Activision is facing a copyright infringement suit brought by writer, photographer, and videographer Clayton Haugen, who alleges that the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare character Mara is based on a character he created in 2017 for November Renaissance, a story that he hoped to build into a feature film.
The lead character in November Renaissance is Cade Janus, a "female vigilante and pariah figure" caught up in near-future corporate warfare directed by "a non-human intelligence" over control of the process of human augmentation. It all sounds very Deus Ex-like, although Haugen said that opting for a woman in the lead role "would distinguish it from an over-saturated market of action and science fiction movies."
The project was actually rooted in a successful Kickstarter campaign that ran all the way back in early 2012, although the description of the film in the lawsuit, available via TorrentFreak, is quite a bit different from this early concept:
It's a pretty generic B-movie setup overall, but Haugen went all-in on the lead character, hiring someone to portray her and creating a portfolio of photographs of the character decked out with various military props—all of which he says he registered with the US Copyright Office.
Haugen pitched his idea to various film studios, and also posted the photos on his website, Instagram, and in a series of calendars. This is where Activision comes into the matter: Haugen claims the publisher copied the photos without his knowledge or permission and used them in a development document for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 to illustrate that the game's casting "should be reflective of the makeup of the modern population."
It went a step further with the next game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The suit claims that Infinity Ward hired the same model and makeup artist that Haugen used for his Cade Janus photos, had the model's hair done in the same way, posted the Cade Janus photos on a wall at the studio to use as a visual guideline, and when they didn't have "female tactical clothing" to use for the character, "asked the talent to try to get Haugen to lend her the same clothing and props from his Cade Janus Photographs."
"The result was an animated character and a set of photographs that were intended to be, and were, copies of Haugen's Cade Janus Photographs," the suit says. "The 'Mara' character is a skilled female fighter like the character that Haugen described as 'Cade Janus' in his November Renaissance Works. The 'Mara' in-game character’s appearance is substantially similar to the female fighter depicted in Haugen's Cade Janus Photographs. The Defendants' game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare infringes Haugen's copyrights in his Cade Janus character and his Cade Janus Photographs."
Images provided in the lawsuit illustrate some obvious similarities between the characters, but whether they'll be accepted as proof a copyright violation is uncertain.
This sort of allegation seems to be more common of late. In January, indie studio NOWWA claimed that Apex Legends character Fuse is based on the Hunter character from its upcoming game BulletVille. As we noted then, it's hard to say for sure whether similarities are merely coincidence, a case of parallel thought, or truly unfair. We saw something else similar happen late last year, when a woman claimed that the League of Legends character Seraphine was based on her, which Riot emphatically denied.
In this case, Haughen and Activision were both after the same fairly specific archetype, and arrived at very similar places. If Activision really put up Haugen's photos in its office, his footing improves, although artists use lots of things as reference material, and basing a character off the same model isn't itself an infraction.
The lawsuit, which names Activision Publishing, Activision Blizzard, Infinity Ward, and the Activision Blizzard-owned Major League Gaming, seeks "to recover all monetary remedies from Defendants' infringement, including all of their profits attributable to their infringements," plus legal fees and other costs. I've reached out to Activision and Haugen for comment, and will update if I receive a reply.