D**M RL: Copyright Happens

So last December this happened:

Ever since starting my fangame project, I have agonized about how copyright holders would react, seeing how fangames exist in a somewhat gray area, and are usually left at the mercy of the IP owners.

A while back I even posted a shout-out to DRL (formerly DooM RL), and was hopeful that Id Software's apparent support of the project (at least as far as John Carmack was concerned) implied a tacit endorsement of similar projects.

As such, the aforementioned legal letter demanding DRL's creator remove all references to the DooM IP dropped like a bucket of icy water on my personal aspirations of being able to make and share a fangame.

A lot has been posted about this development, with many decrying ZeniMax's (owners of Bethesda, and as such, of Id Software) inconsistency when they recently showed support for Brutal DooM 64, as well as generally denouncing that these actions only harm the fanbase that supports the DooM IP.

I'm not entirely in agreement with any particular side of this argument.

First off I'd like to point out that Brutal DooM is a mod, while DRL is a stand-alone game. This might seem like a trivial distinction, but Brutal DooM requires official DooM files to be played, and as such its popularity translates into a boost to the original game's recognition as well as possible new sales for ZeniMax, meaning their stance on this very different fan creation is not necessarily inconsistent.

Then there's the issue of... Why now? DRL has been out there for more than a decade, why did they decide to bring the hammer down now?

To me, it's very clearly in response to the Jupiter Hell Kickstarter, which is a spiritual successor to DRL, but with an original IP, and, more importantly, to be published as a commercial project.

And here's the thing, ZeniMax's request specifically mentions that DRL's transgression is using the DooM brand to benefit their site and products, which might result in profits, and there is no doubt that this is the case, seeing how Jupiter Hell Kickstarter's tagline literally said "...by the creator of DooM RL".

So the issue is a little bit more complex than it seems. DRL itself is pretty innocuous to the DooM brand, as it has existed for over a decade, but part of DRL's popularity no doubt stems from its use of the DooM brand, and building a new, commercial project on top of said popularity literally means using the DooM brand to promote something else.

Now, it could be argued that Jupiter Hell poses no real threat to ZeniMax's business, but that's beside the point. If use of their IP is tolerated for the promotion of commercial projects, it might set a precedent, and more unscrupulous developers might publish something actually harmful to them. I mean, there's enough underhanded plagiarism floating around in every form of media, imagine if an IP holder made it "legal" to copy them overtly.

Anyway, this is all a massive can of worms, and what I really should focus is in how this affects me and my projects.

Thing is, this very situation is one I had contemplated before, because my project is meant to be pretty much a tech demo for the engine I later plan on using for other projects, possibly even commercial ones, and I have though in the past if my using of the DooM brand for said tech demo would be considered unethical, or even be cause for legal action.

Then again, I've never had any intention of using said project to promote my other projects, but it can be argued that any interest the fangame generates could be then used to redirect people to my other projects, thus abusing the DooM brand for my purposes.

I mean, I've thought so much about this, that my first step before writing a single line of code was to directly email ZeniMax explaining my project and my intentions. I guess the email was ignored, though.

My current approach, thus, is to have the fangame (which I really want to complete) stand alone in its own site, with no links to other projects of mine, and to also be prepared to just take it offline if requested to do so.

We'll see what happens in the future. Right now I'm keeping an eye on the mini DooM project by Calavera Studio, as, if ZeniMax is on a warpath against fangames, they are the obvious next target for legal action. Hope it doesn't happen though.

To end this rant-ish post, just wanted to say that, despite my attitude towards this specific case, I do think fan creations are important, and would love for copyright laws to be better crafted to allow them to exists without harming the IPs being referenced.

I also think that ZeniMax has been quite polite in this instance, given how harshly other companies have behaved, even in situations where the fan creation posed even less of a threat to them (Like how Nintendo handled AMR2 and others).

Finally, despite my criticism of using DRL to promote their Kickstarter (which I don't think was malicious but rather misguided), I hope Jupiter Hell succeeds and the team behind it can start a proper career in game making, it does look promising.

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