News

Legal Expert Warns Of Trouble For Unlicensed Star Wars Battlefront Successor

by Mike Futter on Jun 06, 2016 at 08:41 AM

Over the weekend, news emerged that a group called Frontwire Studios is planning to publish a “spiritual successor” to Star Wars: Battlefront 3. The team’s game, Galaxy in Turmoil, is so faithful that it uses Star Wars ship designs, characters, and concepts.

Galaxy in Turmoil has been in development for PC on Unreal Engine 4 for about six months, with a team of approximately 50 working to bring it together. The game was unlikely to be released due to licensing issues (Disney hasn’t granted one), until Frontwire announced over the weekend that it now has plans to release the game on Steam for free.

Frontwire's work doesn't use any of the abandoned code for Free Radical's canceled Star Wars Battlefront 3. You can read much more about how that game fell apart in Andrew Reiner's extensive story, "Fall of the Empire."

The team doesn't have a specific release date it's willing to share yet, though has an idea of when we might see the beta. "Too often we see companies pushing out release dates that they eventually can't meet," Frontwire president Tony Romanelli says. "We don't want to fall into the category. While we'd like to have a BETA out within the next 9 months, we're not going to make any promises."

In speaking with Polygon, Frontwire says it has spoken with attorneys who suggest that the game won’t face trouble from Disney because it falls under fair use. Romanelli believes that excising the Star Wars name and music and opting not to charge for the game will protect them from Disney’s long legal reach. The company explains in a blog post on its site.

"People have been expressed their concern as of late, saying they expect us to get a Cease & Desist from Disney," Romanelli writes. "I’ll be honest – I’ve had mild concerns myself from time to time. However Valve clearly lacks that same concern. By agreeing to publish Galaxy in Turmoil, Valve is assisting us in growing and ensuring the longevity of the Galaxy in Turmoil project and community as a whole." 

Romanelli says in a blog post on the company website that Valve has agreed to publish the game. We reached out to him for clarification regarding the nature of the relationship.

"I'll admit - that was poor choice of words on my part," Romanelli told us. "Valve has agreed to do nothing more than ship our game on Steam. We're not receiving any publishing benefits in the sense of funding, marketing, PR and/or anything else that is generally included in publishing deals. In addition, I can't speak for Valve, nor was I trying to speak for Valve by stating they do not share the same concern as many other do about the legal side of our project. It was simply an observation on my end as I personally feel that if Valve thought for even a second that there could be a potential legal issue with our arrangement, we would not be able to ship via Steam.

We also asked him about the advice Frontwire has received from legal counsel. According to Romanelli, Galaxy in Turmoil is classified as a parody.

"Our counsel has advised us that we currently fall into three of the four major defenses for Fair Use claims," he told us via email. "Due to the nature of the campaign we are developing, we can be classed as a parody. We're re-imagining a lot of what Star Wars is as well by creating everything from the ground up. This includes models, textures, sounds, etc. In addition, we're actually using this as a tool for educational purposes. We're not sticklers about who can help us. As long as you have a working understanding of your craft and you are open to learning from those more experienced, we'll teach you along the way. We have some amazing coders that know very little about modeling. We have amazing modelers teaching those very coders how to model characters. Our team is currently helping others learn tools of the trade that can help them in the future."

Morrison / Lee co-founder Ryan Morrison specializes in video game law and has founded the Fair Use Protection Account. The account is designed to help victims of copyright trolls and unfair copyright takedowns. He believes that despite Romanelli's confidence, Frontwire is in for some trouble.

“You would be hard pressed to find a stronger advocate for fair use on the internet than myself, but this game is in no way fair use,” Morrison tells us. “It actually infuriates me to see people spreading such terrible misinformation throughout various websites, especially journalists, because it encourages other developers to do the same. It quite literally ruins lives. It doesn't take more than a five second Google search to see this game has nothing to do with parody law. And if you further examine fair use, you will see it is a defense, not a right. Not charging for your product is a factor in fair use, but not the end all be all. You can't just remake a game start to finish, utilizing every asset of the original, and pretend it's okay because it's free. After so many games have been taken down over similar [circumstances], and after so many developers' lives have been ruined from this, it's just the definition of insanity at this point.“

Morrison also takes Frontwire’s representation of the Valve arrangement to task, suggesting that Valve’s agreement to distribute isn’t the same as a publishing deal. While Valve self-publishes, the company doesn’t actively have that arrangement with third-party developers.

“Steam works the same as the Apple app store, where they basically let everything up, and only take things down when they get a report under the DMCA take-down procedure,” Morrison says. “That leaves the developer and his team homeless after Disney or EA comes after them, and Valve without any risk at all. This developer said they spoke with an attorney, and if they did, shame on that attorney.“

“I love fair use, and I love free speech,” Morrison says. “This game is neither. Some free advice for the developer, take this game down yesterday.”

[Source: Frontwire Studios]

 

Our Take
Fair use is a term thrown around a lot, especially on the internet. However, many people see it as a shield against being the target of lawsuits rather than the defense against those actually filed. Frontwire can't stop Disney from using its legal muscle.

Romanelli says that Disney would have to outlast the small studio in a legal fight. I suspect that won't be a problem.

With regard to the Fair Use Protection Account, anyone with fair use concerns can email Ryan Morrison at fupa@morrisonlee.com for more information.