Shortly after the 2017 release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), creator Brendan Greene publicly aired his exasperation at just how many developers were releasing shameless clones of the game’s then-unique battle royale concept and how hard it was to stop those copycats. Now, PUBG‘s Korean publisher Krafton has filed a lawsuit against one PUBG clone it says has engaged in “rampant, willful copyright infringement” of the popular game.
In the lawsuit, Krafton alleges that mobile hits Free Fire and Free Fire Max “extensively copy numerous aspects of Battlegrounds, both individually and in combination.” Those games attracted over 100 million daily users at the end of 2020, according to the lawsuit, and brought in the majority of Singaporean publisher Garena’s more than $2 billion in revenue for that year.
Krafton also makes Apple and Google party to the suit for listing the infringing game in their mobile app stores and for ignoring a recent request to take them down. In addition, Google is allegedly liable for hosting YouTube videos showing Free Fire‘s infringing gameplay on its service.
Look and feel
Proving copyright infringement in games can be difficult, as we recently discussed when looking at a wave of Wordle clones on the iOS App Store. While the specific “expression” of a game’s audiovisual elements (i.e., its overall “look and feel”) can be copyrighted, gameplay mechanics and general ideas are usually not protected under US law (though there can be exceptions when many gameplay features are copied directly and in concert).
Krafton’s lawsuit thus goes into great detail laying out specific and general elements of PUBG that it says are illegally copied in Free Fire. That includes everything from weapons and weapon attachments to armor, clothing, equipment, backpacks, and even “the overall choice of color schemes, materials, and textures.” PUBG‘s unique building designs also come into play because, the lawsuit says, “although buildings have been used in prior games, the façades and layouts of the buildings in Free Fire are strikingly similar to those in Battlegrounds.”
Krafton also notes the similarities between the maps in the two games, both of which feature “a graveyard, a port with shipping containers and a crane, a Southeast Asia coastal village, a shooting range, a small village, a farm, an airstrip, and a trestle bridge leading to a large adjacent island, among others.” PUBG‘s in-game village of “Pochinoki” is even mimicked by a village in Free Fire named “Pochinok,” the lawsuit says.
Even allusions to PUBG‘s famous “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” victory message can be signs of copyright infringement, according to the lawsuit. In Free Fire, the game displays a roast chicken on screen for a winning player, allegedly showing that “Garena copied Krafton’s expressive use of a chicken dinner theme to designate victory where other depictions could have been used to inject joy and whimsy into a game upon winning.”
Hey, my game did that first
But Krafton’s lawsuit also goes beyond these visual and thematic similarities, alleging that Free Fire illegally copies the “overall gameplay” of PUBG in a way that infringes its copyright. The lawsuit breaks down the PUBG gameplay features it sees as unique and copyrightable, including its specific “pre-game lobby and interactive waiting area,” players air-dropping onto the map from a cargo plane, the idea of “starting with nothing” and scavenging for items, a play area with a shrinking “safe zone,” and a particularly perilous “bombardment zone.”
On their own, none of those gameplay features are likely to prove copyright infringement in court. Taken together, though, in combination with other elements that mimic the wider “look and feel” of PUBG, the entire work could amount to copyright infringement.
In the end, the case may actually hinge, in part, on a frying pan. Krafton notes that the cooking implement is a “very beloved” and “iconic” element of PUBG and adds with no apparent sense of irony that “previous shooter games did not include the use of a frying pan.”
The lawsuit also specifically points out how the PUBG frying pan can be used as a melee weapon or equipped as armor and that “when so equipped, as a purely artistic and creative expression injecting humor into the game, the frying pan is depicted as covering the game character’s buttocks and becomes the only indestructible and complete armor in the game.”
A similar frying pan appears in Free Fire, “designed with the same shape and characteristics as the frying pan in Battlegrounds, such as the double pour spouts and handles,” according to the lawsuit. More than that, though, the lawsuit alleges that “Garena’s decision to include… a frying pan that serves a dual purpose as a melee weapon and a complete and indestructible armor item… was made for the sole purpose of evoking and infringing the iconic frying pan emblem of Battlegrounds.”
As blatant as similarities like that are, using them as evidence of copyright infringement will still be an uphill battle for a publisher like Krafton. We’ll see how successful its arguments are if and when the case moves toward trial.