The Case Against Stardock

(Also available in TL;DR version)

Why I’m not buying Star Control: Origins

I’ve been a fan of the series since I first played Star Control 2 back in the 1990s. I’ve run numerous fan-led collaborative stories (RPGs) in the universe, both online and off. I’ve made friends because of this franchise. I’m a life-long fan.

When “Star Control: Origins” was originally announced, I was quite excited. It wouldn’t be the original team, but a new Star Control game was still something to look forward to. I was even more excited when Brad himself announced “Ghosts of the Precursors”. It seemed clear that the two games had found a way to co-exist.

Then, everything fell apart.

Initially, Stardock was actively on board with Ghosts being made. Then, Stardock wanted to clear up some language in the announcements, and Paul & Fred complied. Months passed before Stardock escalated again, now claiming that the language used in the initial Ghosts announcement had caused them millions in damages. And now Stardock is even seeking to seize the Reiche IP, which they once publicly agreed they had no rights to.

As I investigated the issue, there was a clear pattern: Stardock is only telling us half the story. Their actions tell a very different story, though: they don’t want to share the stage with Paul & Fred. And they’re willing to fight dirty to get their way.

I’d love to support both games, but a dollar for Stardock is a dollar in their unwarranted legal attack against the creators of the franchise.

First, a bit of history

In 1992, Paul Reiche and Fred Ford, together with an amazing team of musicians, graphic artists, and others, produced “Star Control 2”. This game was so well received that, even two decades later, it was one of the highest ranked games in Kotaku’s 2013 “Best PC Games of All Time”.

A few years later, 1996, Accolade attempted to cash in on this success with a new game, Star Control 3. Unfortunately, to fans of the franchise, it was a disappointment: Paul & Fred weren’t on the team, the writing and plot were much weaker, and the game had a number of critical bugs.

In 2013, Accolade went bankrupt, and Stardock purchased the trademark to the “Star Control” franchise in the bankruptcy auction. Even if it wasn’t the original team, a new Star Control game was something the fans had been waiting 25 years for.

Things looked even better when, in October 2017, the original developers of the franchise, Paul Reiche & Fred Ford, announced that they would be using their own rights and IP from the franchise to produce “Ghosts of the Precursors”. This new game would finally continue the story they started in Star Control 1+2. We’d be getting both a new Star Control game, and a continuation of the original story – just not both in the same game.

Paul & Fred have fought for 25 years to make this a reality. They even petitioned Activision to let them do a proper sequel to cleanse our palettes of Star Control 3. When none of that worked, they built up enough savings to take a few years off work, so they could independently work on giving Star Control 2’s story another chapter.

1) Stardock sues the original developers

Stardock itself initially promoted and endorsed the announcement for Ghosts Of The Precursors. A few months later, nothing had changed about the potentially infringing material, but now Stardock was launching a lawsuit against the original developers of the franchise. Stardock claims that by calling Ghosts a “sequel”, Paul & Fred violated Stardock’s newly-acquired trademark. By May, the issue had escalated drastically. In the CEO’s own words: “We are confident that we will be able to show that the confusion they have generated has cost us several percent losses in sales which translates to millions of dollars in revenue.”

Stardock is claiming quite a substantial loss of revenue here: potentially 5-10% of total sales, not from any confusion Stardock’s own promotion caused, but simply from Paul & Fred themselves. To give a sense of scale, Paul & Fred have about a thousand Twitter followers; Stardock has over 14 thousand; and the CEO of Stardock personally enjoys an audience of 43 thousand! If Paul & Fred caused millions in damages, how much worse must the damage be from Stardock’s own promotion of that announcement? And if it was so severely misleading, why did Stardock promote it for months?

Unfortunately for Stardock, the sequel rights might not even be theirs. Paul & Fred own most of the intellectual property to Star Control 1 + 2. Stardock asserts that it acquired a prior license to publish derivative works, but the license agreement has clauses that would cause it to expire when royalties stopped being paid in 2001, and expire again with the bankruptcy of Accolade. The agreement also requires the developers to approve any reassignment of the license to a third party – such as Stardock.

Even the trademark itself is of questionable legitimacy. Years before the sale, it was public knowledge that the “Star Control” trademark had been renewed under questionable circumstances. Stardock should have known the risk they were taking, but instead blame Paul & Fred for not bringing this up sooner.

2) Stardock claims the Reiche IP as their own

As mentioned earlier, Paul & Fred own most of the intellectual property to Star Control 1+2. This is the so called “Reiche IP”, and according to the license agreements, it includes the “characters, names, likenesses, characteristics, and other intellectual property rights pertaining to Star Control I and Star Control II”.

At first, Stardock seemed to have no issues with this arrangement. Back in September 2015, Wardell emailed Reiche and Ford and reiterated that “the new Star Control won’t be making use of the lore or aliens from your universe. We’ve made sure to post this publicly repeatedly so that there is a written public record that Stardock has zero rights to the classic Star Control 2 lore (aliens, ships, story, etc.). The new game will be a reboot with its own continuity.”

In December 2017, Stardock changed their tune. The Arilou and Melnorme were announced as last-minute additions to the game. Stardock went so far as to file questionable trademarks, claiming that the names were covered by the “Star Control” trademark, and not the Reiche IP as previously believed.

There’s just one small snag: Accolade acknowledged that Star Control 3 was created only with Paul & Fred’s permission. Why would Accolade pay royalties to license the IP, if the trademark already gave them all the rights they needed?

Indeed, in 1997, Accolade offered to buy the Reiche IP from Paul & Fred. The IP was valued at $250,000 in 1997, or almost $400,000 in 2018 dollars. Paul & Fred declined, feeling that the material was worth significantly more, and wanting to keep the chance to do something with it themselves. Conversely, the trademark itself went for only $305,000.

You can see both the details of the Reiche IP, and Stardock’s infringement laid out in far more detail in a recent court filing. Even today, it’s unclear how much of Reiche’s IP might be included in the game, as Stardock refuses to comment on rumors that the Arilou may (or may not) have been removed from the game.

Overall, a very impressive U-Turn: Stardock’s CEO, once proud to go on record as having zero rights to the aliens, now claims that the Reiche aliens “will not appear in other games without our permission.

3) Stardock scrambles to control the damage

If you’ve read an article or watched a video about the lawsuit, you’ve probably seen CEO Brad Wardell’s commentary under one of his pseudonyms, “draginol” and “FrogBoy”. Stardock has also written their own take on the lawsuit, spawning a massive 26 page discussion.

Unfortunately, Stardock’s Q+A only tells half the story:

In their Q+A, Stardock asserts that they launched the lawsuit because they “had no choice after Paul and Fred filed DMCA claims”. But when pressed, their CEO admits that the DMCA issue is “at most, a few thousand dollars of dispute”. The trademark lawsuit, on the other hand, involves millions of dollars. Does a copyright dispute of a few thousand dollars really leave them with “no choice” but to file a million dollar lawsuit? And how does a copyright issue over the source code to the classic games force Stardock’s hand on a case of trademark infringement against a different game?

Stardock goes on to characterize Paul & Fred’s initial DMCA claims as “broad, unsupportable claims of ownership on ideas and concept”. Paul & Fred’s DMCA claim from September 2017 were quite the opposite: The license agreements clearly state that “the Reiche Intellectual Property shall include proprietary rights in and to any source code“, and it was that very source code that Stardock was selling as Star Control 1+2. Even Accolade agreed they needed a license to sell the games on GOG. So why is Stardock still calling their claims of ownership “unsupportable”?

The Q+A is says “Paul and Fred reject numerous attempts to create a co-existence agreement that would permit Ghosts of the Precursors to go forward independently”, but you can compare two of the initial settlement offers side by side. To me, it’s pretty clear which party was making a reasonable effort towards co-existence. When called out on this point, Stardock claims that the posting violated federal rule, but it wasn’t until five days later, on March 29th, 2018 that the court issued an order prohibiting any further settlement disclosures.

Later on, the Q+A asks “what does Stardock want out of this lawsuit?” The official answer is that Stardock’s “ONLY goal is to protect our ability to tell more stories in the Star Control multiverse.”

That’s a very odd claim. Even if Paul & Fred win the current legal battle, Stardock can still publish “Star Control: Origins”. On the other hand, if Paul & Fred lose, Ghosts Of The Precursors becomes a very unlikely prospect.

As their CEO has said: Stardock “will not consent to a game called Ghosts of the Precursors“, and “if they want to make a game that utilizes elements connected to or associated with Star Control II they will need our permission.” If their settlement offer is anything to go by, the price of Stardock’s permission, on top of millions in damages, will quite possibly be out of reach for a project of passion like this.

It seems clear to me which side wants to see more stories told in this universe.

It is not Stardock.

4) Stardock’s Legal History

There’s one further source I investigated before drawing my conclusions: Stardock’s previous litigation against a former employee. In January 2011, a former employee of the company filed suit against Stardock, for the sum of $25,000. Her lawsuit is not the interesting part of this story. The interesting thing is that Stardock responded a month later, with a countersuit, claiming the employee had deliberately caused $1,000,000 in damages when she left.

Supposedly, when the employee quit in August, she deleted numerous files critical to the September release of Elemental: War of Magic. For a game that only sold a scant 82,000 copies in it’s opening weekend, that’s a surprisingly large amount of damage to blame on the loss of marketing assets and analytics.

Far more surprising than the damages, however, was Stardock’s evidence for the claim: A signed NDA by the former employee.

That’s it. Stardock’s evidence for a million dollar lawsuit amounts to a single exhibit in the court records.

The depositions I read show that other Stardock employees in the marketing department were completely unaware of these supposed damages until the lawsuit was announced. Some depositions go even further, and testify that the former employee had followed all of the correct hand-off processes. They made sure the team was aware of her upcoming departure, and ensured that other employees had access to all necessary materials well in advance of her departure.

The lawsuit ends with one last curious twist: An agreement was reached to drop both lawsuits, in exchange for the former employee apologizing for bringing suit. If Stardock really believed she caused so much damage, why let her walk free? And why did CEO Brad Wardell frame the apology as “proof” of his innocence, when the apology never mentions the merits of either legal claim?

There are numerous parallels to the current lawsuit against Paul & Fred:

In both cases, Stardock initially took no legal action until the other party sued. In both cases, the other party was seeking to resolve an issue of a few thousand dollars, and Stardock responded by escalating the issue in to one worth millions. In both cases, there’s surprisingly little public evidence supporting these severe damages. In both cases Stardock is seeking a scripted “apology” from the other party. And in both cases, it seems like Stardock is perfectly content to ignore millions in damages, if they can use that lawsuit as leverage to resolve a much smaller matter.

Final words

These are just a few examples, but hopefully the trend is clear: Stardock doesn’t want to give you the whole story. While their case might sound reasonable on the surface, it lacks any real depth. On the other hand, everything I’ve discussed here is based on public sources, which you can verify for yourself. If you want to learn more, I invite you to read the court documents for yourself.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Brad Wardell has gone out of his way to antagonize the community, both directly, and by insulting it behind closed doors. He has called us a “vile” community, and he’s used the lawsuit’s legal process to gather personal information on his critics. He’s made it clear that those who speak up against him should expect no right to anonymity.

It has become remarkably clear that he is not a friend to our community.

I’m not a party to this case. My only investment is as a fan that wants to see Ghosts Of The Precursors. I didn’t want to take sides in this debate. I wanted to play both Star Control games.

But I can’t support Stardock’s shameful attack on our community, and on the creators of the franchise.


– Cassie (u/kaminiwa)

 

Star Control is a registered trademark of Stardock Systems, Inc