Flappy Bird, Candy Sagas and Copyright

Artists are always trying to generate new material to output something “original.” But living in the 21st century certainly presents some obstacles when it comes to producing unique work. I guess you could say we’re standing on the shoulders of giants – it’s not just scientists. For that reason, artists either struggle to create an original work, accidentally mimic someone else’s, or purposefully recreate and existing success in order to make a statement. February 2014 seems to be a great time in which to examine these trends.

In some ways, I’d argue it’s impossible to produce art that is 100 percent unique. Every artist is influenced by someone. When you look at a band’s profile, it often lists their influences, which helps listeners decide whether this group is a good fit for their tastes. I look up to writers such as Tolkien and Lewis. And because I ingest a certain type of art (which includes video games, music, books, film and visual), my work is born of what I have seen or heard. I don’t think I could avoid taking something from those sources. The trick for me is to combine elements I admire in a way that becomes my very own style.

We’ve seen a plethora of genres doing this outright for years. Kanye West’s album “My Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a prime example and one I like to use because I enjoyed the work. Kanye mixed together a variety of sound samples he took from other artists to create music with a totally different message, which is an act called appropriation. Some genres have very specific copyright laws around this practice while others don’t. Musicians can only sample a short piece of another artist’s work without permission while fashion design has no copyrights whatsoever. No matter what art form you look at, however, appropriation is becoming more widely accepted while remaining controversial.

Flattery versus theft
Imitation is allegedly the sincerest form of flattery, but not everyone is happy about it. At what point is borrowing an idea intellectual or creative theft? It’s hard to say and arguments can be had over any issue. Literature is still dancing around appropriation trying to figure out what’s acceptable and what’s not. Books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” are widely accepted probably because Jane Austin is long dead and zombies are just a fun cultural interest that doesn’t really steal the original work. However, other instances aren’t so accepted.

Appropriation in literature has been met with opposition, being labeled as lazy in some circles and stealing in others. Some writers believe it’s just the next step in novels. Photography took over realism so painting became impressionist and surreal. Film has taken over narrative, so what is literature to do? David Shields believes it will move toward appropriation. Shields is the author of “Reality Hunger,” a manifesto supporting appropriation (his book is entirely composed of borrowed phrases). He also argues that if a work is great, then society will accept the form.

“If something is really successful, then the law tends to get changed and society changes to allow it to happen,” Shields told the New York Times. “The test has always been in the pudding.”

Flappy Bird: the pudding
The video game industry has dealing with all kinds of uproar caused by appropriation in the last few months, most recognizably with Flappy Bird. This game has become incredibly popular on both Android and iPhone and features a little bird you have to make fly over pipes. The premise is simple, but it borrowed a lot from Super Mario Brothers. So much so that some feared Nintendo would take action. However, the game’s creator Dong Nguyen didn’t wait for that to happen.

Flappy Bird will go black, though it can still be played if already downloaded. Nguyen didn’t announce what caused him to pull it from the market, though some speculate it could be any number of things: fear of lawsuit, a huge marketing ploy, feeling of being overwhelmed by fame and success. Whatever the cause, it seems the game’s infamy has only worked to promote sales. According to Forbes, Flappy Bird makes $50,000 a day from advertising alone. Nguyen will continue to get that money when the game is no longer available because users who already bought it get to keep it. In fact, it’s estimated that the creator has already made a million or two off Flappy Bird.

Fans seem to love the game, but some artists aren’t too happy with the way Nguyen borrowed so heavily from his influences.

Copyrighting may be going too far
It’s because of things like Flappy Bird that copyrights exist. An artist or team creates a unique and successful concept and wants recognition for it, so they copyright the idea. Recently, King.com, makers of Candy Crush Saga argued that another game was stealing its ideas. Stoic, an independent game developer, created the game Banner Saga, which was released on Steam. Banner Saga is an epic strategy game based largely on viking culture. It was a huge success, players loved it (including me) and they planned on creating a sequel.

King.com wasn’t so thrilled with that. They argued that since Candy Crush Saga used the word “Saga” in it’s title, that no new games could do the same. Ergo, Banner Saga is supposedly infringing on trademark laws. Recently, King.com made a statement claiming they weren’t so much trying to prevent Stoic from making games as much as protecting themselves from “real” copycats.

“King has not and is not trying to stop Banner Saga from using its name. We do not have any concerns that Banner Saga is trying build on our brand or our content. However, like any prudent company, we need to take all appropriate steps to protect our IP, both now and in the future. In this case, that means preserving our ability to enforce our rights in cases where other developers may try to use the Saga mark in a way which infringes our IP rights and causes player confusion. If we had not opposed Banner Saga’s trade mark application, it would be much easier for real copy cats to argue that their use of ‘Saga’ was legitimate,” King.com said in a statement.

While their statement might make some sense, you should note that it was made while King’s Notice of Opposition still stands, according to IGN. Basically, it seems the statement is saying, if we let you off, others will use our content.

Fighting back
Stoic has received a lot of support from fans and fellow indy developers. A game jam (in which developers create a video game in a short period of time following a theme) asked creators to make a video game involving candy in some way. Creators were also encouraged to choose key words from a list meant to poke at King.com. As of Feb. 9, 434 games have been entered in the jam. Basically, game creators are trying to show King.com that certain words have been around longer then the game company and that all artists have a right to use it. Saga is a word in the English dictionary, not a subject for trademark.

It remains debatable
Appropriation and ownership is still a topic of controversy. Some believe there are words and ideas that no one person can own (i.e. the word saga) while others want to protect their creations (King and Nintendo). It doesn’t seem like the issue will be resolved anytime soon. Personally, I’m curious to see what others think. I’m 100 percent in support of Stoic when it comes to the debate of key words in titles. However, I’m not totally sold on the idea that literature must become conceptual and appropriated. I think there’s a balance to be found, though I’m not sure where it lies.


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