So as I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, creators of Scribblenauts, 5th Cell and WB Games are being sued by the creators of the insanely popular internet memes Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat (Orlando Torres and Charles Schmidt, respectively). My kneejerk reaction was to immediately dismiss Torres and Schmidt’s claims as petty and ridiculous, but there is an interesting conversation to be had here if you can allow me to indulge. Why did WB Games not think twice about asking permission for these characters? They wouldn’t make a Batman game if they didn’t own the license, so why did they see this alleged theft as different or, failing that, acceptable? Well, it all has to do with people’s perception of the internet as an entertainment medium.
WB Games, like most companies, is helmed by old guys.
Pictured: Cillian Murphy and some old guys (newswire.ca)
The internet, invented in 1995 by Al Gore and Tom Fulp, is a fairly recent thing. I’m sure I don’t have to spell out where I’m going with this: old people don’t know what the internet is. The idea of someone owning and being protective of the rights to a funny cat video is foreign to these people because they don’t realize the kind of coin these things bring in. Charles Schmidt has an entire “Keyboard Cat” store on Zazzle and over 30 million hits on his original video, while Orlando Torres has a similar store, TWO iOS/Android games, and almost 100 million hits on the original Nyan Cat video. Considering how popular the videos are, it stands to reason that results in a fair bit of t-shirt and YouTube ad money. None of that could’ve happened back in 1986 when Gore designed what would come to be the Commodore 64! But what about 5th Cell, the designers? Obviously they know what the internet is or how would they know what C’thulu, a creation of Reddit, is?
The original C'thulu image (Reddit)
Why did they think it was perfectly fine to rip these people off?
The nature of memes is to be repeated/reposted again and again until they aren’t funny anymore. This typically takes anywhere from a month (Gangnam Style) to less than a week (A**** to the K***). So, naturally, to keep things fresh people alter the images as a form of user created content. The problem lies here. With so many people taking the original idea, twisting, warping, and screwing it up it becomes hard to even know who originally posted it. “So,” you ask condescendingly, “why don’t they just go to ‘Know Your Meme’ and look it up?” Because the thought didn’t even cross their minds. To many, memes aren’t even seen as having creators, they might as well just be public domain like Santa and Matthew Broderick: used hundreds of times in crappy movies/TV shows because they cost nothing to use.
The cold, dead eyes of a killer (IMDB)
This thinking has now landed 5th Cell and their Scribbleteers (what I choose to call the Scribblenauts dev team) in the same basket as Silicon Knights and…someone else.
However this lawsuit goes, I can see both sides of it. On one hand WB Games honestly dug their own grave, but on the other, 5th Cell obviously meant no harm with their cutesy-poo references. In short, the next time you decide post that so-funny video re-skinning Nyan Cat as a giant bud of marijuana singing “Ganja ganja ganja”; make sure to ask first.