A Bedtime Tale of Trademarks

Are you all sitty comfty-bold two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time, there was a game company called Spectrum HoloByte. The product lines that this company developed and published are written in the annals of history: Falcon, Tetris, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Spectrum HoloByte was then lead by a benevolent ruler, who we shall call Gilman. One day, in a bit of overexuberance for which charismatic leaders are known, Gilman announced that his company, with its teams of (necessarily underpaid) game developers, would create the strongest chess program ever. With that decision, the great challenge began.

Soon, Gilman learned that which so many before him had also realized: chess programming is resilient to good intentions and extra resources. He eventually had to admit defeat, but like any good leader, he had an alternative plan. Rather than simply kill the project, Spectrum HoloByte would instead create the funniest chess program ever.

So, at this point National Lampoon was enlisted (at least for the name) and it was decided that “if you can’t beat them, ridicule them.” Lots of artwork, video, sound effects, and voiceovers were added to the game, so the game eventually shipped on twelve 3.5″ floppy disks. (There was also a SKU on CD-ROM, but few consumers actually had CD drives at the time.)

Everything seemed to be going fairly smoothly, if slowly, for the chess game. Then one day during beta testing, a new Senior Software Engineer in the PC Group noticed that the chess being played was particularly poor. I… I mean, he… had done some basic chess programming, so he used his simple program from 5 years earlier and it played against the new game’s highest level and won!

This was clearly not right. Fortunately, one of the wizards of the kingdom, who we shall call Erick, came to the rescue of the product in distress and saved the day. (If you must know, there was a serious bug in the handling of the hash tables. When fixed, the game crushed the old program, as it rightly should.) As with any good fairy tale, the victory was just in time, as the boxes were already printed, and the disk duplication had to commence at once.

Alas, this is where the story takes an unexpected turn and reveals the true conflict. After some 30,000 boxes had been printed for National Lampoon’s ChessMeister 5 Billion and 1, a lawyer informed the producer (and, apparently, everybody else who would take his calls) that the name violated the trademark of their client, whose product was not the strongest chess program, nor the funniest, but perhaps it was the market leader. Perhaps, too, that was why it was the target of the parody.

The test for determining a trademark violation is possibility of confusion. Perhaps the “ChessMeister” part sounded a little similar to some portion of the other name, but the “National Lampoon’s … 5 Billion and 1” part (fully 70% of the name) was unique. There is also a principal known as fair use that covers parody, but the lawyer was kind[sic] enough to provide case law citations to indicate that this may not apply to commercial speech. Spectrum HoloByte relented and agreed to change the name.

Having forced retreat, the lawyer advanced further. Not only was the name a violation, so was the image of the crazy old man with a white beard (because, apparently, nobody had ever seen one of those before). The rumor was that the image used for the other product was modeled after somebody’s grandfather, so they took this as a personal insult. So, the old man had to shave, but that was not all. He also had to lose the “Blisterine” he swilled because, somehow, a company had associated their trademark with it after magically discovering the contents of the inside box artwork for a game that had not yet been released.

After a tough week, Paul, our ChessMeister turned Chess Maniac, shaved his beard, sustaining a cut to his chin, and took to some unidentified purple liquid. (He did resort to a bottle of some disgusting pink stuff, but that, too, was taken from him for legal reasons.) Finally, he made his appearance on the cover of National Lampoon’s Chess Maniac 5 Billion and 1.

Here are some box shots (outside and inside cover) of the released game:

Fortunately for everyone involved, and for the sake of the whole economy, the lawyer and his puppeteers forced Spectrum HoloByte to destroy the 30,000 boxes already printed, thus saving consumers across the country, and maybe even around the world, from potential confusion.

Can you image what it might have been like had one of those boxes made it into the wild? If, hypothetically, one of the unfolded ChessMeister boxes had fallen off the truck as it drove away to the landfill, I imagine it would have looked something like this:

Alas, this story does not have a happy ending. Our good liege had his kingdom overrun with vulture capitalists, who dethroned him and ceded his company to others of their breed. Gilman himself then became one of them working on behalf of the CIA. (No, seriously… he does. If you do not believe me, look up In-Q-Tel.)

In an act of fair use, let me end this story with a quote from the user manual: “Any reference to persons living, dead, undead, or just plain boring is purely intentional and done totally in jest. Don’t sue us, please!

Most Popular Solitaire

Early last week, we finished a brand new product, Most Popular Solitaire.

Most Popular Solitaire was released by Goodsol Development on August 30th. As the name implies, it contains 30 of the most popular solitaire games. The criteria used for the selection were which games are widely known (such as Klondike, Canfield, and Spider), played most often in Pretty Good Solitaire, or simply have some special significance.

All but one of the games in Most Popular Solitaire are among the 611 games implemented in PGS 10.2 (the current version). The one extra game, Crazy Quilt, involves a layout with cards rotated 90 degrees, a feature not available in PGS until the next version. This title provides an alternative for solitaire players who are overwhelmed by the huge selection of game in other titles (or who just want to spend a little less money).

One benefit of Most Popular Solitaire that will not appear in any feature list for the game is the fact that it uses an interface similar to that from Pretty Good MahJongg and Action Solitaire. The games themselves are very similar to Pretty Good Solitaire, and they even share the same high score lists. However, Most Popular Solitaire was written in Visual C++ and does not use any of the same code as the PGS executable. (It does share library code that is used in the card drawing library we wrote for Goodsol, though.)

The release of this title solidifies Goodsol Development as the undisputed leader in solitaire game software and sets the stage for further collaboration between Goodsol and SophSoft, Incorporated.

Stay tuned…

Grand Rapids Schmooze 2005

A significant networking event arrives in ten days.

The Grand Rapids Schmooze 2005 will occur this year from the evening of Thursday, September 15, through the morning of Sunday, September 18. This one is shaping up to be the best shareware schmooze I have yet attended (of only 3).

What is a “schmooze“? A schmooze is an informal networking event for independent shareware authors to meet and socialize. Unlike a conference, there are no sessions or other formal events. Instead, a hotel suite serves as the headquarters, and participants arrive and depart on their own schedule, many staying at the hotel throughout. There are field trips arranged for certain meals and to visit local attractions, but most of the time is spent in conversation at the suite, where drinks and snacks are available.

I am particularly excited about this schmooze because we, SophSoft and Digital Gamecraftâ„¢ are hosting Campfire under the Full Harvest Moon, an optional event on Saturday night. That evening just happens to coincide with the full moon for September, the Harvest Moon, and it provides a decent escape from the confines of the schmooze headquarters. I just have to hope for decent weather so we can enjoy a little fresh air, a nice campfire, and some refreshments.

If you are an independent software developer (or in the industry) or a game developer (established or aspiring), and you are within reasonable (or even unreasonable) traveling distance, I encourage you to consider attending the Grand Rapids Schmooze 2005. It is an excellent way to both network for your business and make good friends.

Katrina update

The giving continues at high levels.

The local radio stations mentioned in my previous post set a goal of 40,000 bottles of water to fill a truck destined for the hurricane survivors. That first truck left on Friday evening as my wife and sons watched. In the following 24 hours, the people of the Lansing area filled a second truck. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth! They collected over a quarter million bottles of water as donations, and the local stores are running low. Additionally, they also took in, at last report, more than $223,000 in cash donations at one location.

Of course, most of the monetary donations are going directly to the American Red Cross, who are now running radio advertisements asking that donations be sent to local chapters due to the overwhelming response.

Also, today it was announced that Michigan is preparing Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, to receive 500 or 1000 evacuees (depending on the news report) as early as tomorrow. Governor Granholm has offered to accept 10000 people displaced by Katrina, planning to house some at Camp Grayling, where our local Boy Scout troop has stayed for recreation. The Lansing School District, which just closed five schools this summer, is now making these buildings available for housing.

As tragic as the situation is, it is nevertheless gratifying to see the outpouring of generosity.

First things first

Sometimes, events remind us of what is truly important.

Please, I urge you to donate to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. You can make financial contributions directly to the American Red Cross. Many local organizations are also collecting various needed items. Here in the Lansing area, a local beer distributor is donating trucks, and the local media has started collecting bottled water from residents (including us) and the first shipment of 40,000 bottles of water is already on the road south. Another relief effort is being organized in Corpus Christi, Texas, by CoffeeCup Software.

If you were fortunate enough not to be directly affected by this killer storm, please reflect on the need and help where you can.

Thank you.