Facebook RPG in Art Controversy

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Update x3: This article has been updated, see the information below. Hammerfall is a well-known role-playing game for Facebook. The application has nearly a quarter of a million monthly users and is rated (currently) at a 4.5. However, the game and its creators, Dennis and Mark Kimbell, have found themselves at the center of a serious controversy as a series of deviantArt artists have come forward saying that their artwork appears in the game without their permission.

The controversy is already making waves on deviantArt following a news post by Melissa Findley, one of the artists who has work appearing in the game. She has posted screen shots showing her artwork and other dA artists within the game, which has caused a great deal of attention to be focused on her post in the dA community.

However, this controversy seems poised to only become increasingly ugly as the situation has become much more heated in the past 24 hours. To make matters worse, it involves another old foe of the dA community, Photobucket.

The Story So Far

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Earlier this week, Findley was told by a friend that some of her artwork appeared in the popular Facebook RPG. According to her, she began to research the issue and found that a large amount of the artwork in the game, potentially thousands of images, were from various artists on deviantArt.

Hammerfall, which earns revenue in part by selling “honor points”, uses many thousands of images as part of the game, most of them icons and avatars, most used to represent in-game places, people and things.

She, discovered that the images in the game were hosted in a Photobucket account that was open to the public. She, along with a group of volunteers began to look through the various folders for images they recognized and identified hundreds of images that either definitely belonged to artists they knew or were likely from dA. They also used the image search engine Tineyrsqebzuadezudrvrzrdquvdevfyze to help them detect matches they were uncertain of and locate artists that they did not know.

As they continued their work, Findley posted a news article on dA (linked above), which is currently one of the most popular article on the site, to alert other artists and provide them with the needed information to get the works removed. She also published a list on her own blog of the artists that were affected along with links to the works from each artist they found being used.

The list, however, was far from complete and as they continued to work on locating as many artists as possible, the situation became very heated. Several dA members went over to the RPG’s forums and left negative reviews and comments, for which many of them were banned as “abusive”. Likewise, Dennis Kimbell turned the Photobucket account to “private” making it so that Findley and the other artists could not easily go through the images in the gallery, turning the already tedious work into an even greater chore. Furthermore, as they continued, Findley reported that images began to get swapped out, making it hard to keep track of which images belonged to which artists.

The work of identifying and seeking removal of the works involved is continuing but, under the current situation, could take another day or more according to Findley.

Kimbell Responds

Kimbell’s response to the accusations have been fairly limited. He has not made a public posting on the games app page but had responded to the allegations at least two different times.

First, in a discussion thread on the game’s forum, Kimbell said that “All the art we used is either under creative commons license or similar, or we contacted the artists for permission, or was bought off of stock photography sites.”

Second, in a message exchange with myself via Facebook, Kimbell went on to say that he thinks it is likely that one of the stock photo agencies he did business with is the source of the problem but that the site “doesn’t seem to be around anymore”. He has not indicated which agency it might have been.

He also confirmed that he set the account to private and declined to reopen it, saying that “is because we don’t use a lot of the art in the account on the game. Also, our in house artwork for future levels is in there. We got permission more art than we needed for the game.”

Finally, Kimbell also confirmed that he has been swapping out images as he has gotten reports of infringement, though Findley has said that the swapping often replaces one image that is infringing for another from a different dA artist.

Moving Forward

At this time it is difficult to say where this is going. Kimbell has asked for a full list of the allegedly infringing works, a list that, according to Findley is many hundreds of images long. However, a complete list is almost impossible to create according to the dA users. Frustrated by the delays, many are following the steps in the original article and filing DMCA notices with Photobucket to get the images removed that way.

Meanwhile, the negative reviews and comments keep flooding in, the score of the game already dropping 1/10 a point due to a series of one star reviews, and the thread about these issues has over 80 replies as of this writing. It doesn’t seem like this is going to die away any time soon and the actions of Kimbell seem only destined to draw out the conflict.

Personal Thoughts

Whenever I approach these situations my first priority is to work things out as amicably as possible. This is why I approached Kimbell on Facebook.

However, Kimbell’s actions to me are very worrisome. He has repeatedly stated that he wants a list of all the allegedly infringing artwork but has done everything imaginable to thwart any attempt to compile such a list. First he switched the Photobucket account to private, then began to move images around and finally started using another account to host images.

If Kimbell were the victim of bad stock photo agencies and had kept proper records, it would seemingly be trivial to remove the images they bought from those agencies or at least identify and promise to remove them as time permitted. But, even barring that, artists were willing to do the legwork, but now, due to Kimbell’s actions, no matter the intentions, the only way to determine which images are infringing is to play through the entire game.

This has the artists, who were already upset, even more outraged and seems likely to only drag out the dispute and increase its intensity.

Conclusions

Obviously this is a dispute very much in progress and I will be reporting more as I get new information. As it sits right now, it is poised to drag on from some time and the actions taken by the game’s developers seem to be making things worse for everyone.

Hopefully this matter can be resolved quickly, but at this time it looks like it is going to be a drawn-out conflict. Sadly, two of the most likely outcomes involve either Photobucket shutting down the accounts involved or Facebook removing the game. Either way, it is the artists and players that are going to suffer the most.

What could have been a heated, but brief conflict will now be even more heated and longer lasting. One thing I’ve learned about the dA community is that they do not give up quickly nor easily.

Update

Shortly after this article was posted, reports began to come up about images missing in the game. It appears that Kimbell and others at the game are now working to remove the infringing imates. According to a forum poster, a note on the front page says the following:

“Apparently the website we paid good money to get our images from was a fake and did not have permission to sell some of the images, so we are working on getting rights to some of the artwork we use and finding new images. Expect new pictures to be back up hopefully within 24-48 hours.”

This is a rather stunning turn of events and seems to give credence to the idea that the images were purchased from an illegitimate stock photo library. I’ll update this article as new information becomes available.

Update 2 (6:20 PM CT)

There seems to be a great deal of chaos and confusion about what is going on right now. Speaking with Findley and other artists involved, there are reports of images going down, being replaced and being move. The reports seem to be highly conflicted right now.

What I can say with certainty is that Kimbell has set up at least one, possibly more, new PhotoBucket accounts and has moved a lot of the images there. This account was set to private by default. It appears that most of the images that were offline are now back online though. It appears that most of the “shuffling” has been more about getting images that were removed working again and not about replacing any misused works.

Findley and her team are working on it and have made some great headway. I have additional information that I’ve been asked not to report on at this time but I want to make it clear that the latest as of this writing is that the images are not being removed en masse, though some do seem to be disappearing, but rather, that they are being moved to a new account.

I will update as this develops.

Update 3 (02/06/09)

Earlier today, the images in the game began coming down and were being replaced by “Vote for this Image” links. I messaged Kimbell about this and he confirmed that all of the iamges are being removed, saying that “We’re starting over on the image thing and asking for people who play the game to help with their own art.”

In short, Kimbell has removed all of the artwork from the game and is encouraging players to upload and vote for the images that they want to see used. Kimbell also said that they will work to verify ownership of all of the images that they receive and will not accept any images that is not either uploaded by the creator or licensed under an appropriate license.

According to Kimbell, the images in the various Photobucket accounts should be removed sometime in the coming days.

This should put an end to this controversy though, obviously, the artists will be checking closely to ensure everything is followed through on.

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