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5 Important Video Game Lawsuits

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  • Posted on 20th Sep, 2022 13:48 PM

In the wake of Marty O'Donnell's legal win over former employer Bungie, we take a closer look at some of the most important lawsuits in the history of video games.

p>Recently, Bungie has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Its former in-house composer, Marty O’Donnell, issued a lawsuit against the developer over a claimed unfair dismissal. O’Donnell, who was responsible for the soundtracks to such video game landmarks as the Halo series, felt marginalized by Activision’s marketing department, who wanted to use external music in Destiny’s trailers. Eventually, amid accusations of a poor working attitude, O’Donnell’s contract was abruptly terminated.

The composer is having the last laugh, however, after the courts found that he is entitled to $142,500. O’Donnell’s case is not the only one in the history of video games, however. In fact, since the growth in popularity of the medium as a commercial venture in the 1970s, there have been a number of landmark lawsuits that have helped define the future of the industry as a whole.

From Bethesda’s lawsuit against Notch over the name of Scrolls, to a legal dispute over the actions of Kickstarter-created projects, there have been a number of lawsuits that have left marks on the world of gaming. Indeed, Phoenix Wright is certainly not the only ace attorney in the video game world. Here are our picks for the most important legal battles in gaming history.

Silicon Knights vs. Epic Games - Unreal Engine 3

In 2005, Silicon Knights bought the rights to use Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 in the production of its upcoming space epic Too Human. The engine, which has been used to great effect in a number huge gaming franchises, went on to become one of the standout platforms for video game development. However, Silicon Knights believed that Epic withheld information regarding the engine, so that Too Human would not appear as impressive as Epic’s own Gears of War.

The legal dispute, which opened in 2007, soon became an absolute quagmire, with both sides viciously attacking the other. Silicon Knights claimed a breach of contract and that it had been forced to build its own engine for Too Human’s development. The courts, however, not only found in favor of Epic Games, but discovered via a countersuit that thousands of lines of Unreal Engine code were actually used within Silicon Knights’ own engine. Epic were awarded $9.2 million in overall damages, and Silicon Knights were also forced to destroy copies of games using Epic Games engine content.

O’Bannon and Keller vs. Electronic Arts - N.C.A.A. Sports

The case of Ed O’Bannon and Sam Keller against Electronic Arts and the N.C.A.A. appears to have put an end to the entire N.C.A.A. gaming franchise. O’Bannon and Keller were a pair of former college athletes, who filed a lawsuit against Electronic Arts over the use of their likenesses without payment or permission in both the N.C.A.A. Football and N.C.A.A. Basketball franchises. Eventually, the case was settled out of court, with the pair being awarded damages.

The issue would not end there, however, as there was more pain to come for Electronic Arts. Seattle-based lawyer Steve Berman continued the action against EA and the N.C.A.A. through a class-action lawsuit on behalf of college athletes. This time, a huge settlement of $60 million was eventually agreed upon in July 2015, with each athlete being able to claim up to $7,026. EA has not published any N.C.A.A. games since, and it’s unlikely that the series will reappear in its old format.

Strickland vs. Sony - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

The issue of violent video games is a hugely contentious one. Video game violence has been the subject of numerous studies over several decades, with some finding that games do increase aggressive behavior, whilst others reveal that there is little-to-no connection between the medium and real-world violence. That has not stopped numerous legal disputes being brought to court, however, with some factions claiming that individual video games have been responsible for incredibly violent acts.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these is the case of Strickland vs. Sony. Infamous anti-gaming lawyer Jack Thompson took Sony Corporation of America to court over the tragic shooting of police officers Arnold Strickland and James Crump, and dispatcher Leslie Mealer. The three victims were killed by Devin Moore, while he was being detained for theft. According to Thompson, Moore was trying to recreate scenes in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with his actions, and held Sony and developer Rockstar Games responsible. The Alabama Supreme Court, however, found in favor of Sony, stating that the release of the game was covered under the First Amendment.

Universal City Studios vs. Nintendo - Donkey Kong

More than any other legal battle on this list, this 1982 lawsuit helped define the role of video games in the market. Nintendo had released a standout arcade hit in the form of Donkey Kong, with the titular ape’s antics against newfound hero Mario winning the hearts and minds of gaming-obsessed players. Unfortunately, cinema powerhouse Universal Studios saw differently, focusing instead on a perceived copyright infringement over the similarities between Nintendo’s giant ape and that of creature feature star King Kong.

Although some of Nintendo’s merchandising partners, including Coleco, crumbled under the pressure of Universal’s legal team, Nintendo held firm under the belief that they were well within their rights to create Donkey Kong. In the end, the fledgling video game publisher was proven to be in the right – partly thanks to Universal’s former maneuverings in the courts. Universal had previously claimed that King Kong was in the public domain over the creation of the 1976 remake of the black-and-white classic. In the end, the courts ruled in favor of Nintendo, awarding the publisher an at-the-time massive $1.8 million in damages. Nintendo’s attorney, John Kirby, was gifted a sailboat named Donkey Kong for his efforts, and rumors abound that Kirby was named in honor of him.

Nintendo vs. Tengen - Unlicensed Games

Nintendo, however, would turn the tables and become the one seeking damages a few years later. The company’s NES home console was thriving, delivering an impressive library of games. This was in part due to Nintendo's strict licensing process, awarding games with an ‘Official Nintendo Seal of Quality’. Other companies, however, were desperate to find a way to make it onto the NES, with one in particular taking drastic action.

Tengen, an offshoot of the Atari Corporation that formed in 1987, tried to find a workaround to Nintendo’s restriction of only five releases per year to third-party developers. The company tried to purchase the designs to Nintendo’s NES lock-out chip, to find a way to bypass the chip. Nintendo proceeded to sue the developer over its actions, and were found in the right by U.S. courts. Tengen settled out of court, and Nintendo continued to have control over the level of quality on its console, prolonging its lifespan and developing further recognition for quality products in the wake of the video game crash of 1983.

What do you make of our list? Can you think of any other video game lawsuits that have had a huge effect on the industry as a whole? Let us know in the comments below!

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