Star Control: Origins, the latest title from independent developer and publisher Stardock, is no longer available for sale on Steam or GOG. That’s because of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim made against the company by the creators of the Star Control franchise, Fred Ford and Paul Reiche. In statements made on Steam and social media, Stardock’s CEO Brad Wardell has vociferously demanded an explanation for the DMCA claim. Ford and Reiche have now obliged, in the form of a lengthy blog post.
The background of the conflict between the two teams dates back to 2013, when Stardock purchased rights to Star Control intellectual property from Atari during a bankruptcy auction. Three years later, in 2016, Stardock revealed that it was developing Star Control: Origins. Then, in October 2017, Ford and Reiche announced they were making a game called Ghosts of the Precursors, a direct sequel to Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters. As a result, Stardock filed suit against them.
In today’s post, Ford and Reiche say that what Stardock actually purchased at auction was the “registration to the trademark ‘Star Control,’” and “the copyright to the original parts of Star Control 3.” While the trademark would allow them to create a game and call it by the Star Control name, including content based on the original Star Control or Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters was out of bounds.
“The bankruptcy paperwork was very specific that anything not listed was excluded,” the post continues. “Not [Star Control or Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters], the unreleased [Star Control 4], packaging art — none of that was included in the auction.”
For that reason, they argue, the similarities between Star Control: Origins and Star Control 2, which they claim to own the rights to, necessitated their DMCA claim. They even produced a detailed table that narrows in on a single aspect of the games — space travel — in order to clarify their position.
“It’s clear to us that Stardock chose to make Origins substantially similar to [Star Control 2] instead of using the original material they purchased in [Star Control 3],” the post concludes. “We don’t claim to have a copyright on all interstellar travel, but we do have a copyright on the specific way we expressed interstellar travel in Star Control 2. We see many such examples in Star Control: Origins where its expression is substantially similar to and/or derivative of our copyright-protected work, without our permission.”
Stardock CEO Wardell continued to protest on social media.
“Now anyone who has played a video game in the last decade, can you imagine if DOS game developers stepped up and started issuing DMCAs on this,” Wardell said in a tweet. “Think of all your favorite modern games. How many of them have things like ... say the color red. Radar, top down view, exploration.”
Wardell also published Stardock’s own version of the same chart, refuting Ford and Reiche’s claims in detail.
It’s possible, however, that Wardell may be working from a flawed understanding of the law in this instance. U.S. district court judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, who is presiding over Stardock’s case with Ford and Reiche, certainly seems to think so.
Late in 2018, Stardock requested an injunction from the court that would have prevented Ford and Reiche from filing a DMCA claim against them. Judge Brown denied the request, calling Stardock’s objections “frivolous.”
But Judge Brown did not stop there.
“Wardell lacks the expertise necessary to opine as to what constitutes ‘copyrightable artwork,’” Judge Brown wrote. “Indeed, not only has Wardell failed to establish any such expertise, but his opinion as to whether the work in question is ‘copyrightable’ constitutes an improper legal conclusion.”
Meanwhile, Wardell posted a seemingly dire analysis of the state of PC gaming on his personal blog in late December. In it, he noted that in order to recoup the investment required to make Star Control: Origins Stardock would need to release the game on modern consoles. With the potential for more DMCA claims in the future from Ford and Reiche, it seems unlikely that Star Control: Origins will be up for sale on those platforms any time soon.
According to Wardell, the process of laying off employees at Stardock is already underway.
Update (Jan. 18): Star Control: Origins has returned to Steam, just over two weeks after it was delisted from the store. Asked for comment, representatives from Stardock refused to provide details on how or why it was reinstated.
Polygon has reached out to Valve, as well as Fred Ford and Paul Reiche, for comment.