I suspect they'd be willing to spend money on attorneys.

    Anybody who professionally publishes and has been in the industry (Jeff Dee's been a illustrator for decades, and the original article mentions he worked on The Sims) usually has some sort of legal counsel.

    Interestingly enough, there are two other things not listed here.

    1) The USPTO.GOV lists two separate registrations for Trademark which are in conflict and being disputed.

    2) The registration of copyright is for the revised version, and it mentions the registration happening this year. Where is any reference to the original registration?

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  10. Well, given the argument presented in the suit, it's do or die for Scott. If Jeff and Jack prove that the entity currently trading as "Fantasy Games Unlimited" isn't the entity that they have contracted with, it immediately sets the precedent for all the other FGU authors to exert the individual rights to their work, since the publication rights (which was what was assigned by the authors) are not considered to be assets of the company (unless they have been bought in perpetuity) and can only be reassigned by the copyright holders. Even if it is not explicitly written in the contract, especially since most FGU products were not "work for hire."

    However because FGU (Inc) was not a publicaly traded company things get messy, especially since there was no Chapter 7 or 11 filings, it can easily be argued that the company is the same company which has simply relocated to a new legal jurisdiction. Thus the proclamation was simply the act of the state government removing a defunct identifier from it's books and the corporate entity remains the same as it was, just operating in a different legal jurisdiction.

    There are lots of other ethical problems with FGU's behaviour over the years, particularly with payment reports and royalties. However as anyone who has ever worked in the publication (and recording) industries there are lots of tricks that can be used to ensure that no royalties can be paid (or rather they are paid internally as costs), so this in and of itself isn't cause for legal abrogation of the individual contracts. And that's the reason most FGU authors haven't bothered with trying to regain their work. It just isn't worth the lawyers' fees.

    It works well if you don't want to develop a continuing relationship with your authors.

    However, even outside this suit, if a court finds that Scott hasn't acted with Good Will (more likely in a jury trial than a judicial one), then it is possible that the work will revert to the copyright holder, especially since the copyright acts were originally created to prevent this sort of behaviour by publishers (which is why publication rights are not hard assets that can be traded, but only assigned). Although this concept must be tempered by the fact that the rights are the major asset of the Scott's company, so it really does depend on the attitude of the individual court to such things.

    A similar situation occurred with Howard Chaykin and Metagaming, with Howard wanting lots of money for authors to regain their publication rights. This was the reason for GURPS, since Steve couldn't get the publication rights for The Fantasy Trip back. It was common at the time for all sorts of publication contracts at the time to be rather loose. Now artists and authors are a lot more cagey with regard to their work, and aware of the legal loopholes being exploited by these publishers.

    On the other hand registration of Trademark is an entirely different kettle of fish. And this is the thing that actually has the value in this instance, especially since you cannot copyright a game system, only the expression of one (or at least this has not been put to test in a court of law to my knowledge). This is how Avalon Hill and Moongoose both published Runequest. They licenced the Trademark from Greg, not the game system. [In fact most modern game licences exist so that one can actually freely use the associated Trademarks rather than the content or system.]

    So, I'll be interested in seeing what happens.

    [Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and furthermore I operate in a totally different legal jurisdiction with a totally different set of company and copyright laws. And it is the subtle differences between state, national, and international law that make shysters earn their paychecks. So if in any doubt ignore anything I say and get a lawyer who does this sort of thing for a living.]

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  11. 'Sometimes it's not about "how much money" is in it, but for what is right. I know people more famous that RPG creators (outside of Gygax) who fought for their rights to use a trademark, at considerable cost, but they didn't give up because they felt they were right, and they won.'

    Bear in mind that Dee is not a child of the Internet. He did not grow up with FidoNet BBSs on which he could exchange freeware. He was born in 1961. He grew up in a different era, when intellectual property dinosaurs walked the earth. Further, as an illustrator, he's used to making an income from his creative work, so he has probably developed a habit of insisting on legal enforcement of property rights.

    As Brunomac said, the market for this product is a very small niche. Even if one side wins, they will probably win a symbolic victory at best.

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  12. "He grew up in a different era, when intellectual property dinosaurs walked the earth."

    I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic or earnest, but not every creative type who is new believes in things like open source or giving away content. In fact many newer creators still use copyright, trademarks, and even patents.

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  13. 'I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic or earnest, but not every creative type who is new believes in things like open source or giving away content.'

    I didn't mean to sound flippant.

    I don't mean to suggest that giving away content is self-evidently the right thing to do.

    What I mean is that many people born after 1970 have more experience with computers than with pen-and-paper games, and have developed extreme cynicism about the defensibility of copyrights.

    Copyright law is in fact necessary for open source and open content works, but modern technology has made content-copying virtually cost-free. This changes the tactical situation.

    Pre-Internet legalists assumed that copying and distribution are difficult and require professional equipment.

    Post-Internet legalists say things like, "No matter how many websites we take down, several dozen sites will continue violating in Russia and China."

    International infringements of intellectual property have gone beyond what would have been absurd just 20 years ago. I don't want to delve too deeply into the issues on a gaming blog, but the world we live in today is no longer the world we knew 20 years ago.

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  14. That's interesting, I'm pretty sure Scott Bizar owned a game store in Gilbert, Az I used to frequent when I was playing the LoTR miniatures game. I never realized he owned FGU. I always drooled over their Ads in Dragon Magazine, what a shame I never asked him about it.

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