Given the recent press on the topic of the legal dispute between Stardock and Paul Reiche and Fred Ford, designers of Star Control I and II, I wanted to take time to make our position clear and address inaccuracies being promoted.
As the need arises, I’ll continue to update this post with additional questions and answers.
Q: What are the issues in dispute?
A: On the eve of launch of the beta of Star Control: Origins, a game Stardock has spent the past four years working on, Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford, the designers of Star Control II for Accolade 25 years ago announced a new game, Ghosts of the Precursors as a “direct” sequel to Star Control even going so far as to promote it as Star Control: Ghosts of the Precursors.
They did this despite knowing Stardock had acquired the Star Control IP in 2013 and knowing before hand our announcement schedule. Their actions created confusion in the market as to the origin of Star Control games which is why we have trademark laws.
When Stardock asked that they cease and desist marketing their game as a sequel to Star Control they refused and began demanding that the sale of the DOS games, which had been on sale continuously since before Stardock acquired the IP and for which they had been receiving royalties for during the entire time cease and began to disparage Stardock publicly in the press.
Despite Stardock's best efforts to reach a private, mutually beneficial co-existence agreement, Paul and Fred responded with increasingly hostile, misleading public attacks and served Steam and GOG with DMCA take-down notices on all of the classic DOS games, including Star Control 3 which they had no involvement with all while continuing to promote their new game as the "true" sequel to Star Control.
In addition, Paul Reiche and Fred Ford also began to claim that various features of Star Control: Origins violated their copyrights such as the ship designer, user interface similarities and other elements that are not subject to copyright protection (you can’t copyright an idea and Star Control itself was inspired by many other games). They also began to demand special access to Star Control: Origins to inspect it and demanded the removal of the ship designer,
As a result of their broad interpretation of what they believe they have rights to combined with their willingness to instruct their lawyers to issue a DMCA take down notices, even on titles in which they had no involvement in, combined with their refusal to cease promoting their game as the sequel to Star Control, Stardock was forced to file a complaint over their continuing trademark infringement.
In retaliation, Reiche and Ford filed a countersuit seeking to cancel the Star Control trademark and for copyright infringement due to the sale of the classic Star Control games on GOG and Steam.
Update 3/30: As a gesture of goodwill to make clear that our goal in this dispute is only to protect our Star Control rights and not any claims on the original DOS games, we have decided to suspend sales of Star Control 1 and 2 as of April 4, 2018 until this matter is settled.
Q: Why did Stardock file the initial lawsuit against Paul and Fred?
A: We had no choice after Paul and Fred filed DMCA claims against the distribution not only of Star Control 1 and 2 but also Star Control 3 which they admit they had no involvement. The DMCA claims were reversed, but it was clear that our ability to create more experiences in the Star Control multiverse for fans would be at risk if they are allowed to continue to misrepresent their new game as being associated with Star Control without a license while simultaneously making broad, unsupportable claims of ownership on ideas and concepts that are present not just in Star Control games but games in general.
Q: How did these unfortunate events come to pass?
A: Here is a timeline of the order of events:
- Stardock acquires the Star Control brand, copyright to Star Control 3, the license to use the Star Control classic characters, lore and the right to distribute the classic DOS games. The DOS games are already available on GOG with Atari listed as the publisher. (2013)
- Stardock discuss plans for the new Star Control. They state that their employment by Activision prevents them from working on a new Star Coxntrol game and request that we not use the aliens from Star Control 2 but do not contest Stardock's right to do so. (2013)
- Upon learning that Activision has blocked their ability to be involved and that Paul and Fred hope to one day to continue their stories, Stardock offers to transfer its rights to Star Control to them, thus uniting the Star Control brand with Paul and Fred's licensed IP. (2013)
- Paul and Fred ask what Stardock acquired from Atari to which Stardock responds: The trademark, assets to Star Control 3 and the right to sell distribute, market and promote the original trilogy.
- Paul acknowledges Stardock's position and asks how much it cost.
- Paul and Fred politely decline the offer to acquire the Star Control IP. (2013)
- Stardock announces a reboot of Star Control and explicitly states that it will not include the characters from the classic series out of respect for Paul and Fred. (2013)
- Stardock spends the next 4 years and millions of dollars developing Star Control: Origins. (2013-2017)
- Stardock provides Paul and Fred regular updates on progress including video of pre-alpha footage, design notes, screenshots. Relations are amicable and supportive. (2013-2017)
- Stardock updates Paul and Fred on Star Control: Origins release schedule and begins planning its 25th anniversary which will include releasing the classic games onto more channels. Stardock asks if there would be any interest in having SC2 ships appear in Super-Melee. The games are submitted and approved by Steam in preparation (Summer 2017).
- Paul and Fred contact Stardock to inform them that they will be announcing a new game that will utilize the characters from their universe. (Fall 2017)
- Stardock is both pleased and concerned about the timing of their plan, points out the licensing agreement would allow Stardock to use their IP (albeit at a higher royalty than Stardock was hoping for). Stardock asks that they coordinate these announcements together ensure there is no confusion and about the games appearing competitive. (Fall 2017)
- Paul and Fred state they plan to make a sequel to Star Control II which would violate Stardock's trademark rights (you can't claim your product is a sequel to another company's product). Paul and Fred also assert that Stardock does not have a license to their IP.
- In the email below Paul and Fred state that each party should work within its respective rights: Stardock having the Star Control trademarks and Paul and Fred owning all the IP rights to the works they created. Note that at this point, Paul and Fred recognized that owning the registration to the Star Control trademark also includes many common law trademarks. Hence "trademarks" plural.
- Stardock responds stating that as far as Stardock is aware, while Paul and Fred own the IP they created, Stardock does have an active licensing agreement that controls how that IP can and can't be used. Stardock also reiterates that it has not used this license out of respect for Paul and Fred. (October 2017)
- Stardock states its concern at the idea of Paul and Fred representing their game as a "direct sequel", asks to schedule a call to discuss. Note that at this point, Brad, like many, is under the impression that Paul and Fred essentially created Star Control on their own, a two-man team with licensed music was not uncommon thing back in 1992 (Stardock later re-evaluates that position after learning that the project had a large budget for 1990 and immense talent on it). (October 2017)
- Paul and Fred respond that they simply don't agree but provide no evidence as to why the licensing agreement would have expired. (October 2017)
- Stardock provides its reviewed legal position. Stardock isn't using any IP from the classic games other than the right to market and sell them as they have been for several years. (October 2017)
- Stardock points out that it has a license to the IP to use provided it pays a royalty of 10% (which is why Stardock has asked in the past for a new licensing agreement as 10% is too much for a cameo of a classic character). Stardock CEO, Brad Wardell suggests talking on the phone to iron things out. (October 2017).
- Email includes proposal:
- Paul and Fred refuse Stardock's proposal and begin to demand changes to Star Control: Origins.
- Paul and Fred, knowing the date Stardock was planning to announce the Fleet Battles beta, preemptively announce Ghosts of the Precursors as a direct sequel to Star Control II; use the Star Control II box (which is owned by Stardock) as the only art on the page for it; promote it to the media and to social media as the "true" sequel to Star Control. (October)
- Despite having just stated that their efforts should be "separated" by each parties rights (Stardock with the trademarks) Paul and Fred almost immediately violate that understanding by using the Star Control trademarks throughout their announcement.
- The Star Control trademark is mentioned 4 times in the announcement, each with an (R) without mentioning Stardock leading a reasonable consumer to believe it is their mark (Ghosts of the Precursors is listed once).
- Paul and Fred claim they "released" Star Control II on the same page that shows Star Control II with the Accolade mark misleading the relationship between Accolade and Paul and Fred (who, regardless of their tremendous work, were contracted by Accolade to create content that was then licensed into Accolade's product).
- The media follow-up by referring to it as "Star Control: Ghosts of the Precursors". (October)
- Paul and Fred promote the idea that it's Star Control: Ghosts of the Precursors and not its own game:
- The above is one example among dozens.
- Paul and Fred publicize coverage of their new game with each post using the Star Control mark but not a single one using the term "Ghosts of the Precursors". Looking below, what's the name of their new game?
- Many posts and articles appear, endorsed by Paul and Fred that state that their new game is a "direct sequel" to Star Control. Some refer to it as Star Control: Ghosts of the Precursors.
- Stardock moves forward on its 25th anniversary plans, release the beta of Star Control: Origins - Fleet Battles beta and relaunches the classic DOS games for the 25th anniversary on Steam. (October)
- Paul and Fred's attorney contacts Stardock's CEO. This is the first time lawyers have been involved. Lawyers take over. (October)
- Paul and Fred begin to demand that Stardock begin policing the Star Control community for fan art that they believe violates their rights (including members of this forum and on Steam). (October)
- Paul and Fred begin demanding the removal of features from Star Control: Origins including the ship designer (a feature that has been part of Stardock's games for over a decade). (October)
- Paul and Fred begin demanding insider builds of Star Control: Origins for inspection and begin insisting various broad features are their property despite having no right to do so. (October)
- Paul and Fred reject numerous attempts to create a co-existence agreement that would permit Ghosts of the Precursors to go forward independently. (November)
- Paul and Fred insist they have the right to associate their game with Stardock's trademarks including referring to their game as the "true" sequel to Star Control. (November)
- Paul and Fred demand that the DOS games be removed from distribution while still providing no evidence to support their claim that the agreement had expired. (November)
- Paul and Fred begin to make public defamatory blog posts and tweets about Stardock. (December)
- Paul and Fred file DMCA notices against Steam and GOG not just for Star Control 1 and 2 but also Star Control 3 which Stardock holds the federally registered copyright for and that Paul and Fred had no involvement in. (December)
- Stardock's attorneys file a suit against Paul and Fred for trademark infringement and other causes of action. (December)
- Paul and Fred's attorney files a lawsuit against Stardock alleging copyright infringement and other causes of action. (February).
- Paul and Fred's PR firm releases a press release to the wire services accusing Stardock of "copyright theft" do press interviews attacking Stardock. (February)
- This post is initially made. (February)
- Paul and Fred post an email exchange they claim is between themselves and Atari, something they had not shown to Stardock and still have not provided to Stardock to evaluate.
- Paul and Fred post what they claim is a Stardock settlement proposal in violation of federal rule 408. Stardock denies the accuracy. (March)
- Paul and Fred's PR firm targets Stardock CEO, Brad Wardell personally on Twitter for abuse with an inflammatory and completely inaccurate social media post. (March)
- Paul and Fred like a tweet that purports that these activities have cost Stardock up to 50% of potential sales and may lead to review bombing of the final game: (March)
- To make clear that Stardock's concern is regarding the protection of its Star Control IP and not the sales of Star Control: Ur-Quan Masters, it decides that it will be suspend sales of the classic games until the dispute is resolved starting April 4. (March 2018).
Q: Don't Paul and Fred contend that the 1988 licensing agreement with Accolade has expired?
A: That is their position. However, since the dispute began, Stardock has chosen to err on the side of caution and operate as if that is the case. Stardock requested that GOG and Steam remove the games for sale pending a resolution. The 1988 agreement, however, does not have anything to do with the Star Control trademarks were were always owned by Accolade and were assigned to Stardock.
Stardock's ownership of the Star Control trademark is incontestable. You can review the federal registration that dates back to the 1990s here.
Q: But isn't it true that Star Control: Origins has very similar gameplay to Star Control II? That you explore planets, travel through hyperspace to different star systems, meet with aliens? Couldn't their copyright of Star Control II mean that Star Control: Origins is too similar?
A: You cannot copyright an idea. Putting aside that Star Control itself borrowed many ideas from many other games, copyright protects creative expression. Not game play.
There are articles you can read that discuss this:
Obviously, anyone who has ever played Angry Birds or Candy Crunch already knows this.
That said, Star Control: Origins is not a clone of Star Control II. The 25-year gap in game technology allows Star Control: Origins to deliver a much richer experience. So while the core concepts remain true: You are the captain of a starship traveling through this part of the galaxy, meeting aliens, engaging in battles, exploring planets, the implementation is very different.
In short: Gameplay clones aren't illegal and even if it were illegal, Star Control: Origins is not a clone.
Q: Why does Stardock claim that Paul and Fred were not the creators of Star Control?
A: Paul and Fred were the designers of Star Control I and II. In the credits, on the box and elsewhere they had previously officially listed themselves as either developers or designers.
While Stardock has no objection to “creators” in the casual sense, legally, and when trying to promote a product in commerce, they are not. Most of the Copyrighted material people think of as being important to Star Control was created and owned by others.
For 25 years, Designer was their official designation.
It is Stardock's opinion that they have begun to focus on referring to themselves as "creators" in their marketing in order to give the impression that Ghosts of the Precursors would have the the same creative core as Star Control II. This is not the case.
What most people do not realize is Star Control II had, in essence, the dream Sci-Fi team as mentioned in this 25th anniversary tribute. The lead animator went on to lead the animation at Pixar and is the director of the Minions movies. Many of the alien designs were created by the artist who went on to design Darth Maul and other Star Wars and Marvel movie characters. Many of the most quoted lines came from seasoned Sci-Fi writers. The engaging music was created by others.
We respect Paul and Fred’s crucial contributions as well as the rest of the talented team who worked on Star Control.
Q: Who owns the Star Control trademark?
A: Stardock is the legal owner of the federally registered trademark for Star Control. You can view it here. https://www.trademarkia.com/star-control-75095591.html
Q: What does Stardock want out of this lawsuit?
A: Our ONLY goal is to protect our ability to tell more stories in the Star Control multiverse. We remain fans of Paul and Fred and their contributions to Star Control. However, given the confusion they’ve created in the market by promoting their new game as a “true sequel” to Star Control II combined with their abuse of the DMCA system to take down even Star Control games they had no involvement with, we are forced to act to prevent them from continuing to create confusion.
Consider some of your favorite games or movies. Now imagine if someone instrumental to the development of that game or movie went on to claim to be making a sequel to that game or movie without the consent of the owners of that trademark? What would be the result?
Q: But doesn't Paul and Fred own all the in-game IP?
A: Paul and Fred own whatever IP they created. What that is remains to be seen. As of April 2018, neither Paul or Fred had any rights to any of the art and much of the writing in Star Control II. However, even if they did, it would be irrelevant as Stardock isn't using any copyrighted material from Star Control 1, 2, or 3 in the new Star Control games.
On the trademark side, simply because you were contracted to work on a game does not grant you the right to make a new game and claim it is related regardless of what copyrights you think you may own (otherwise, you could argue that Unity and Epic could start to make sequels to other people's games).
For example, Paul Reiche is the President of an Activision studio. Blizzard is another Activision studio. Stardock was once contracted to develop a StarCraft expansion (StarCraft: Retribution). One can imagine the response Stardock would receive it it were to announce a new game as a "direct sequel" to StarCraft: Retribution.
By contrast, not only did Paul and Fred announce their new game as a "direct" and later "true" sequel to Star Control, they even used the Star Control II box, that was acquired by Stardock, to promote it.
As much as we respect Paul and Fred, the fact is, Paul Reiche was contracted as an independent contractor (not as a company) by Accolade to develop Star Control for Accolade. This is a fairly routine method that developers get products made (Stardock's own Fences, WindowBlinds, Groupy, IconPackager, etc. were developed using the same method).
Q: Do these legal issues have any impact on the development of Star Control: Origins?
A: Not at all. The team is focused on making the best Star Control game yet and we’re making fantastic progress every week. You can read the latest update on the game’s development here.
Q: Why did Stardock trademark Ur-Quan Masters, Super Melee, and other names from the original games?
A: Once Paul and Fred began to challenge the validity of our intellectual property we were forced to take steps to solidify our common law rights. Specifically, Paul and Fred have worked to try to separate Stardock's Star Control mark from its association with the classic games.
The reason companies were bidding to acquire the Star Control trademarks and willing to pay $300,000 for it was for the association with the classic series. The trademarks, being in active use in connection with the beloved classic series, made it valuable.
When Paul and Fred began to seek to cancel the Star Control mark and make public statements that Star Control: Origins isn't related to the classic series Stardock felt obligated to respond by reinforcing its intellectual property rights to the classic series.
As background: Stardock always had the common law trademark to Ur-Quan Masters. It's the sub-title to Star Control II after all and was, by Paul and Fred's admission, available in commerce on GOG even before Stardock was involved. Super-Melee is literally a promoted feature from Star Control. The alien names are so strongly associated with Star Control that if you Google Star Control aliens they come up as the first entry.
They have made it very clear that they believe that they have the right to associate their new game with Star Control on the basis that they have previously licensed content to Star Control games. They have no such right.
Q: Why did Stardock really need to trademark the Star Control 2 alien names?
A: Star Control fans expect new Star Control games to have the Spathi, Ur-Quan, Orz, etc. We originally chose not to include them in Star Control: Origins in deference to Paul and Fred who asked us not to.
However, in December 2017, Paul and Fred posted:
This creates confusion because Stardock alone owns the Star Control universe. That doesn’t mean it owns any lore or stories created by others. It just means that Stardock has the right to determine what is canon in the Star Control universe.
The Star Control aliens are associated with Star Control. That doesn’t mean Stardock can use expressions and stories of those aliens without permission. But it does mean Stardock has the right to create its own stories and expressions for the Ur-Quan, Spathi, etc.
When Paul and Fred were contracted to develop Star Control I and Star Control II for Accolade, they were allowed to keep certain copyrights to the works they created. But all trademarks were explicitly defined as being owned by Accolade.
Incidentally, their name was put into a diagram because they literally announced their game as a sequel to Star Control II. They associated their new game with Star Control, not the other way around.
Q: Is Stardock trying to prevent Paul and Fred from making new games in their universe?
A: No. Stardock wants them to create new games in the universe they created. However, this needs to be handled in such a way that there is no confusion as to the relationship between Star Control and the works they licensed for Star Control II.
Q: If Stardock wants a new game from Paul and Fred, why did the settlement offer that Paul and Fred publicly posted that they claim came from Stardock demand that they "surrender" their IP?
A: It is regrettable that Paul and Fred chose to violate confidentiality and post, without context, a settlement offer. The objective was to reduce the monetary damages in exchange for avoiding any chance that this would ever happen again. To that end, one of the proposals was to transfer any and all IP they claimed in exchange for lowering the damages.
Stardock paid over $300,000 for the Star acontrol IP which included the trademark and copyright to Star a Control 3. The Star Control brand is, in our view, far more valuable than any copyrighted material within a 25 year old DOS game. Source code and alien art. Nothing else, as far as we can discern, falls under copyright protection. You can’t copyright “lore” or timelines, or alien names, or game designs or UI.
Thus, all we would gain would be the ability to have Ur-Quan that look just like the old Ur-Quan and space ships that look like the classic space ships. The greater value would be to make sure this kind of dispute didn’t happen again. But that value would still not overcome the damage they’ve caused in the market place due to the confusion on who owns Star Control and the ill will due to their PR company issuing false and misleading press releases and publicizing the dispute in a way to maximize ill will. Not to mention the considerable and rising legal costs.
None of this would prevent Paul and Fred from making a new game if that really is their desire. Stardock, in turn, would have been happy to license, free of charge, any IP they needed to make their new game.
Our respect for the work Paul and Fred did 25 years ago remains undiminished. However, that respect does not give them the right to disrupt our product development at the 11th hour or misrepresent their new endeavors as the "true" sequel to our products.
Our dedication to bringing you a new Star Control game remains unchanged. BETA 2 of Star Control: Origins is due in a few weeks.
For those interested in reading the details, our complete initial filing available online:
Stardock 25th anniversary post documenting the creation of Star Control:
Thank you for being fans of Star Control, and supporting our effort to make a great new game in the Star Control franchise.
And if you have questions that you’d like to see added to this post, feel free to reach out to me directly via Twitter at @kevinunangst
Vice President, Marketing and Strategic Partnerships