Law in the Internet Society

The Rage Over Streets of Rage Remake

-- By AustinLeach - 25 Oct 2011 (2nd draft is ready)


The Copyright Act of 1790 gave exclusive control of works to their creators for 14 years with 14-year renewals. Due to corporate special interest groups, copyright extensions have culminated in The Copyright Act of 1998, with copyrights generally lasting for the life of the author plus 70 years, and up to 120 years for anonymous works, pseudonymous works, and works for hire. Arguments favoring laxer copyright laws center on increasing the public good and recognizing there is no economic value to a work a few years after creation. This article supports laxer intellectual property laws by focusing on the videogame software industry and looking at SEGA’s threats to a fan-made freeware PC game based on SEGA’s Streets of Rage franchise.


Streets of Rage (SOR) is a videogame released in the US in 1991 that spawned two sequels in 1992 and 1994. The games, originally developed by SEGA for its Genesis console, have since been ported unchanged to other devices as late as 2011. SOR, an action game in the “beat ’em up” genre, has a loose plot told mostly through gameplay images of three characters who combat the crime syndicate plaguing their city. The sequels feature slightly enhanced gameplay and new characters, with SOR 3's plot expanded to feature cut-scenes with written dialogue between levels.

Streets of Rage Remake (Remake) is a game for PC created by developer BoMbErLiNk? and was offered on The project, which commenced in 2003 and was completed and released in 2011, is not reverse engineered and contains no code from the original games. It was developed based on "visual interpretation, logic, and comparison of states." The game is free to the public, but its resources (the custom sprites, remixes, artwork, etc.) belong to their respective artists. Remake looks and plays like a modern throwback to the original games, with updated models and remixed music. Its original story is told through cut-scenes resembling SOR 3.

According to BoMbErLiNk, Bombergames contacted SEGA about the project in 2007 by email and sent a formal letter notifying them of the game's development. Within a week of Remake's release, SEGA issued a cease-and-desist letter. In statements to videogame websites, SEGA expressed its need to protect is IP rights.

Bombergames has complied with the cease-and-desist, and pulled the game from its servers.

The IP at Stake

Videogames may be covered by the traditional forms of intellectual property—copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret—but only copyright and trademark apply to Remake. Copyright could protect the code, the resulting images for the characters and backgrounds as they appear on screen, the music, the sound effects, and the story. Trademark may also protect the "Streets of Rage" brand, the images and likenesses of SOR's characters and game backgrounds, and perhaps any attributable sound effects.

Copyright's dual nature of promoting the arts for the public good while giving the creators exclusive rights for limited times is in constant conflict with itself, but the duality weighs heavily on the exclusive rights side of copyright. Under current law, videogame characters and franchises won't see the light of day unless the original developing company allows it—unused franchises will completely lose relevancy. Videogames are complicated by the fact that they can be trademarked too. Videogame companies not only trademark their company names (SEGA is a registered trademark), but also their games ("Streets of Rage" is a dead trademark), and in some cases, presumably their characters.

SEGA has strong infringement claims against Bombergames under current law. However, are innovation and the public good served when SEGA seeks to sit on a franchise for almost 20 years without producing new content? Are innovation and the public good served and when SEGA prevents a developer’s efforts 8 years in the making? Isn't one company's trash another's treasure? In the interest of promoting the arts for the public good and consumption, would a more flexible regime be appropriate?

Innovation, Public Good, and Resolution for the Consumer

As it can be difficult to separate the copyrighted elements from trademarked elements in media such as videogames, a combined copyright/trademark regime that lasts only 10 years with renewals upon use of the protected content will better promote the arts and increase the public good. Current videogame development cycles—the start of development until release date—are about two years. A copyright/trademark regime that protects parent developers and companies for 10 years from the release date of a game to make a new franchise-related game is plenty of time to continue to cash in on a franchise. Such a regime is better for innovation and the public good because new developers could create new content with expired franchises. This regime also accurately reflects the decreased economic value of a franchise years after its initial creation. Developers of popular franchises recognize the decreased value of their franchise, and so they continually capitalize on them by releasing sequels as soon as possible—normally within two or three years—after a game’s initial launch. The cycle would reset each time the parent developer released a new game, and this would exclude ports of old games or downloadable content to existing games. If the parent decides to let the franchise die by not producing new content in those 10 years, a new developer/company could develop their own game in the franchise. This would essentially be a free license. Should the parent want the franchise back, they need only release a new game, and the 10-year clock is reset.

A 10 year copyright/trademark regime would allow companies to keep their franchises as long as they developed for them, and it would only really affect forgotten franchises. Such a regime gives new developers a chance to breathe life into old games and continue bringing new content to the market. In this way, the nerd rage over pulling Streets of Rage Remake could be alleviated.

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r11 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:13 - IanSullivan
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