PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) has seen a host of imitators on Android and iOS such as Knives Out and Rules of Survival from Chinese publisher NetEase. These gained popularity prior to PUBG Mobile’s release and while that game was developed by Tencent studio Lightspeed and Quantum, it seems that PUBG publisher and developer of the PC and Xbox One versions, PUBG Corp (a wholly owned subsidiary of Korean game publisher Bluehole) has had enough of it. PUBG Corp is suing NetEase for alleged copyright and trademark violations. In the past, PUBG Corp threatened legal action against Fortnite creator Epic, but it seems to be acting on NetEase’s violations that appear to be rather numerous.
The suit, filed in Northern California's US District Court (via Art Technica), breaks down characters deemed as "a copyrightable audio-visual work, individually and/or in combination with other elements of Battlegrounds”. Some of these are particular to PUBG such as a constantly shrinking circle that players have to be in to stay alive and 100 players jumping from an airplane at the beginning of the match. Others are a little more generic such as damage models based on attacked body parts, use of military weapon, and a pre-match lobby.
The lawsuit contends that “use of cookware as a weapon or armour in a shooter game, the use of certain vehicles and landscapes and combinations thereof, the use of distinctive supply boxes, and the celebratory reference to chicken are elements of ornamental flair that are not functional but have acquired secondary meaning, as shown by their use by players in memes, parodies, skits and other contexts to refer to the Battlegrounds game and to its developer, i.e., PUBG."
Furthermore, PUBG Corp claims that Rules of Survival in particular offers an almost identical “rural aqueduct" structure on its map, mimics the specific use of a frying pan as both a melee weapon and a piece of armor, and copies sniper rifle cheek pads — that PUBG Corp says is proved by Google image search.
PUBG Corp has asked the court to award damages and stop NetEase from operating either game any longer.
This isn’t the first time PUBG Corp has voiced concerns over the number of games copying its formula. The game’s creator, Brendan Greene takes offence to this, insisting on stronger copyright protection.
"I want other developers to put their own spin on the genre... not just lift things from our game," Greene said to the BBC last year.
"I want this genre of games to grow,” Greene claims. “For that to happen you need new and interesting spins on the game mode. If it's just copycats down the line, then the genre doesn't grow and people get bored."
Greene went onto state that there’s no intellectual property protection in video games. This isn’t entirely true. Game modes and concepts aren’t protected similar to how stories are not. IP protection though, does exist as we’ve seen in the past with Mojang trying to copyright the word Scrolls. This resulted in Elder Scrolls publisher Bethesda contesting and eventually successfully settling with the company to protect its copyright.
Previously, PUBG Corp had issues with Fortnite implementing a battle royale mode.
“We’ve had an ongoing relationship with Epic Games throughout PUBG’s development as they are the creators of UE4, the engine we licensed for the game,” said Chang Han Kim, CEO PUBG Corp in a press release sent to the media last year.
“After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves, we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known.”
PUBG's team alleged that gameplay, structural, and user interface replication exists in Fortnite.
“We have also noticed that Epic Games references PUBG in the promotion of Fortnite to their community and in communications with the press,” Chang Han Kim continues. “This was never discussed with us and we don’t feel that it’s right.”
Nonetheless, Fortnite isn’t being sued by PUBG Corp because there are few direct comparisons to PUBG thanks to its colourful presentation, emphasis on building, map structure, lack of vehicles, and totally different armour implementation. Plus, it wouldn't be wise to slap a lawsuit on the maker of the Unreal Engine which PUBG uses under license from Epic Games as it could harm PUBG's ongoing development and expanding feature set.
It will be interesting to see how this goes forward as it could have repercussions on game design and game development as a whole. Perhaps even stifling innovation altogether due to the iterative, additive nature of the game making process.
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