One Hour One Life, like all of my work over the past fifteen years, is placed in the public domain. At the same time, it is available commercially for $20, because access to my game servers isn't free. The content and code are on a public GitHub (https://github.com/jasonrohrer/), but beyond running your own private server, that content won't help you play the official game. Piracy simply isn't an issue for a server-based game. And, despite the fact that it's in the public domain, the official version of One Hour One life has been commercially successful.
There have been unofficial adaptations of my work in the past (see Terminal Heist or Two Hours One Life). There was never any confusion about these adaptations, and I generally have no interest in controlling other people, so the more the merrier. In my experience, the details don't matter much. A mod is a mod. A spin-off is a spin-off. People get it.
But now, One Hour One Life for Mobile, also an unofficial adaptation, is causing enormous confusion. This is the first time that an adaptation of my work has become commercially successful, and possibly more successful than the original (#1 paid app in Japan a few months ago, for example). Now suddenly, the details matter.
These issues are complicated and without many precedents. A successful work is placed in the public domain and receives a successful, unauthorized adaptation, which is marketed in parallel with the original. In fact, I don't know of any examples of this happening, inside or outside the world of video games.
Anyway, it's happening now. How should this be explained to people? What needs to be said explicitly, and what can be left unsaid?
For some context, back in May of 2018, I said this to the mobile developer by email:
Understood. One last question just to avoid misunderstandings then: Are you fine with us using the name One Hour One Life or should we pick something else?
Essentially, everything I do, including names, is in the public domain and not copyrighted, trademarked, etc.
However, that doesn't give people the right to mislead people. Fraud and copyright are two different issues. If I were to take a public domain work (The Wizard of Oz), I could still release it under that title. If I modified it, I could no longer claim it was by Baum, but I could say it was based on Baum's work. If I presented it as my own work 100%, when it was not, I would again be committing fraud, though not violating copyright.
So, just be sure to make this clear. Same game, but an unofficial port, by you guys, but based on my work. You don't HAVE to say that it is based on my work, by the way (there is no attribution license in place here), but if you're claiming authorship yourselves, you'd better mention this so as not to commit fraud.
Over the intervening months, it became clear to me that the state of affairs was not understood by most players. Furthermore, the mobile developers had started implementing design changes that strayed from my vision. More power to them (that's what the public domain is about), but a lot of players thought that the changes were approved by me. In October 2018, I made the following request:
As I've thought about this more and more, I think that my main concern here is lingering confusion in the mind of game players. I have created a body of work during my life, and I want everyone to know which things are really part of that body of work.
I'd like you guys to make this crystal clear in your marketing and presentation of your game. Example Android wording that would be sufficient (first line of the description in Google Play):
This is an unofficial adaptation for Android devices of the original desktop game by Jason Rohrer.
This is an unofficial adaptation for iOS of the original desktop game by Jason Rohrer.
Also, during loading, you show the Dual Decade logo. On first start-up, it says something like, "Based on the PC game by Jason Rohrer." I don't remember what it says, because that is apparently only shown once on first-start-up.
Instead of that, after the Dual Decade logo, I want the words "UNOFFICIAL ADAPTATION" to pop up for 1.5 seconds (or however long the Dual Decade logo is shown). This should pop up at every startup. If it only pops up at first start-up, it is too likely to be missed. I don't need my name to pop up there.
After some back-and-forth, they massaged the wording on the AppStore into this:
This is the unofficial expanded version of Jason Rohrer's desktop game "One Hour One Life", adapted for iOS.
And the Splash screen, which is only shown for about 2 seconds, was this:
I get the impression that most people do not look at this splash screen, but at least it's there. Still, the wording is confusing, and not the clear wording that I originally asked for. Also, this may have been added too late, because if you look back at website reviews of the mobile version (TouchArcade, etc.), none of the reviewers seem aware that the game is an unofficial adaptation. Here's an example, where the reviewer included my trailer, with my voice speaking to the viewer, in the body of the review:
Yes, my trailer is in the public domain too, but it's clear to me that even this reviewer was misled. If reviewers can't figure it out what's going on, how can we expect end-users to figure it out?
Along the way, the design changes continued, culminating around the holidays with an NPC Santa character who was running around, handing out presents. Santa kinda looked like one of my drawings.... kinda. A Peace Lily was also added, and I got an email from a player who said the Peace Lilly was ruing the game, and that I should remove it. Sorry pal, not my game. I was also getting Mobile bug reports on GitHub. Clearly, people were still confused.
Finally, last week, a bomb dropped. The mobile version was released on TapTap in China as a free demo. Suddenly, there were 9000 concurrent players in China (a full order of magnitude more than the official game has ever had). And guess what?
The wording on the splash screen AND in the TapTap app store text was missing. No mention of it being an adaptation, no mention of it being unofficial. How many Chinese players played the game? 50,000? 100,000? And none of them were aware of what they were playing. The game shipped with a splash screen that gave full credit to the mobile devs.
When I pointed this out to the mobile devs, they acted to correct it, but it was obviously too late.
Furthermore, the TapTap store page included a "meet the devs" style video, which featured the mobile team and made no mention of me or of of the fact that they were working on an unofficial adaptation. The devs acted to correct this by adding a splash screen to the video, but the style of the video itself is misleading (are we seeing the minds behind OHOL?):
And now the question: what rights do I have, as public domain creator, to make demands like this in the first place? Are "copyright" and "plagiarism" and "fraud" and "libel" different issues? Can I make demands about the marketing around a work, without making demands about the work itself? Is it possible to plagiarize a public domain work? What about a historical work? Can you plagiarize Shakespeare? Could Lewis Carroll's estate bring legal action against you if you misrepresented Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as your original work? And what kind of legal action would that be? Certainly not a copyright claim. Maybe a libel or slander claim?
"No Rights Reserved" sounds absolute, but it obviously applies only to areas where copyright normally gives you rights. It doesn't apply to everything. I don't suddenly give people the right to break into my servers, or rob my house, or enslave me. There is a "line" somewhere, but where exactly? Do I give people the right to lie about me? If I have a right to not be lied about, that right is not a side-effect of copyright. It's not a right that can "expire" after a limited term of required truthfulness. Beyond preventing explicit lies, do I have the right to force people to tell the truth? What about implicit lies?
So can I waive my right to control how copies are distributed, or derivative works are made, without also waiving my truthful claim of authorship? Yes, that sounds like "some rights reserved," but a right to what, exactly? To the truth?
And it's obviously also a matter of degree. Some derivative works have a greater chance of misleading people than others. If someone takes a bit of my code and rolls it into some other project, there's very little awry if my original authorship isn't proclaimed. Same with a collage made with some of my drawings, or my drawings used in a fan-made spin-off game.
But what about a very straight-forward, direct commercial adaptation? Since there are no precedents here, most people assume, when interacting with such a port, that the original author was involved. Thus, if nothing is said, most people end up being misled.
If I waive my right to control the adaptation, do I also waive my right to control what is said about it?
You might say that I simply picked the wrong license, and perhaps the public domain isn't really for me. Maybe the CC BY license would have been a better fit:
Well, except that, no, I'm generally not concerned with credit in most cases. If someone is remixing, I don't want to burden them with a credit requirement, or force them to include the text of the license, or whatever. I'm just concerned with people being misled, or with my legacy as a designer being muddied. And "appropriate credit" might not even be sufficient in the case of the mobile adaptation. What, one line buried in the Credits screen? That's not going to clear things up for 100,000 Chinese players.
Imagine if the mobile devs were invited onto the Tonight Show to talk about "their" game: would they be required to mention me, or required to explain that their game was an unofficial adaptation? The CC BY license says nothing about that. I don't think a license, or copyright generally, is the right lens.
Yes, copyright generally precludes such situations from ever arising, because all derivative works are authorized, so no one is ever misled, and public domain works are ancient, and thus sufficiently well-known, that the chance of misleading people with derivative works is low.
So, I'm essentially making this up as I go along.
With all that context, here is the email that I just sent to the mobile developers:
I have found a solution that will clear up the confusion forever.
Please make the following changes:
1. Include the word "Unofficial" in the title of the app as displayed in all of the app stores. This can be "Unofficial One Hour One Life for Mobile", if there is room, or something shorter if there is not room (Example: "Unofficial One Hour One Life"). Obviously, this won't fit in the App name on the actual device, which is currently 1Hour1Life, and is fine. The point of this change is to make sure all future customers know that they are not getting the official game, before they make the purchase.
2. Change the first two lines of Description text in each AppStore to:
Not approved by original author Jason Rohrer
(Below these two lines, you can include whatever truthful explanation you want, or say nothing more about it, and of course, whatever other description text you want)
3. Add the following two lines of text on the main screen (the "menu screen" of the app itself). This eliminates the need for any splash screens, etc. This text will always be visible when the user is looking at the menu (browsing family trees), so there's no chance they will miss it. Existing customers will see it also, even if they never look at the app store again.
Not approved by original author Jason Rohrer
This text should be displayed in a font that is at least as big as the "family tree" header font ("You were born as..."). The typeface should be a different typeface from the rest of the interface, so that everyone can visually tell that something different is being explained.
And, optionally, you can include a "More Info" button, which will lead the player to whatever truthful explanation you want to give. I don't require any additional explanation, but you obviously might want to explain things a bit more (public domain, how you asked my permission and I said, "do what you want," quotes from our emails, how you've made improvements to the game, how much time and money you spent on the port, etc.)
See the attached mock-ups. The first one is the most plain, but on big family trees, there will be text overlap. Still, it satisfies my requirements. The other three mock-ups show how this message could be integrated into the "paper" UI that you have, and how a "More Info" button might be included. I'm also fine with simpler designs, such as a "white box" under the text, instead of paper. As long as the text is there in two lines and readable by everyone.
It is my understanding that app store Description text can be changed quite rapidly. Please change the Description text to display the above lines within 72 hours. (If procuring human translation is problematic on that timeline, I'm fine with a Google-Translate placeholder text in 72 hours.)
It is my understanding that you need to ship an update to change the title of the app in the Apple AppStre. Therefore, I expect that will take longer, and be released along with the changes to the App itself.
However, it is my understanding that the App Title can be changed instantly in the GooglePlay store, so I expect that change to be made in the same 72 hour timeline as the Description change.
Please send me screen shots of the Menu Page text in the app within one week, so I can let you know if it is sufficient. After that, I expect the updated app, which includes this new text, and the "Unofficial" word in the Store titles, to be released three weeks from now.
And before you run me around in circles again, I just read through our email exchanges, and I requested similar wording back in October. This is not a new idea. All the way back in May, I said:
"So, it's best to avoid fraud here and be open about the fact that this is an unofficial port, but explain that the game is open source and public domain, which is why such ports are possible."
In other words, I've been asking for the same thing all along.
So, this time, what I'm asking for is crystal clear, reasonable, and truthful. There's no more time or room for discussion here.
Remember, whatever money you've made over the past 11 months is based on the work that I've produced over the past four years, and the work that I continue to produce weekly. You should be grateful that I placed it in the public domain, which allowed you to achieve the commercial success that you're achieving (and will continue to achieve in China), and you should be eager to explain the truth of the situation to everyone---not debating with me about wording.
I have included the mock-ups below. But right in those screen shots, you can see the problem: those aren't my fonts, my buttons, my layout, etc. Obviously, this is an adaptation, and other people made choices that I wouldn't have made. However, if the audience is unaware that they are playing an adaptation, they will assume that these are my choices.
And finally, has this experience made me second-guess the public domain? Do I wish I had retained the copyright to the game?