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Legalities involving classic games by defunct companies

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Hello,

For a project I am interested in creating a free derivative of a game (Ultimate Domain) last released in 1994 by The Software Toolworks, which is now long-defunct with its assets now being owned by UbiSoft and The Learning Company.

I haven't been able to locate what company owns the rights to the content of the game, but the trademark registration itself is certainly defunct and dead as per the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office).

I've read the relevant documents (IE, Sloperama) and threads but still find myself unclear in this regard - I do not want to step on any legal toes and would very much like to request authorization from the company that actually owns the rights to the software today, if any. What is the best way to go about doing this now?

I don't necessarily want to make a game called, say, FreeGenesia (it was a dual-named game, both trademark registrations are dead), but am more interested in the gameplay. I am aware, trademark-wise, that a lapse of registration does not make the name unprotected, just more difficult to protect (intrinsic copyright), especially that in the US trademark protection does not expire.

My question overall is how do I determine who currently owns the rights to the game itself and the intellectual property therein? The IP has been passed down and split many times and with such an old title it does not appear as though anyone advertises their ownership.

[Edited by - Ameise on December 29, 2010 8:25:43 PM]

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Original post by Ameise
how do I determine who currently owns the rights to the game itself and the intellectual property therein? The IP has been passed down and split many times and with such an old title it does not appear as though anyone advertises their ownership.

Make your game and wait to see who sues you, probably. Best not to get involved with an IP whose ownership is that complicated. Make your own instead. Or take the time, whatever time it takes, phoning and fishing and phoning some more, to carefully dig out the ownership.

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Original post by Ameise
My question overall is how do I determine who currently owns the rights to the game itself and the intellectual property therein? The IP has been passed down and split many times and with such an old title it does not appear as though anyone advertises their ownership.
Somebody owns the rights, whether they know they own it or not. For some dead IP, the rights may have been split among hundreds of groups, creditors, stock/share holders (including people who decided to buy the share options from the small studio) and possibly other former employees. The rights may have been successfully transferred from company to company. Sometimes rights get lost in the shuffle as a company is dissolved or absorbed by another, and wherever they aren't clearly transferred it requires a judge to decide the contract intent and decide ownership.

Many times it is impossible to track down because the terms are inside contracts that you cannot access. The contracts splitting the companies may have assigned it to one side or the other, or may have exempted specific IP from a sale and reverted it to the individual who owned the company, or may have transferred it to another entity entirely. You cannot know without reading the contracts, and you cannot access the contracts without permission. It is quite likely that unless it was a major brand, it will have confused ownership to the point where only (expensive) court-ordered legal discovery can track it down.

You will need an attorney familiar with the games industry to track down the IP owners for a company that has been splut up multiple times. Your attorney will be able to help you track down ownership. Few companies will be willing to help you without payment.

It would almost certainly be cheaper for you to develop your own IP.

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Actually, from my understanding, The name is not nearly as protected by a defunct developer as is the content. For instance, in the early 90's, Id software was developing a Wolfenstein mock-up. The gameplay would be exactly the same (although without trademarked names, obviously); but they were preparing a different name. When they found Muse had gone defunct, the copywrite on the name expired too. Wolfenstein it was. Now, policies may have changed slightly, but probably not much. A copywrite is a copywrite.

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Maybe you could write a book about how to develop an Ultima Online clone and include the code you wrote there? In the book only include the code you wrote. For the artwork resources, just point the reader to a website to download the original Ultima resources.

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Original post by Renegader_bj
When they found Muse had gone defunct, the copywrite on the name expired too. Wolfenstein it was. Now, policies may have changed slightly, but probably not much. A copywrite is a copywrite.
Looks like you have a lot to learn about copyright law. One is that names are covered by trademark, not copyright.

The forum FAQ has links to documents which can help you learn the basics of copyright, trademarks, and other relevant IP rights.

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Ha! I actually own a copy of that game. Here's the thing, AFAIK it's perfectly legal to make a game with the same mechanics unless they patented it, which doesn't often happen with games. You can't copyright mechanics. Copyrights refer to things you literally make copies of (art, code, sound files); trademarks refer to branding (names, logos, logotypes - anything that might cause "customer confusion); patents refer to the way things function.

If you're dead set on making an Ultimate Domain game I'd just mimic the gameplay but call it something different and use different assets.

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Irishcream is correct. While the code, art and sound and maps are protected by copyright the game-play mechanics are not. Looks at Command and Conquer and Warcraft - very very similar game mechanic. The games are basically the same game but all the other elements are original to each game.

Just make a game that plays like the one you like (but original level designs) and avoid all the trouble.

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