Someone Claiming To Be Flappy Bird's Creator Just Sent A Ridiculous Cease & Desist To Moderator Of Flappy Birds Subreddit

from the mandatory-Flappy-Birds-post-delivered,-allowing-Techdirt-to-stay-on-the-Internet dept

For awhile it looked as though Techdirt might be one of the last holdouts to offer an opinion on the short-lived but incredibly intense Flappy Bird craze. Or at the very least, it looked as though we might avoid using the game's name in the headline. But those days are behind us now because someone (possibly the creator) has managed to steer the phenomenon right into our wheelhouse with a thoroughly misguided and inaccurate copyright-related legal threat.

For the three of you (Hi, Grandma!) who have managed to avoid the complete saturation of Flappy Bird into every media outlet, here's a very brief recap.

Vietnam-based indie developer Dong Nguyen had created several basic mobile games, but nothing really caught on until Flappy Bird. The infuriating game tasks users with steering a bird through some Mario-esque pipes in search of points. It's a tough game -- hard, unfair and not very rewarding. But it is (or was, more on that in a bit) extremely popular. A score that nudges into the hundreds column is considered godlike.

After Flappy Bird blew up, Nguyen reportedly was pulling in $50,000 a day from ad revenue. At that point, the creator began to hate his creation and, quite unexpectedly, killed it off rather than endure everything that comes with completely unexpected fame (including, but not limited to, hateful comments from frustrated gamers, an increasing amount of people who knew he had loads of money and were looking for a cut and the pressure to somehow top himself). So, on Feb. 9th, Nguyen deleted his game from iTunes and Google Play.

This screaming void was soon filled by people hawking used phones with installed (and suddenly "rare") copies of Flappy Bird on eBay and about a million clones and reskins, the latter resulting in Google and Apple now promptly rejecting anything Flappy Bird-esque that's submitted to its app stores.

Now, out of the blue, the redditor who started the r/FlappyBird subreddit has received a C&D from "Dong_Nguyen_Legal." Here's the notice in full (line breaks inserted to break wall of text]:


In accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and International Copyright Standards February 14, 2014 Re: Flappy Bird To the owner of Reddit, /r/FlappyBird[3] :

This communication details a cease and desist notice by Dong Nguyen. If you are represented by legal counsel, please direct this letter to your attorney immediately and have your attorney notify me of such representation. I am writing to notify you that your unlawful copying of my Graphics and Names: 'Flappy Bird' infringes upon my exclusive copyrights. Accordingly, you are hereby directed to CEASE AND DESIST ALL COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT. I am the owner of a copyright in various aspects of Flappy Bird.

Under United States copyright law, my copyrights have been in effect since the date that Flappy Bird was created. All copyrightable aspects of Flappy Bird are copyrighted under United States copyright law. It has come to my attention that you have been copying Flappy Bird. I have copies of your unlawful copies to preserve as evidence. Your actions constitute copyright infringement in violation of United States's copyright laws. Under 17 U.S.C. 504###, the consequences of copyright infringement include statutory damages of up to $30,000 per work, and damages of up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement.

If you continue to engage in copyright infringement after receiving this letter, your actions will be evidence of "willful infringement." Based upon the foregoing, I demand that you immediately (i) cease and desist your unlawful duplication of Flappy Bird and (ii) promptly communicate your assurance within ten (10) days that you will cease and desist from further infringement of my copyrighted works. If you do not comply with this cease and desist demand within this time period, I am entitled to use your failure to comply as evidence of "willful infringement" and seek monetary damages and equitable relief for your copyright infringement. In the event you fail to meet this demand, please be advised that I will contemplate pursuing all available legal remedies, including seeking monetary damages, injunctive relief, and an order that you pay court costs and attorney's fees. Your liability and exposure under such legal action could be considerable.

Before taking these steps, however, I wish to give you one opportunity to discontinue your illegal conduct by complying with this demand within ten (10) days. Accordingly, please reply to this email within ten (10) days with your acceptance of the attached Agreement. The foregoing is without waiver of any and all rights of myself, all of which are expressly reserved herein. If you or your attorney have any questions, please contact me directly. Sincerely, Dong Nguyen
Now, before we get to the speculation as to who is actually behind this, let's deal with the C&D itself. Nguyen claims this redditor has unlawfully copied Flappy Bird's "graphics and name." The subreddit does indeed use the iconic "Flappy Bird" and is named after the game, but those would be more actionable as trademarks than copyright. Here's the offending banner from the r/FlappyBird subreddit. (The cached version shows the same graphics and text.)

This would appear to be nothing more than use of the name (and bird pic) in the nominative sense, something that's generally considered to be fair use. On the copyright front, there's no registered copyright for Flappy Bird in the US, which would make it difficult for Nguyen to pursue infringement. Nguyen specifically cites US copyright law, which wouldn't apply if there's no registration in the states (specifically, the cited statutory damages). Without a valid registered copyright, Nguyen would have to prove actual damages which would be pretty tough to do considering the app was voluntarily deleted four days before the subreddit came into existence.

If Nguyen's trying to go the trademark route, he runs into a similar problem. There are currently seven pending applications for "Flappy Bird," none of which appear to be filed by him or on his behalf. (The TESS link will expire, so here's a screenshot of the search results.) So there's really no claim there, either.

Beyond those two issues, there's also a problem with the next several accusations, which all seem to indicate Nguyen is chasing unauthorized duplication of his game, something that's clearly not happening in this subreddit.

There's always the possibility that the redditor is cloning Flappy Bird, but if so, this C&D was sent to the wrong place and cites the wrong entity. The C&D was sent directly to the moderator/creator of r/FlappyBird and specifically mentions that subreddit more than once. It could be that Nguyen (or whoever's representing him) has mistaken the gathered Flappy Bird screenshots, fan art and links to various clones as actual duplications of his program, but most likely this isn't the case. Nguyen's a long-time app developer. It would be hard to believe he can't differentiate between a screenshot and an infringing copy.

So that takes us to the question of who's actually behind this C&D.

Dong Nguyen actually seems to be the least likely person to have sent this out. He's already yanked the game (for being "too addictive") and has been working hard to distance himself from its viral success. His Twitter account has been silent since Feb. 8th, save for a single, short response to suicide rumors.
If he was going to try to flex some IP muscle, he has had plenty of opportunity to do so over the past week. The flood of clones to mobile gaming outlets would have given him several legal targets and any number of fan-crafted homages (artwork, websites, etc.) would have utilized far more "copyrighted" material than this subreddit does. He generally seems honestly uninterested in anything other than following his own muse, which explains why he would willingly delete an app that was generating an absurd amount of money.

Now, there could be someone (badly) representing Nguyen who is attempting to pry some cash out of unsuspecting Flappy Bird fans. Like anyone else who suddenly comes into money, Nguyen has probably found himself surrounded with people offering to handle his finances and tackle his legal issues. These sorts of people will probably fare no better than the uncle-of-a-friend who talks himself into a job as a financial advisor for any NBA/NFL phenom -- the kind that only prove how fast they can run through someone else's money. This theory would explain the complete cluelessness of the C&D.

The third theory is that this is just a (slightly advanced) form of trolling. Someone's just tossing out wholly implausible C&Ds and enjoying the small ripples that result. The internet's a big place, and Dong_Nguyen_Legal could literally be anybody… except (most likely) for Dong Nguyen himself.

As it stands now, the recipient of this notice has 10 days (from Feb. 15th) to comply without facing any further legal trouble. (We have to read the notice as straight to read the previous sentence without laughing.) From the looks of the subreddit, nothing has changed. Nor should it. The infringement level here (trademark or copyright) is so low as to be unnoticeable. If this is serious, and some misguided legal rep is preparing to drag Dong Nguyen into an almost unwinnable legal battle, he or she has picked the wrong fight and very certainly the wrong opponent.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  • icon
    Violynne (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 3:29am

    So, a game that copied elements from Nintendo franchises thinks they can claim copyright?

    Someone's got balls.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 18th, 2014 @ 6:18am

    The so called 'flappy bird' looks more like an overweight fish to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 18th, 2014 @ 6:39am

    Intellectual property. Getting content creators paid since... hey, wait a minute...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 18th, 2014 @ 7:11am

    I think it would be rather difficult to pursue a trademark claim if he's no longer selling the game. With trademark, it's use it or lose it, right?

    On the copyright front, any fair use claim would get a boost when considering the effect on the market. He pulled the game from the market, so nothing can have any effect on it.

    That said, unless he provided valid contact information that was just censored from the letter, it's probably some troll.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btrussell (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 7:12am


    How do you pronounce that?

    Dong gone legal?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    artp (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 8:58am

    the three of you

    Make that four.

    And proud of it.

    I don't do Facebook, either. If not having Facebook reportedly puts you on the FBI's dangerously antisocial list, I wonder if not knowing Flappy Bird does the same?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 10:30am

      Re: the three of you

      I did catch a brief mention or two over the past couple of weeks, but that's it. I certainly haven't experienced a media saturation.

      For the record, I did try the game out -- I would classify this as an absolutely terrible game. How it became a fad, I'll never understand. but then, no fad actually makes any sense.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        btrussell (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 10:59am

        Re: Re: the three of you

        "How it became a fad, I'll never understand. but then, no fad actually makes any sense."
        I know nothing of the game, but apparently it is very hard to play. I expect it was the challenge that made it a fad.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), Feb 18th, 2014 @ 11:09am

          Re: Re: Re: the three of you

          It is hard to play -- but because it's a bad game! I understand the appeal of well designed games that are very difficult to play (and there are loads of them -- even of the same genre as Flappy Bird), but not games that are difficult to play as a result of poor design.

          Seriously, this is the level of design and execution I would expect beginning programmers to come out with as part of a Game Design 101 course.

          It just makes me wonder.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            btrussell (profile), Feb 19th, 2014 @ 5:17am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: the three of you

            Back in the old days, twenty years or so :), I would have returned the game.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, Feb 19th, 2014 @ 5:46am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: the three of you

            Not everything that is unconventionally unforgiving is bad. Having not played the game myself, I have to go by others' judgment.


            If this article is right, I can easily understand how this simple and "bad" game felt good. And if no other game provided the same type of thrill to the people who wanted exactly that no wonder it got very successful in it's niche.

            After that, a fad is a fad is a fad. But I wouldn't disregard the influence of good design (however accidental) on the initial success.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Feb 18th, 2014 @ 3:07pm

        Re: Re: the three of you

        You mean the pet rock fad makes no sense to you? Think of the kittens!!!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    slick8086, Feb 18th, 2014 @ 12:31pm

    I think this article constitutes "feeding the trolls"


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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