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Star Control lead devs fire back at Stardock lawsuit

Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III, the lead developers of the original Star Control games, have sent their lawyers into the fight Stardock started over the series and filed a counterclaim of their own. Stardock are currently making a reboot-o-prequel to the sci-fi RPG-o-adventure, named Star Control: Origins, after buying Star Control assets from Atari in 2013 and want to make quite clear who’s in charge of the series and rights. Ford and Reiche, who are currently making a Star Control sequel in all but name, contest that Atari couldn’t have sold certain rights to Stardock because they had reverted to Ford and Reiche long before then.Stardock are courtfighting with Ford and Reiche over three main things: who holds the rights to the original games and can sell them; who can use characters and lore created for the original games; and who’s allowed to associate their new game with the originals.

Mess #1: both parties selling the original games at times and claiming the other never had the right to. Ford and Reiche had sold those first Star Controls through the digital store GOG for several years, after noticing Atari were selling them. As Ford and Reiche tell it, Atari acknowledged that Atari held the Star Control trademark but the pair held the rights to the games, and they struck a deal to cut them in. Stardock say the duo did not have the rights to do this.

Stardock, for their part, started selling the original games through the Steam store in 2017, and Ford and Reiche say they didn’t have the right to do that. The duo say they petitioned Steam to remove them but Steam sided with Stardock’s counter-claim. Talking of a need to “clear the deck” while trying to resolve all this, Ford and Reiche removed the games from GOG in December. However, the games returned to the store several weeks later at Stardock’s bidding.

Mess #2: the laws of lore. Ford and Reiche say they own the copyright on the first two games, lore and aliens and all. Wardell has publicly acknowledged this. Ford and Reiche’s counterclaim includes several snippets of e-mails from Wardell asking if they could arrange deals to include some of the old aliens or ships, which they turned down. They were a bit riled, then, to see artwork of alien races from their games on Stardock’s site. They say that the spacepolice in Origins are called Star Control, which is part of lore they created. And they say they see a ship of theirs in this Origins marketing screenshot:

star-control-origins

Mess #3: associating your new game with the old Star Controls. Ford and Reiche are currently making Ghosts Of The Precursors, a game they have described as “a direct sequel to Star Control II”. It doesn’t use the Star Control name but it’s the same world, the same story, and the same sort of thing, picking up from the last one they made before another developer stepped in. Stardock object to Ford and Reiche essentially placing Ghosts in a series Stardock feel they own, they dislike Ford and Reiche using old Star Control cover art in promoting it, and they even object to the pair calling themselves the “creators” of the first two games.

Stardock’s filing says that it’s Accolade–the publishers–who created Star Control I and II. They claim that “any authorship that Reiche and Ford may have contributed to the Classic Star Control Games was limited” because the games were the product of a team. More than that, Stardock say they have reason to believe the pair “may not have created any of the artwork, animation or characters incorporated in the games, or otherwise substantially contributed to the authorship” of the first two games.

As much as I dislike our culture’s cult of auteurship which assigns all credit (or blame) to only one or two people while downplaying others, Stardock do seem to be getting a bit carried away. In video games vernacular, it’s understood that “creators” doesn’t mean “these two people did every single thing”. Yes, other people worked on them–they’re listed in the credits, and Star Control I’s manual particularly highlights the contributions of Greg Johnson and Robert Leyland–but this is a bit much. I do wonder what’s making them feel confident enough to make such bold claims.

Ford and Reiche have jokingly responded by wondering if they are clones of the original Fred and Paul, grown in vats.

On the flipside, Ford and Reiche dislike how Stardock have connected Origins to their original games. They object to an interview which explains Stardock CEO Brad Wardell said he’d talked frequently with them about Origins, when they say they only talked once and want nothing to do with it. They also object to Wardell suggesting Origins and their own new game are connected, in an image from that interview. They dislike Stardock selling and showcasing a bundle named Star Control: The Ur-Quan Masters, because while the pair don’t own the ‘Star Control’ trademark, they do have ‘The Ur-Quan Masters’.

In short, both sides say the other is leeching from their brand, sowing confusion, damaging their trademark, and all that.

To reach the root of this confusion, we need to dig down for a brief history lesson.

The first Star Control came out in 1990, developed by Ford and Reiche’s studio, Toys For Bob, and published by Accolade. Ford and Reiche followed up with a sequel, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, in 1992. When Accolade fancied a third game but the duo didn’t want to make it, Reiche gave the publisher a license to include the characters and story created for the first games. This result in 1996’s Star Control 3, made by Legend Entertainment. After Accolade’s plans for a fourth fell through, the series went dormant. French publisher Infogrames bought Accolade in 1999, and Infogrames later renamed itself Atari after buying that too. Then in 2013, Stardock bought Atari’s Star Control assets as part of a bankruptcy fire sale. Soon after, Stardock announced the game they later named Star Control: Origins.

The question seems to be: what exactly did Stardock buy? Less than they think, Ford and Reiche claim. Documents Stardock provide show they got the Star Control trademark and Star Control 3 copyright off Atari, but they don’t list copyrights for the first two games. Wardell has seemed to acknowledge that Reiche had the copyright on them, as pointed out above. However, in one e-mail to Reiche which Stardock included as evidence in their suit, Wardell does say that they bought “all of Accolade’s publishing rights for the original trilogy”, which would be slightly different.

One thing that might seem fairly clear is that the trademark for the Star Control name has been held by publishers, passing from Accolade to Atari/Infogrames then Stardock. When Ford and Reiche released an open-source version of Star Control II in 2002, they named it simply The Ur-Quan Masters because the Star Control trademark was with Accolade. And after Ford and Reiche caught Atari selling those first three games on GOG, the store signed one deal with Atari to license the Star Control name and a separate agreement with the duo for the games themselves.

However, Ford and Reiche now say Atari’s renewals of the Star Control trademark in 2002 and 2007 were fraudulent because they hadn’t sold Star Control since 2000. On those grounds, they want the trademark, since transferred to Stardock, cancelled.

Ford and Reiche’s counterclaim seems to be pushing to take control of Star Control again. They claim that, owing to various expiration and termination clauses in their agreements with Accolade, “all rights to Star Control, Star Control II, and Reiche’s Preexisting Characters used in Star Control 3 reverted to Reiche on or about April 1, 2001” – and they want a judgement to state that decisively. They want to be the only people able to sell the first three games. They want Stardock to stop saying “The Ur-Quan Masters” and stop implying the pair are connected to Star Control: Origins. They want Stardock to return masters and source code for the original games, which they got off Atari. And they want money in damages and costs, obvs.

Stardock, as detailed in December’s opening salvo, basically say and want all that but the other way round.

And that’s where we are! Both sides have claimed their ground and fired their opening legal shots, and we’ll get to see where it goes from here. Both ask for jury trials.

If you want more detail on this, Ars Technica go even deeper and have the court filings to dig into. They also have responses from Stardock fellas which basically say “Oh yeah? But we’re the ones who are right.” Stardock have posted a Q&A from their perspective with less legalese too.

What even is Star Control though? Mate, go read Richard Cobbett’s Star Control II retrospective.

Oh, and to end: offering further proof that video game brands are a hellish breed of ouroboros, the Accolade name was recently revived by Billion Soft to release a new Bubsy game.

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