Someone, who prefers to remain anonymous, sent over the news that a company named Everglades Interactive has sued basically all of the big "social gaming" providers for patent infringement. Among those sued are EA, Playdom, Disney (which just bought Playdom), Zynga, Playfish, Rockyou and Crowdstar. The patent in question? It's patent 6,656,050, for an "odds accelerator for promotional type sweepstakes, games, and contests." If you read the details, it seems like the pretty standard process of taking various sweepstakes involving matching pieces (bottle caps, peel off stickers, etc.) to get certain prizes but moving it online. Of course, once you move such a physical process online, you can do slightly different things since you're not limited by geography and physical distribution. But all that seems like it should be obvious. Not to the patent examiners of course, who judged it patent worthy.
So how do all these social gaming sites infringe?
... by, among other things, making, using, importing, offering for sale, and/or selling products and services that provide game pieces that are applied to a game board at a game site, make information available about the pieces needed to complete a winning combination, allow the player to share or trade the game pieces, and enable the players to easily and securely store game pieces....
Of course, you would think that since pretty much every social gaming system does this, that it would be clear that this was an obvious thing to do if you're building a social gaming system. But, tragically (and ridiculously), that's not how our patent system works.
In February of 2009, we noted that the makers of the popular Facebook game Mob Wars was suing Zynga, the makers of the (also popular) Facebook game Mafia Wars. As we noted at the time, this was a bit silly, since both games were based on a series of other very, very similar games that had come before them. Neither was particularly original. And then, a few months later, Zynga struck out and claimed trademark infringement against another company, Playdom (recently purchased by Disney) for its game Mobsters. Again, this seemed to be a blatant abuse of trademark law to attack a competitor, rather than a legitimate complaint. Either way, Zynga eventually paid up on the first complaint, shelling out an estimated $7 to $9 million.
And now it continues with yet another player. Eric Goldman points us to the news that game maker Digital Chocolate is now suing Zynga for trademark infringement over the name "Mafia Wars," noting that it has actually offered a game called Mafia Wars itself since 2004:
Apparently Digital Chocolate complained about Zynga's use of the identical name from early on, and Zynga promised that it would not trademark or claim trademark on "Mafia Wars." Yet, as the complaint against Playdom demonstrated, it absolutely did exactly that, and Digital Chocolate is not at all pleased:
Digital Chocolate has repeatedly objected to Zynga's ongoing use of the MAFIA
WARS mark, but despite Digital Chocolate's notices and demands, Zynga has persisted in
offering its game under the MAFIA WARS mark. Although in May 2009 Zynga expressly
assured Digital Chocolate, in writing, that "Zynga does not claim trademark rights in MAFIA
WARS," just two months later Zynga filed an application with the United States Patent and
Trademark Office ("USPTO") seeking to register MAFIA WARS as its trademark. Despite being
on notice of Digital Chocolate's senior rights and infringement claim, Zynga repeatedly
misrepresented to the USPTO that no other entity owned or claimed rights in the MAFIA WARS
Through duplicity and bad faith, Zynga has effectively hijacked the MAFIA
WARS mark from Digital Chocolate and is aggressively marketing its games under the MAFIA
WARS mark to Digital Chocolate's substantial detriment. To protect its intellectual property
rights and prevent Zynga from benefitting from its wrongful conduct, Digital Chocolate has
initiated this action.
The complaint certainly doesn't make Zynga look good, though the company has always had a really nasty reputation when it comes to its business practices. Still, it's really amazing how many legal fights there can be over a game like Mafia Wars, with such a generic name, and based on a concept that was around in other games for ages. Either way, given the pretty clear evidence that Digital Chocolate was first in this market, and Zynga's questionable statements claiming that it was first, I'd be surprised if Zynga doesn't end up handing over a large check to Digital Chocolate at some point soon. Considering that (unlike the other disputes), Digital Chocolate clearly was using the identical name, and offering a similar game, this seems like one trademark dispute that actually does involve a legitimate "likelihood of confusion."
Apparently, today's mobsters are intellectual property lawyers. Back in February, we wrote about a ridiculous lawsuit between the creator of an online game, Mob Wars, and the online creator of the game Mafia Wars, claiming copyright infringement. Of course, the whole claim was silly since the game itself is based on a rather common game concept that was around for ages before either of these games existed. Rather than fighting a silly court battle, why not actually compete on features? So now we've got a new battle, between Zynga (makers of Mafia Wars) and Playdom, the makers of yet another game, called Mobsters, with Zynga claiming trademark infringement due to the way Playdom is running ads for Mobsters.
But the details seem like this is an abuse of trademark law to harm a competitor rather than a legitimate complaint. Zynga's complaint is that Playdom put up an ad that read: "Like Mafia Wars? Click here to play Mobsters. Its [sic] got henchmen, mini games, message boards and sophisticated style." Zynga claims that this is somehow confusing because it doesn't include Playdom's name anywhere. However, it seems abundantly clear that the ad is for a different game and they're just targeting players of Zynga's game. That's not trademark infringement. That's targeted advertising. It's why Pepsi is allowed to run ads trying to get Coke drinkers to switch. You can use the name of your competitor in an ad.
What's especially disappointing is that some of Zynga's investors, such as Fred Wilson and Brad Feld, have long complained about misuses of intellectual property law to stop competition -- and now they're supporting a company that appears to be doing the same thing. It's a waste of money that should be going towards competing and making a better game, rather than worrying about what competitors are saying in their ads.