Saying No To Protect Your Personal Intellectual Property Rights

Shay Pierce, an independent video game designer and programmer, earned the dubious distinction last week as being the only person at OMGPOP, developer of Draw Something (a Pictionary-style clone) app for the iPhone/Touch/iPad, to turn down the $210-million USD buyout package from Zynga, developer of Farmville and other popular games. As he wrote in a Gamasutra article, he had a legitimate reason to walk away from the deal.

It was a reasonable contract. But there were a couple of consequences of signing it which concerned me. Zynga sells puzzle games on the iOS App Store. I sell a puzzle game on the iOS App Store. Was this a “conflict of interest” under the contract’s definition, or not? If so, would Zynga act on that fact, or not? I didn’t want to lose ownership of Connectrode, or have to remove it from the iOS App Store.

Connectrode is a game that I developed independently in 2011, while I was working as an independent contractor. I designed it on my own, did all the coding in my spare time, and contracted the visual and audio work to talented friends here in Austin. (I finished and submitted it to the App Store shortly after my employment with Omgpop began, with the company’s awareness and permission.)

Financially, Connectrode had performed the same as most spare-time indie game projects: not terribly well. It was reviewed positively by TouchArcade, Joystiq, and others, and it was featured by Apple for three weeks; but it never broke into the top 10 or sold millions. It wasn’t changing anyone’s life.

But… I love Connectrode. It’s a very personal creation. My wife (who’s played hundreds of hours of Dr. Mario with me) encouraged me to make it; when you first launch the game, you see a dedication to her. (The code has a special case so that on her phone, this dedication appears on every launch.) And designing a compelling abstract puzzle game is more difficult than you might think — I’m proud of it. It’s not much, but it’s mine.

For many people, signing the job offer would be a no brainer since they have nothing at stake. But for those of us who are creative in our own spare time, the intellectual property rights (IPR) form can be a kiss of death depending on how it is worded.

When I was at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) before the dot com bust, the QA department was presented with a revised IPR form that was so broadly worded that everything the employee thought of at work or home belonged to the company. Not only did we have to signed the form by the end of the day, we had to submit a list of every personal copyright, trademarks and other intellectual property rights we had to be evaluated by the corporate attorneys.

This sparked a rare uprising in the department—no one signed the document.

Some threaten to call their attorneys. A few threaten overwhelm the corporate attorneys with hundreds of pages to document their extensive copyright claims. Others talked about a strike—a popular topic since Sony paid their testers $4 USD more per hour. At the time, I only had my personal website. I was keen enough on IPR to know that I wasn’t giving the company anything beyond the labor they paid me for. The HR rep, seeing that the QA department wasn’t going to budge on this issue, went back to the corporate attorneys for a much narrower IPR form that everyone could sign.

The CEO of OMGPOP, Dan Porter, posted a few tweets (now deleted) about Shay Pierce over the weekend, creating a brouhaha about what happened and confirming that douchebaggery is alive and well in the video game industry.

These days whenever I’m presented with an intellectual property rights form for a job, I leave it blank. Like last week’s social media password controversy, my anonymous alter ego has nothing to declare. As a tech worker, I’m there to do the job I’m paid to do. Whatever I do and think on my own time is my own business. If a push comes to a shove, I won’t hesitate to say no.