As YouTube stars the Fine Bros. and media giant Sony face fury over plans to trademark popular video modes, we discuss exactly why these steps would be bad for gaming.
The history of video games is littered with a wide variety of gaming lawsuits and legal battles. Back in the 1980s, Nintendo entered into a dogged legal battle with Universal Studios over Donkey Kong’s likeness to movie monster King Kong. More recently, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega decided to take on Activision over the use of his likeness in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, citing “blatant misuse, unlawful exploitation, and misappropriation for economic gain.”
In just the last couple of weeks, there have also been a pair of extremely controversial trademark disputes. First, Sony tried to claim ownership over the term ‘Let’s Play’, whilst YouTube stars the Fine Bros. then attempted to trademark the concept of the reaction video. Both claims once again brought up the issue of content ownership on the web, with the YouTube community up in arms over the announcements.
The Fine Bros. dispute understandably caused a major storm online. The YouTube duo, whose channel currently sits at a huge 13 million subscribers, tried to trademark reaction videos, which make up the most popular bulk of their channel’s videos. The response to this claim, however, was not exactly in the channel’s favor. Instead, after a string of complaints, the duo conceded defeat and apologized for their actions.
Sony, meanwhile, also went after a hugely popular online video term, this time trying to get their hands on the idea of Let’s Play videos. The phenomenon, in which gamers showcase their own playthrough of a particular game, is incredibly popular online, with Sony then attempting to capitalize. However, things did not go according to plan, with clarification first required on the matter from the USPTO, before the claim was unceremoniously dumped.
Undeterred, Sony tried to trademark Let’s Play once more. Once again, the matter did not go the tech giant’s way, with video game-focused legal team MacArthur Law Firm stating that “the term ‘Let’s Play’ is generic and…Sony should not have exclusive rights over it.” Whether or not Sony will accept the verdict is another matter entirely.
On the face of it, Sony and the Fine Bros. could not be more different. Sony is a multi-national technology company with a long history in the industry and a huge amount of financial clout. The Fine Bros., meanwhile, run a very successful YouTube channel, and appear to be about as far away from the idea of corporate ownership as possible.
However, the similarities in the ways both parties have acted during these trademark debacles show that Sony and the Fine Bros. both have at least one thing in common. In spite of both parties earning plenty of revenue through the use of new media and technology, particularly gaming, it’s clear that Sony and the Fine Bros. have a disappointing lack of awareness regarding the way that new media functions.
Quite simply, some of these traditional business models of trademark claims do not necessarily work in the Internet age. The incredible growth of online has created a whole new world of revenue streams, and these do not always fit with the strict trademark laws that currently exist. There is a grey area over ownership of ideas, and it’s no surprise to see certain companies trying to capitalize on this. However, both the Fine Bros. and Sony have gone about this in the worst possible way.
The potential for financial gain through the use of online media is huge, particularly when video is concerned. PewDiePie is one of the most iconic figures in online video, and has the financial success to prove it. Last year, the Swedish Let’s Play star earned a massive $7.45 million dollars in ad revenue.
Not only that, but online media has powers beyond money gained from advertisements. The individuals who run these popular YouTube channels are also hugely influential with their audiences. A survey carried out by Variety showed that some of these Internet celebrities were more influential than their traditional counterparts, particularly when it came to authenticity.
As such, the Fine Bros. and Sony have made attempts to make a finite grab for online assets. A successful bid would have allowed the companies to have a strong hold on some of the most popular YouTube content. In Sony’s case, it could have granted the company some kind of ownership over seemingly endless of hours of online content. Meanwhile, the Fine Bros. would have protected their own claim as one of the most popular reaction video creators, as well as stifling competition through a granted authority over the concept itself.
There is, however, one big problem with both of these trademarks. The Fine Bros. has neither claim to the idea of reaction videos, nor the authority to stifle those who may create similar videos. Sony, too, has no claim over the idea of a Let’s Play video. Both of these entities, the world of reaction videos and the world of Let’s Plays, exist beyond these companies, taking a place in the public space.
The idea that these companies could own these loose concepts is also incredibly worrying. Frankly, the gaming community and the online community have won important victories when these trademark claims were thrown out. Or, rather, two particularly nasty bullets were dodged. The precedent set by either of these claims could have had major ramifications for the way in which the Internet functions, and it’s unlikely that YouTube’s increased access to legal fee support would help.
Sony and Fine Bros are not the only parties that have tried to strong-arm online media into ownership of content. In fact, in other cases, the company in question has managed to stake a claim to the online age. Nintendo, a company that has always fiercely defended its own intellectual property, takes a strict stance against Let’s Players playing Nintendo games, forging the Nintendo Creators Program and gaining a cut of revenue from any video released using the publisher’s content.
The struggle between companies and online content creators is unlikely to end any time soon, either. Although Sony and the Fine Bros. have been dissuaded from following up on these trademark claims for now, it would not be surprising to see another major player in the industry try to make their own grab for another popular concept. Even though the Internet has been around for a long time now, it seems as though businesses are still sounding out how to make a profit.