之前社交游戏公司Crowdstar日前正式起诉WonderHil，理由是WonderHil旗下的Aquarium Life（水族馆生活）侵犯了Crowdstar现行的游戏Happy Aquarium （开心水族馆）。sfweekly网站将它称为不让人愉悦的法律诉讼。该诉讼包含了两个层面，一个是版权纠纷，另外一个则是涉及不正当的竞争，因为这两个游戏同样在facebook平台公开面向用户的。
最近的案子是zynga起诉playdom。去年作为facebook和myspace领先的游戏开发者遭遇了6个月的游戏开发荒，playdom成员实施了对zynga游戏的拷贝行为。当然不仅仅是这些，Psycho Monkey的作品Mob Wars就是模仿自zynga旗下的mafia wars。
A year ago, Playdom co-founder Dan Yue was depressed that his social gaming company, which says it has 38 million monthly users on platforms like Facebook and MySpace, hadn’t launched a new game in almost six months.
Following Zynga Game Networks wasn’t fun either, he wrote in an e-mail exchange with his lead game designer.
“I run into Zynga folks at bars every weekend and have to deal with them calling me out for cloning them,” Yue wrote. “It sucks. But it sucks even more missing quarterly earning projections.”
Zynga’s lawyers are now using that message, among other evidence, to cast Playdom as a desperate competitor that stooped to unfair and illegal tactics — including trade secret theft. Its first amended complaint, filed in April, names eight current and former Playdom employees, alleging they stole key documents from Zynga on their way out the door to new jobs at Playdom.
It’s an extreme but by no means isolated example of litigation in the social gaming sector, which features young companies vying for position in a lucrative and fast-growing market where copycat games and employee poaching are commonplace.
Social gaming is expected to contribute more than $800 million this year to the $1.6 billion virtual goods market, according to a recent report by Inside Virtual Goods.
Legal questions continue to surround the sector’s ubiquitous practice of “fast following” — quickly copying competitors’ successful gaming concepts.
“There certainly has been a lot of litigation in the area,” said Robert Taylor, managing partner of the Palo Alto, Calif., office of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. “Some of it stems from [the fact that] exactly what people are precluded from copying is not 100 percent clear.”
Taylor represented Psycho Monkey, creator of a game called Mob Wars, in skirmishes over who owned the mob game idea and whether it was ripped off by Zynga Game Network’s Mafia Wars game.
First, Psycho Monkey founder David Maestri was sued by his former employer, SGN, which contended it owned the Mob Wars idea because Maestri was working for SGN when he developed the prototype. That suit ended in a confidential settlement with SGN recognizing Maestri and Psycho Monkey as the sole owners of the Mob Wars game. Psycho Monkey then sued both Zynga and Playdom, saying their games copied Mob Wars. Those suits have settled, too. “The idea that you can have a simulated farm — it’s probably not protectable,” said James Chadwick, an IP lawyer and partner in the Silicon Valley office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton who isn’t involved in the cases mentioned here. “There’s a real question about whether or not you can force, on the basis of an intellectual property claim, your right to your exclusive use [of that idea].”
In a suit filed in federal court in April, lawyers at Cooley said that WonderHill infringed on CrowdStar’s copyright when it launched a game called Aquarium Life to compete with Happy Aquarium.
One signature feature of their client’s game, the Cooley lawyers elucidated in the complaint, is “a function that allows fish to ‘mate’ by doing a distinctive mating dance to a backdrop of hearts and romantic music.”
‘WONKY LEGAL REPERCUSSIONS’
The facts alleged in Zynga’s suit against Playdom are a trade-secret lawyers’ nightmare. One game designer Playdom tried to hire worked on “homework assignments” for his competitor, but warned co-founder Yue to use the information confidentially, because, he wrote, “it could have wonky legal repercussions.”
Yue, before interviewing a Zynga employee for a job in 2008, said in an another e-mail cited in court filings: “Poaching from Zynga. I like it. Though I feel like we might be signing our own death warrant.”
“These are young companies with young entrepreneurs without a lot of experience dotting I’s and crossing T’s in terms of protection of intellectual property,” Chadwick said.
Zynga seemed to be most upset about the alleged theft of its “Zynga Playbook,” which it described as “literally the recipe book that contains Zynga’s ‘secret sauce,’” a collection of nonpublic “concept, techniques, know-how and best practices for developing successful and distinctive social games.”
And Zynga has tried to make it clear in court filings that Playdom is not just a small startup it’s beating up on. It pointed out, for example, that Playdom is said to have upwards of $50 million in annual revenue and continues to attract financing from third-party investors.
“Zynga’s strategy in this and the plethora of other actions it has filed since its founding is to use litigation as a weapon against competitors,” said Carolyn Hoecker Luedtke, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson who represents Playdom. “For example, Zynga claims it owns commonly known aspects of social gaming such as avatar customization, leveling up and harvesting.”
Zynga is represented by Bradford Newman, a partner in the Silicon Valley office of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker who has long handled Yahoo’s trade secret cases. Newman referred a request for comment to Zynga’s new general counsel, Reggie Davis, who came to Zynga from Yahoo last year. Davis wasn’t available to comment.
Playdom’s lawyer, Jerome Roth at Munger, Tolles & Olson, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Zynga’s case against Playdom is different from its typical suit against rivals. Its 13 open cases listed on the docket in the Northern District are all trademark or copyright infringement cases.
It’s also atypical in the amount of legal maneuvering it’s spawned.
One former Playdom employee named in the suit faces a contempt hearing next month, having admitted that he deleted computer files after a judge ordered him not to. That employee, Raymond Holmes, said by phone last week that he’d made a “stupid mistake,” and Zynga had a right to pursue contempt against him, though he thought the suit itself was “ludicrous.” Playdom, he said, paid for his defense attorney, Steven Manchester, for about a month. Holmes is now working for PlayFirst, a company best known for its game Diner Dash.
At a March hearing, former Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Lucy Koh said Playdom had induced Zynga employees to breach their employee confidential information agreements “by begging them to do ripoffs of their competitors,” according to a recent brief Newman filed. Koh described the solicitations as “perhaps one of the most egregious I’ve seen.” Koh ordered Playdom not to use or destroy Zynga trade secrets, or ask about game improvements during job interviews of Zynga employees.
Luedtke, the Playdom lawyer, countered that Koh had refused to enjoin the release of Playdom’s “Big City Life” despite Zynga’s repeated requests she do so.
The case hasn’t yet been set for trial. “These are the early days for the social networking game space,” Chadwick said. “As this sector matures, people are going to start getting out of each other’s way a little bit. I think what you’ll see is a little bit less of people bumping up against each other, but it will be more serious when they do.”