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Star Control’s original creators and new owners are in a legal war (update)

Does Stardock own the IP or do the original creators still retain control?

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Star Control 2 box art Accolade
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Right now there are two Star Control games in development, one by developer and publisher Stardock and the other by the series’ original creators, Paul Reiche III and Frederick Ford. A single lawsuit, filed in a California court last December, could ultimately decide which one is allowed to go forward.

The initial lawsuit was filed by Stardock, which is owned by Brad Wardell. That company purchased rights to the Star Control franchise from an Atari bankruptcy auction in 2013. At the time, Wardell said that his team was considering a reboot of the franchise inspired by the classic title Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters. That product, called Star Control: Origins, was announced in October 2016.

But one year later, in October 2017, Reiche and Ford announced their own game. Called Ghosts of the Precursors, the pair describe it as a direct sequel to Star Control 2.

Several months after that announcement, Stardock filed suit.

In the initial documentation, Stardock said that Reiche and Ford have no right to the Star Control trademark. The company further says that the pair are operating under a counterfeit document, which they have so far used unjustly to have the original games removed from where they were being sold for a time.

Stardock goes to lengths in its lawsuit to impugn Reiche and Ford personally, and invalidate their claim that they contributed meaningfully to the creation of Star Control in the first place.

“Contrary to the common public understanding and what they have portrayed to the public,” Stardock said, “Reiche and Ford may not have created any of the artwork, animation or characters incorporated in the games, or otherwise substantially contributed to the authorship of Star Control I and Star Control II.“

Stardock’s lawsuit asks for damages related to their misuse of the Star Control trademarks, and demands a trial by jury in a California court.

But a counterclaim, issued today by Reiche and Ford, paints a very different picture.

In their own document, the two men say that when Stardock purchased rights to the Star Control franchise they received very little. Stardock’s purchase was, if anything, only of the limited rights granted through a previous agreement between Accolade, Reiche and Ford for certain parts of Star Control 3. Meanwhile, the two men retain full rights to Star Control 1 and Star Control 2.

In other words, Reiche and Ford allege that Wardell’s Stardock may have paid as much as $300,000 to $400,000 for nearly nothing of value.

Reiche and Ford maintain that, according to their license with Star Control’s original publisher Accolade and later by the subsequent licensors at Infogrames, control of both games and its intellectual property reverted to them in 1998. To assert otherwise, the counterclaim states, is disingenuous. When Infogrames renamed itself as Atari in 2003, its owners fraudulently filed for and received a duplicate trademark for Star Control and it is that trademark, not the one claimed by Reiche and Ford, that is limited if not outright invalid.

In fact, Reiche and Ford say that Wardell admitted as much to them repeatedly up until October of last year. It’s at that point that Stardock’s owner abruptly changed his tune.

In an email that Reiche and Ford’s counterclaim dates to Oct. 6, 2017, “Wardell responded admitting that ‘there is no disagreement that you own the IP,’ and that ‘[y]ou have always owned the IP and that continues to be our position.’” Later that same day Wardell reversed course, according to an email, reasserting the validity of the trademarks his company purchased at auction. The next day he openly threatened litigation.

Reiche and Ford poked fun at the situation on their personal website in a post titled “Stardock claims we are not the creators of Star Control. Sues us. WTF?!

“Stardock filed a complaint in Federal court against us, personally, alleging among other things that we are not actually the creators of Star Control,” they said. “This is news to us! Are we clones of the original Fred and Paul, just now learning of our squelchy vat birth? Unfortunately, Stardock’s complaint is not a prank — so, today we took action and filed a response in Federal court answering Stardock’s false claims. Of course, we’ve also filed counterclaims against Stardock, as the original Fred and Paul would have wanted.”

This case will, for better or worse, determine the fate of the Star Control franchise. For fans that simply want to play around again inside of one of gaming’s greatest fictional galaxies, it’s potentially bad news, as it could delay whatever new releases are in the works. It even risks removing from sale versions of previous games currently available via digital distribution.

Reached for comment, Stardock said it plans to defend its ownership of the property.

“We had no choice but to take legal action to defend the Star Control IP,” said Kevin Unangst, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships at Stardock. “We remain fans of Paul and Fred, but have to defend our ownership of the Star Control intellectual property to ensure we and the fans can continue to tell great stories in the Star Control multiverse.”

Update: After our story was published last night, Stardock’s Kevin Unangst posted a Q&A document on his company’s forums seeking to clarify its position for fans.

Unangst said that the lawsuit was brought about by Reiche and Ford retaliating against his company by issuing takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Those DMCA requests included Star Control, Star Control 2 and Star Control 3.

“In retaliation, Paul and Fred began objecting to the sale of the DOS games being sold online, despite the fact that they’ve been for sale online since before we acquired Star Control from Atari,” Unangst said. “Their contention is that the licensing agreement for their characters and lore has expired thus terminating the right to sell and distribute the old DOS games. [...] We had no choice after Paul and Fred filed DMCA claims against the distribution not only of Star Control 1 and 2 but also Star Control 3 which they admit they had no involvement. The DMCA claims were reversed, but it was clear that our ability to create more experiences in the Star Control multiverse for fans would be at risk if their false claims remained unchallenged.”

He further explained that Stardock concedes the point that Reiche and Ford were the designers of Star Control and Star Control 2, but said they are not entitled to ownership of the franchise.

“Paul and Fred have represented themselves as if they personally created the games themselves,” Unangst said. “We believe this was in an effort to associate themselves personally with Star Control without having the legal right to do so.”