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11 Times Video Games Led to Lawsuits

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Wikimedia Commons

Lawsuits against video game developers and publishers usually arise from copyright infringement, plagiarism, or, in some cases, wrongful death. Most of these lawsuits are settled out of court, but sometimes they go to trial—and the subsequent court decisions have affected the video game industry as a whole.

1. Pong // Magnavox Vs. Atari

In 1972, Atari’s electronic table tennis game Pong became a bonafide craze—and Ralph Baer, inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey gaming console, sought legal action against Atari. Baer claimed that Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell had copied Magnavox’s version of electronic Ping-Pong after Bushnell played the game at a Magnavox dealership demo a few months before Pong was released.

Bushnell settled the lawsuit out of court in 1976, despite his lawyer’s advice to take it to trial. Atari’s legal costs would’ve exceeded their entire funds, which is why Bushnell settled. As part of the settlement, Atari continued to sell Pong to arcades and on home consoles while paying licensing and royalty fees to Magnavox.

2. Pac-Man and K.C. Munchkin // Atari Vs. Philips

In the early 1980s, Pac-Man was the most popular video game in the world, and its manufacturers, Namco and Midway, were developing a home version port of it for the Atari 2600. But a year before Atari’s release, Magnavox and Philips Electronics debuted the video game K.C. Munchkin, which resembled Pac-Man’s gameplay, for the Philips Videopac home console. While K.C. Munchkin was not a direct clone of Pac-Man, its winding levels and its ghost-like monsters bore an uncanny resemblance to the Atari game.

In 1982, Atari sued Philips for copyright infringement and an appellate court found that Philips had copied Pac-Man. The Court’s ruling was the first to recognize how copyright law would apply to the look and feel of computer software.

Later in the year, Atari released the homeport of Pac-Man. Despite selling 7 million copies and being the best-selling video game at the time, critics panned it for its terrible gameplay and graphics, and large quantities of Pac-Man were returned to retailers.

3. Donkey Kong // Universal City Studios Vs. Nintendo

Universal Studios filed a lawsuit against Nintendo for copyright infringement in 1982, claiming video game creator Shigeru Miyamoto had based Donkey Kong’s story and characters on King Kong, the movie studio’s intellectual property. Nintendo fought the lawsuit and claimed that King Kong was in the public domain after it was revealed that Universal sued RKO—the movie studio that made the original 1933 film—over King Kong’s film rights. At the time, Universal also claimed that King Kong was in the public domain when they made the remake in 1976.

A few years after Universal filed the lawsuit, the United States District Court sided with Nintendo that King Kong was, in fact, in the public domain and Donkey Kong did not violate any copyrights that Universal did not own. Nintendo was awarded $1.8 million from Universal, which was a big win for the then-small video game company.

4. Unlicensed Nintendo Games // Nintendo Vs. Tengen

At the height of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s popularity in the late 1980s, Nintendo had very strict license agreements with third-party developers to only release five games per year, and that these titles would be exclusive to Nintendo for two years. Nintendo argued that this ensured high quality for consumers and they would put the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality” sticker on each game.

In 1987, the Atari Corporation split into two divisions—Atari Games and Tengen—and tried to negotiate a less restrictive license with Nintendo, but the company refused. Tengen turned to the United States Copyright Office to acquire designs of Nintendo’s “lock-out” chip to reverse engineer and bypass it so they could sell as many unlicensed video games for the NES as they wanted. As soon as Nintendo got wind of Tengen’s actions, they sued the company for copyright and patent infringement. The U.S. courts sided with Nintendo, and Tengen settled the lawsuit out of court.

See Also: 25 Things We Learned in the First Issue of Nintendo Power

5. Mortal Kombat // Wilson Vs. Midway Games

In 1997, a 13-year-old boy named Noah Wilson passed away after his best friend stabbed him in the chest with a kitchen knife, severing his aorta. Noah’s mother sued Midway Games, makers of Mortal Kombat, claiming her son’s best friend was addicted and obsessed with the fighting game and that he believed he was the character Cyrax, a robotic ninja. The court held that Midway Games was not liable for the death under the First Amendment, as the State of Connecticut could not violate their free speech rights to make video games.

6. Mary-Kate and Ashley in ACTION! // The Olsen Twins Vs. Acclaim

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In 2004, twin celebrities Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen sued video game publisher Acclaim over $177,966.32 in back royalties after their company Dualstar Entertainment split from Acclaim a year earlier. Acclaim was to pay back royalties plus "maximum interest" and an additional $300,000 over the cancelation of the title Mary-Kate and Ashley in ACTION! for the GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2, and PC in 2003.

A letter from the Olsen twin’s lawyer to Acclaim asserted that the video game publisher “blatantly abandoned the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand and has taken the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand in video games which had flourished and has now run it into the ground."

7. Grand Theft Auto // Strickland Vs. Sony

In 2005, attorney Jack Thompson filed a lawsuit against Sony Corporation of America for the wrongful deaths of police officers Arnold Strickland and James Crump and dispatcher Leslie Mealer. Devin Moore shot and killed all three victims after grabbing an officer's gun while being detained for car theft. Thompson claimed that Sony and Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was to blame for the deaths because Moore was trying to recreate scenes from the controversial video game.

The Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit under Sony and Rockstar’s First Amendment rights.

8. New Super Mario Bros Wii // Nintendo Vs. Burt

A 24-year-old Australian man named James Burt was ordered to pay Nintendo $1.5 million after he bought an early release of New Super Mario Bros Wii and illegally uploaded the game to the Internet. The file was downloaded more than 50,000 times over the course of five days before it was to be released in November 2009. The copying and distribution of video games without permission is a violation of the Copyright Act under Australian law. Nintendo and Burt came to an out-of-court settlement agreement that reflected the video game company’s loss of revenue for a full week of sales. Burt had to pay an additional $100,000 to Nintendo for the company’s legal bills and court costs.

Although Nintendo sued Burt, the company gave him a very exclusive gift: A limited edition Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD Ganon statue in 2013. The Ocarina of Time heals all wounds.

9. Guitar Hero // The Romantics Vs. Activision

Rock band The Romantics filed a lawsuit against Activision over the use of their song “What I Like About You” in Guitar Hero Encore, Rocks the 80s in 2007. Despite giving Activision written permission to use a cover version of the song, the Detroit-based band claims that the song used in the video game sounded too much like their original. A Detroit federal judge sided with Activision under the license agreement the company had acquired from the rock band.

10. Lineage II // Smallwood Vs. NCsoft

In 2010, a Hawaiian man named Craig Smallwood filed a lawsuit against the South Korean company NCsoft for making massively multiplayer online game (MMO) Lineage II too addictive. From 2004 to 2009, Smallwood invested more than 20,000 hours playing the game and averaged about 11 hours of gameplay a day. He claimed he became psychologically dependent and addicted to Lineage II and was “unable to function independently in usual daily activities such as getting up, getting dressed, bathing or communicating with family and friends.”

The lawsuit continued to hold NCsoft liable because the company failed to provide any warning that the MMO was so addictive. In 2011, Smallwood filed a motion to seal the lawsuit.

11. NCAA Football 2014 // O’Bannon and Keller Vs. Electronic Arts

EA Sports/NY Times

In 2009, former collegiate athletes Ed O’Bannon and Sam Keller filed a lawsuit against Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company under the claim that they were not paid royalties for their likeness rights for the NCAA Basketball and Football video game series from E.A. The pair settled out of court with Electronic Arts for an undisclosed sum in 2013, while the company announced that they would no longer sell NCAA Football 2014, putting the franchise’s future in limbo.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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