Update: King have responded to coverage of their opposition, with a statement issued to Kotaku . You can find their comments, and some further thoughts on them, at the bottom of this article.
Original: Strap into your tightest, most figure-hugging harness, because we're about to take an exciting trip to the magical land of trademark law. It's a lot like Narnia, only Aslan is the foremost expert on intellectual property disputes, and all the visiting children are bored and sad.
In PC gaming terms, King (formerly King.com) are only really notable as being the former employers of Notch before he made Minecraft and, subsequently, all the money in the known universe. However, on top of a slew of other Facebook and iOS games, they also made the Bejewelled-a-like match-3 game Candy Crush Saga. And, if you weren't already aware, Candy Crush Saga is quite popular. Popular enough that the company has now registered to trademark the word "Candy". They've also attempted to trademark the word "Saga", and are now trying to oppose Stoic Games' filing to trademark the name of their own game, The Banner Saga.
As seen by NeoGAF , King have filed a notice of opposition against Stoic Games with the US Patent and Trademark Office. This is because, while they don't have a trademark for the word Saga itself, they do hold trademarks for a slew of titles that contain the word, including Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga, and Hoop de Loop Saga. And thus, a cold shiver did run down the spine of all linguists everywhere.
This counter-action follows a bunch of challenges against games with Candy in the title, including the amazingly named, search-engine baiting All Candy Casino Slots – Jewel Craze Connect: Big Blast Mania Land. RPS have provided a good round-up of King's candy based trademark exploits, which you can read here .
Before we all buy a one-way ticket on the indignation express, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate the nuances of trademark law. For one thing, King are required to protect and enforce their trademarks, else there's a very real chance that they'll lose them. And, in the wild west of mobile game development, it's understandable why they would want protection against people releasing similarly named products. Any Android user who's tried to find a port of a popular iOS game on Google Play will be familiar with seeing a page-full of similarly named clones that hope to trick uninformed users into making a purchase.
It's also important to remember that a trademark doesn't enforce exclusive use. Specifically, it's possible for parties to enter into a coexistence agreement, allowing them to use a trademarked name without legal issues. The problem comes when a trademark holder uses the threat of legal action - and the expenses involved - to coerce someone into backing down. The GamerLaw blog has done a good run-down of the intricacies of trademark law, although I'm not convinced by their argument that, just because such abuses are rare, the law isn't problematic for allowing trademark owners to potentially make unwarranted "grey area" threats.
King's opposition is as follows: "Applicant's THE BANNER SAGA mark is confusingly and deceptively similar to Opposer's previously used SAGA Marks." Except, common sense would hold that Stoic aren't trying to profit from the King definition of "Saga", but rather the real definition of "saga," as in a story about a Viking voyage. Whether the law will recognise this, and overrule King's opposition, remains to be seen, but on Stoic's part, they're remaining true to their name. Well, except for one particularly loaded tweet.
Support us and all future indie SAGAs, by playing #TheBannerSaga http://t.co/s62y5Fza72 January 21, 2014
Since writing this, King have responded to Kotaku . Here's what they have to say:
"We do not have any concerns that Banner Saga is trying build on our brand or our content. However, like any prudent company, we need to take all appropriate steps to protect our IP, both now and in the future.
"In this case, that means preserving our ability to enforce our rights in cases where other developers may try to use the Saga mark in a way which infringes our IP rights and causes player confusion. If we had not opposed Banner Saga's trade mark application, it would be much easier for real copy cats to argue that their use of 'Saga' was legitimate."
I'm not an expert on IP law, which is something I'm becoming increasingly thankful for, but if said law can't distinguish between a legitimate use of the word saga, and it's lesser-known meaning of "a casual mobile puzzle game", then we should probably destroy the entire universe and start again.
What seems astounding to me is that King will readily admit that they're filing opposition despite having no concerns that the Banner Saga is targeting their market. Especially given what they wrote in the original document, which plainly states, "THE BANNER SAGA mark is confusingly and deceptively similar to Opposer's previously used SAGA Marks." Ultimately yes, they're protecting their trademarks, but in a way that highlights how inefficient and punitive the system can appear.