Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Scroll Wars - Bethesda vs. Mojang and Copyright Hijinks

Also known as that time when a single word made a shitload of trouble for everyone and caused even more headaches. And it wasn't even a naughty one.

Odds are you've probably heard about this one by now because this issue has been simmering since the beginning of August. It was at that time that the gaming community heard the first rumblings of something being amiss, when Notch -- creator of a little game called Minecraft and one of the founders of Mojang AB -- told the world that Bethesda was suing him for his use of the word scrolls when he applied to trademark the word for his upcoming game named, simply enough, "Scrolls".

At the time Notch had simply hoped that this was some sort of automated reply due to the copyright and that things could be worked out/would blow over. Two months later and the only thing that anyone can definitively say is that it has not.

Battle lines have seemingly been drawn, and to a lot of people it's rather clear cut: Bethesda is a big company being a jerk and throwing its weight around to try and crush Mojang for shits and giggles. It might not be that simple of course, but it's probably honestly what a lot of gamers are thinking anyways. Let's face it; on the surface this seems to have all the makings of a David vs. Goliath story wherein Bethesda are the clear cut bad guys. As with most things however, it's never quite that simple.

A lot of people are probably going to think that it sounds like a piss poor excuse, but as Jim Sterling mentions in a recent article: "Zenimax, the company in charge of Bethesda, certainly has to protect its trademarks. If Mojang releases Scrolls uncontested, it could open the door for more grievous permutations of the name, diluting the strength of the Elder Scrolls as a brand."

Essentially, if Bethesda just gives an almighty shrug and says "sure, go ahead" to Mojang, then basically they've given up the right to object if anyone else does the same thing, because if they try to go to court over it the defence will simply argue that Bethesda had every chance to tell Mojang no, but didn't, so it can't be that different from the current case. It's complete bullshit, but unfortunately it'd also likely hold up. Mojang could release Scolls and it could be excellent, amazing, game of the year/century/forever. But what happens when a poorly made ripoff called "The Older Scrolls" comes along? Then Bethesda is powerless to do anything while this obvious knock off cheapens the branding by mere association. Again, it's something that sounds incredibly stupid but can and does happen. Trademarking is what keeps there from being stuff like a "Resident Anger" series or a "Crypt Raider" franchise starring Tara Craft.

To a lot of people all of this probably doesn't really matter that much. But, I ask you to think about it this way: what does Bethesda stand to gain from this? Absolutely nothing. They're a smart company, they know that this entire case is damaging their reputation and perhaps turning people off from their franchises which is something I can guarantee you they do not want happening, especially with Skyrim looming ever large on the horizon. The fact that they seemingly can't just let it slide means that they obviously think that they have to take these drastic steps to stop Mojang and keep a tight grip on the word scrolls. They know that regardless of what they say that a lot of people are going to see them as the bad guy here, so for them to continue despite that means that perhaps they are aware of something that other people aren't.

Is it a company throwing its weight around? Absolutely. Is it unfair even? That's harder to peg, but a lot of people would say yes. But in this sort of situation, what else can Bethesda do? Mojang probably wouldn't want to turn "Scrolls" into a joint venture because of the independent nature of Notch's work and the fact that they'd lose a lot of creative control. It'd be unfeasible to expect a compromise, and it's already been touched upon what happens if Bethesda would have let it slide. So, in the end, despite looking like bastards, the company probably used the only tool it had after it had exhausted the "Maybe if we ask he'll change the name to something not involving scrolls at all" route.

They're not blameless. But in messes like these, usually neither party is.

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