The Third Doctrinal War -- Stardock, Reiche/Ford, and Star Control

One of the takeaways I have from digging through the documentation for this timeline I’m making is that it seems pretty clear that Brad felt it was important to have some of the aliens and ships from Star Control 1&2 in Origins. Paul & Fred record weeks of repeated requests soon after Stardock acquired the SC trademark for P&F to both work on the game and to license to Stardock the rights to some of the aliens. The fact that P&F (according to their account) repeatedly and conclusively said no and yet Brad kept asking, and then Stardock went ahead and made website and in-game assets using those characters, tells me that Brad sort of always thought he was going to get that permission eventually, and that to some extent he couldn’t countenance NOT having them in the game. Seems especially true with regard to the fleet battles, which was the subject of the last set of license requests to P&F.

That’s why it feels disingenuous when they turn around and, post-dispute, say things like “We never wanted to continue the story of Ur-Quan Masters anyway. Not that many people remember a 25-year-old game.”

Personally, I think that could be a trademark violation, which is why I think the language and imagery on the website was changed. I don’t know how trademark rights relate to stating facts like “I worked on [trademarked] thing and I’m making a new game.” Like, can CliffyB say, “I was the designer of Gears of War ™ and I’m making a new shooter!” or is he violating Epic’s trademark?

I can also understand the idea of it muddying the market perception of a game when someone else announces something and points out how it’s related. On that front, though, I think Stardock has done their fair share of muddying (like the universe chart showing how P&F’s game is connected to Origins), and more importantly I think both these projects are small enough and fan-driven enough that they benefit from the fact that both games are in development and both parties are talking about the old and new games.

The idea was to have the ships in Super-Melee. Not in the story based game. There were a lot of fun ships in SC 2 that would have been nice to include in SCO and we didn’t want to pay a 10% royalty just for that element.

When they said no, that was it.

rubs forehead again

Even if there wasn’t a federal registration that still wouldn’t have mean that there was ‘no copyright’, that isn’t how the law works. Stating that additional protections apply if you have a federally registered copyright would have been a perfectly accurate statement.

I should probably refrain (like I have so far) from speculating about the trademark claims because it is not an area where I have the experience to make an informed opinion. To be clear: my opinion about the overconfidence regarding trademark claims is not due to my experience in trademark matters, but rather amazement out of how Stardock is conducting itself on the copyright side of things, which is in my wheelhouse. But it is presumptuous to apply that perceived incompetence to an area I know less well.

So mea culpa, I should have just said I think Stardock is probably grossly underestimating its own risk to claims on copyright grounds.

This case is very interesting and speaks to how intellectual property is divided up and sold, and how rights transfer and on what terms. If they can figure it out it will be good, if it’s a horrific legal battle then there might be a chilling effect on buying the rights to games and IP, especially ones done by small teams. You don’t really have these issues when the developers have signed their IP claims away through and employment contract.

Also, I wish Brad would stop commenting about the legal battle in these threads, not commenting on ongoing litigation is a standard that should be set in stone, because all public records like this can be called into court as evidence and I want to see Stardock do well (I.e. not hurt their case).

Fair enough. So in your estimation, what risk do you believe Stardock has on the copyright side of things. Let’s assume, for instance, despite evidence to the contrary, that the DOS games could not be distributed. Then what? What do you believe is the risk? I know what the copyright attorneys have said but I am genuinely interested in your view.

(I’m going to take a break to let others get a word in edge-wise. I am working on some dreadfully slow memory profiling today so I have a bit too much time on my hands).

Sure, although in return I’d ask you to direct me to the part of the contract between Atari and Stardock that transfers distribution rights of Star Control to Stardock, because if it exists, I’d swear it wasn’t included it in the filing.

In short, the two main things where I identify risk to Star Control: Origins.

  1. Selling pre-orders of Star Control: Origins in a bundle with classic Star Control games
  2. Including what could be construed as infringing elements of previous Star Control games in promotion material for Origins (especially if this continued while accepting pre-orders)

Okay, check out the top post for the timeline of major events in this sad saga. I welcome any corrections, additions, or clarifications to what I’ve written. I will continue to update it and also probably improve its readability and clarity over time.

Wow! That’s impressive.

There’s a lot to take in. My main critique would be minor POV. Stardock “claims” vs. Paul and Fred’s claims being treated as facts (when in fact I know a few of them are untrue). I would stick with the “claim” verbiage for both sides. But again, wow.

Here’s a fact as someone who has had to experience a great deal of social media abuse from this:

Paul and Fred hired a PR firm that specializes in “crisis PR” and has been inciting people to not just attack Stardock on various social media and media outlets but me personally.


So yea, that’s been fun.

Stardock’s Kevin Unangst has updated the Q&A in response:

I’ll be curious for Nightgaunt’s analysis as he sees the disconnect between what their summaries are versus the actual settlement offer. Especially in light of the fact that Paul and Fred demanded insider builds of Star Control: Origins to inspect for infringements (where their threshold of infringement included having a ship designer).

Yeah, that’s probably fair. A lot of it is really a matter of my style shifting as I went through the documents. I started with P&F’s counterclaim because it had the most dated information. I’ll see if I can tune it better.

I saw that Singer Associates tweet. What was the date on that? Was it deleted, because I can’t seem to find it now.

Now that Paul & Fred have just gone and made settlement offers from both sides public, I have to say, the Stardock one is essentially a “You give us all the toys” proposal. The “correcting statement” is the cherry on top: “We’ve given Stardock all the content they’ve been insisting publicly they don’t want, and we know they’re going to make an amazing game with it because they’re geniuses.”

I don’t know how settlement negotiations typically go, so maybe all that’s just the equivalent of starting absurdly high when you’re haggling.

Did I get swamped in the legalese of Paul & Fred’s settlement, because I didn’t see anywhere where it said they needed to inspect the game builds for infringements. Maybe that’s a stipulation they made in the settlement discussions, to enforce the terms? I understand it’s something they requested several months ago.

The ship builder is a tough issue. If I were Paul & Fred and I were looking for a reasonable, good faith resolution there, this would be my thinking:

While it’s not part of the classic Star Control experience, a ship builder is a feature with legitimate value in a space game. So it’s not just there to provide a backdoor way to make SC2 ships in Origins. I would demand that Stardock doesn’t put pieces in the component list that clearly represent distinctive parts of SC1/2 ships in shape and color pattern. No butterfly wing parts with the ridges just the same as the Pkunk ship, for instance. (Keep in mind, I don’t know exactly how the ship builder operates.) And then I’d just have to be lenient, because players are going to find a way to make the closest thing to a Pkunk ship they can. But that’s player content for you. They’re also going to make the Enterprise and Firefly and X-Wings. Tributes are tributes.

A better way to describe the Stardock one is a purchase agreement.

Their actions have shaved N% (go ahead and pick a number) off of the potential sales of Star Control because of the confusion and brand damage.

The lawyers discussed a variety of ways to bring that amount down including selling their IP.

If you look at the actual document, it was obviously not an apology. They clearly misrepresented that. They clearly misrepresented the “surrendering” part (they would be selling it, if they don’t want to. then don’t and come up with a different idea), they obviously aren’t required to not use the words “Star Control”, they just can’t use it in commerce.

So you got their “summaries” that imply one thing and then you read what are in the settlements and they’re totally different.

I was particularly annoyed with the description of a mutually agreed upon letter being an “apology”. Apologies, usually involve apologies. ;)

Yeah, agreed about the term “apology.” But, frankly, what you wrote for them is almost more embarrassing than an apology. “Capitulation”?

“Purchase agreement” is even more euphemistic. You almost made me think I read both P&F’s summary and the actual settlement text wrong, and Stardock was supposed to pay P&F the $225,000 in exchange for rights to all their work! But it’s not that. Given what Paul & Fred have claimed to want to protect, what it is is just a bunch of penalties in a variety of forms. Purchase agreement??

I guess since you didn’t tell us that that Stardock settlement was just playing hardball right off the bat, that means you somehow think it would be a just resolution? Okay, probably, you just can’t say anything one way or another. Well, if in your heart you think that’s the right resolution at this point, then all that would mean is that you’ve been so insecure about your product up to this point that you truly think you MUST have Paul’s inventions to make your game good. Or you’ve already sunk a lot of money into making art assets based on them, and you can’t afford to trash them. Also, you’d be a serial liar, given all the times you said you didn’t want them. But it would explain the repeated begging for some kind of licensing deal back in 2014-15 and the trademark land-grab. Frankly, the evidence just keeps stacking up.

After reading both docs it’s clear that the summary of Stardock’s settlement offer was indeed inaccurate. It was far to kind and generous.

As someone who still hopes this blows over and we get two great games, I’ll refrain from saying fully what I think of these developments. Though I will say the "N%’ response above is one of the most tone deaf rebuttals I’ve ever seen. You might as well say “Yes, it’s a cash grab! It’s always been about a cash grab!”. Tell that stuff to your lawyers, don’t just go and admit it on a gaming forum. If there was an N% you likely just multiplied it.

To be fair, I’m not sure what the value of their IP is, but negative two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars wasn’t in the range I was considering. I would be hard pressed to believe that in the comparison between the value of their IP and the damage they’ve done via “confusion and brand damage”, the damage is greater by a six-figure amount.

If Stardock wanted the classic aliens in Star Control that badly it would have put them in 4 years ago and paid the royalty for them.

Now, even if we wanted we are far too late into development to use them.

I honestly expected that you would pick up between the two settlements the real issue re their IP claims. It’s not about the aliens, it is the desire to ensure that they never again try to interfere with the development of our games.

Any settlement agreement is ultimately going to have to protect Stardock’s rights and investments and recognize the damage they have done.

Fair enough. I thought the point of this thread was to discuss the legal discussion dispassionately.

I’m an engineer by trade, I am always tone deaf. ;)

You say ‘the lawyers’ like it was a negotiation between parties. I’m pretty sure this was entirely a conversation between Stardock and its lawyers. For somebody complaining about misrepresentation, you should really take more care with your wording.

Frankly, a settlement demand limited primarily to financial damages would have come across far better than…what Stardock wrote.

Lulz. “Give us your IP and pay us money to make this lawsuit go away, and we’ll say you sold it to us”. And you wish to represent that as ‘selling’ while disputing the other exhibit as being an ‘apology’. Surrendering seems a far more appropriate term under the circumstances.

I think a lot of people, including myself are going to disagree with you on this opinion!

Describing the legal equivalent of a hostage message to be read on-air at gunpoint as a ‘mutually agreed upon letter’ is a bit rich. Clearly it was not mutually agreed upon!

You are hilariously incapable of doing this.

But you’re totally fine with calling it “mutually agreed”? It clearly wasn’t!

You can’t just unilaterally “put them in and pay a royalty”; you’d need agreement from the other party, which really wasn’t happening based on the correspondence we’ve seen so far. (The 1998 addendum to the original contract had already expired).