Another Facebook RPG Controversy

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It’s a story that is likely familiar to readers of this site. An artist discovers his work being used in a Facebook-based RPG game and, after alerting various communities, other works are discovered and a storm of controversy is created.

It happened back in February with the RPG game Hammerfall where many works from the deviantArt community were found to be used in the game without permission. The game eventually, after much controversy and a protracted public battle, removed the works in question and began to crowd-sourcing the search for new ones.

However, over this weekend, a similar scandal broke, this one involving the Facebook RPG Castle Age. The person who discovered the infringement, Jason Manely. is a well-known artist who, through his company Massive Black, has provided artwork to gaming companies ranging from Activision to Nintendo. He discovered that at least one of his images was used in the game and immediately reached out to the developers in a bid to learn if there were more.

After not receiving an immediate response from the administrators of the game, Manley posted about his discovery ConceptArt Forums, which he also runs, and to the Facebook discussion group for the game.

Very quickly, other works that appeared to be infringement were found, and other artists came forward to say that they see their work in the game without permission.

With the storm started, many waited to see how Castle Age would respond, the answer would come soon enough.

Both Sides Respond

The game’s administrators first responded by removing the link to the forums from within the game, which caused an additional uproar both among players and the visiting artists. However, after that, posted to the forum with the following statement:

“As some of you may know, there have been questions about the validity of some of the images in the game. For the time being, we have removed the images under review from Castle Age. We are looking to resolve this issue shortly.”

This, in turn, prompted Manley to post a reply saying, in part, the following:

“I posted this in the other threads but want to be sure the discussion here is wrapped up without any fighting or further drama. No one wants that.

This case is now going to legal. We did all we could to stop the misuse of our work, and the protect our rights as artists..as creators..as people who too must make a living from the talents we have worked so hard to build over many years of hard earned learning and study. I understand how members of both CA communities feel.”

In a phone conversation with Manley, he explained to me that he is discussing all options with his attorney and, as of Monday, was waiting for the lead developers/operators or their attorney with his lawyer. It is clear, from our conversation, that this matter is not over for him and that “going to legal” represents a new, albeit more private, phase in the process.

Similarities and Differences

One the surface the Castle Age and Hammerfall cases have a great deal in common. Both are Facebook-based RPG games that were found to be using artwork from various artists without permission and, in turn, were forced to remove the work. However, where the Hammerfall controversy was largely spearheaded by a a community of artists, who most operated on deviantArt, where the Castel Age case was spearheaded, at least initially, by a single, albeit very well-known, artist.

That may seem to be a small difference, but since the artist has both the means and financial incentive to file suit against the makers of the game, it makes a litigious outcome much more likely.

Though as far as a public embarrassment goes, the Castle Age case turned out to be much smaller (less time taken, fewer images involved, etc.) but it also seems less likely that the removal of the works will end the ordeal.

As for the game itself, the known offending images have been replaced, but it appears that the replacements have been met with a few negative reviews from current players. Despite this, the game appears to be continuing operation

Personal Thoughts

Throughout the ordeal, there are a few things that I have noticed that have interested me:

  1. Manley’s Turnaround: According to Manley, he reached out to an admin at the game first but posted to the forums within a few hours of his message. I’m of two minds on this. I realize that there were likely other artists involved and wanted to get the word out about the possible infringement, but it does take longer than a few hours to respond to a notice. I’m unsure how I feel about this. It caused a great deal of “fighting and drama”, as Manley called it, but also alerted others to possible infringements. It seems to have done both harm and good in this case.
  2. Castle Age’s Response: Though Castle age didn’t take too long, approximately a day, to post an official reply in the forums, the initial response of removing the forum link, whether or not it was actually tied to the controversy, gave the impression of trying to cove up what was going on. That being said, no posts were deleted, not that I’m aware of, and many of the involved threads are continuing to be active with no interference. In short, though the response wasn’t nearly as bad as Hammerfall’s, it could have been better.
  3. Player’s Reaction: Though many of the players of the game were sympathetic to the artists, others were extremely hostile. Some of it was due to the fact they felt “invaded” by the artists over what, in their view, should have been a private matter, but much of it was hostility that artists whose work was being infringed were working to “shut down” a game they had spent money and time on. Though the anger was misdirected, it was still an interesting case study in how some people view copyright issues.

However, the biggest lesson in this is for game developers. Facebook RPG games, much like games for the iPhone and other platforms, are often built by talented programmers with little to no budget. Though these games can make a lot of money, there is a great deal more to making a game than putting together code.

For these Facebook RPGs, one of the more important, and difficult/expensive elements is in creating the artwork or in clearing the rights to it. This is not a trivial process, especially over hundreds or thousands of images, and requires time, organization and skill.

Unfortunately, at least two popular Facebook RPGs have had issues in this area and I suspect these kinds of issues will become more common with apps and games as they become cheaper to produce.

Bottom Line

In the end, it’s another Facebook RPG controversy more or less in the books. Though this one likely isn’t over completely, its entering a more private phase that is likely to drag on, largely unnoticed, for some time. I’ll report updates as I hear news from Manley or other sources.

But more than a commentary of Facebook or its apps, this case showcases the challenges visual artists face on the Web every day.

In many ways, Manley is a fortunate artist. He has the resources and motivation to make it practical to pursue infringements of his work. Most artists that post to the Web do not have that option.

Visual works are easier to take, harder to search for and, generally, harder to enforce. When it comes to visual artists versus writers, it’s clear who has the tougher time with copyright on the Web.

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