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Sins of a Solar Empire's Ironclad Games Sets New Legal Precedent for Video Game Trademarks

6/25/2014 1:12:45 PM

Sins of a Solar Empire's Ironclad Games Sets New Legal Precedent for Video Game Trademarks

Over two years ago we embarked on an adventure that led us to stand up against a much larger company, fight for freedom of expression and ultimately set a new legal precedent. We had hoped to never talk about this publicly however recent events have convinced us that it might help our ongoing business, other developers, and the community as a whole to share some of our experience.

Ironclad Games is a game development studio of 15 employees based in Canada and is best known for its Sins of a Solar Empire series. Rebellion Developments is a video game company of approximately 250 employees based in the United Kingdom and is best known for its Sniper Elite and Alien vs. Predator series (source).

In April of 2012 we received a cease and desist order from representatives of Rebellion Developments. They asserted that our use of the word "Rebellion" in the title of our game "Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion" was violating their trademark. Rebellion Developments made a number of demands including destroying all our existing promotional and marketing materials, paying them money and agreeing to never talk about it.

But from our perspective, the most influential portion of the cease and desist order was the following paragraph:

"There can be only one reason for choosing the name "REBELLION" as the name of this game, and that is that it is identical to our client's name. The choice of name for your game is designed to confuse members of the public into believing that this game emanated from our client or has been endorsed by our client. Alternatively, you have chosen REBELLION as the game's name to take unfair advantage of the reputation of our client or to dilute the distinctiveness of our client's reputation. All these actions are types of passing off that the choice of REBELLION by your company is intended to perpetrate on our client's goodwill. If you are allowed to misrepresent your game in the way indicated, it will cause damage to our client's goodwill".

We'll leave it to the reader to decide if that is the only reason we could have chosen the title "Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion", whether or not the gaming community is so easily confused and whether or not we would have benefited from associating with Rebellion Developments' reputation.

Rebellion Developments' full complaint was issued in June and can be found here. You'll notice that the complaint is filed against Ironclad Games and Stardock. However, as we (Ironclad Games) are the owners of the Sins of a Solar Empire intellectual property we are responsible for the defense of it.

Just a month prior to receiving our cease and desist order we witnessed a high profile settlement between Mojang and Bethesda over the use of the word "Scrolls". Strongly influenced by this we decided that reaching a settlement was the best course of action. During the settlement discussions we were brought up to speed on U.S. trademark law and became convinced of the validity of our position even though there was no legal precedent set for video games. Additionally, over the course of this process the story broke and spread to various news outlets. Hundreds of posts across dozens of websites vocalized support for our case and against Rebellion Developments' actions. This further emboldened our resolve to seek favorable settlement terms despite the risk.

Our research suggested that it was very likely that Rebellion Developments would take further action against us if a settlement wasn't reached. Rebellion Developments and its founders (Chris and Jason Kingsley) have aggressively opposed or petitioned to cancel trademarks containing the word "Rebellion" and have been very successful in preventing third party use of the word "Rebellion" in conjunction with video-games in the U.S. and Europe. A quick search on the public U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website will reveal the surface of their activity within the U.S. alone.

Ultimately, the settlement discussions bore no fruit and we were soon served. For the better part of a year we moved through the legal process. While we had multiple arguments to support our case we decided to focus on a First Amendment defense. Our U.S. legal representatives at Nixon Peabody successfully argued on our behalf and obtained the following judgement best said in the judge's own words:

"...Defendants’ use of REBELLION is expressive speech and is protected under the First Amendment. Plaintiffs cannot satisfy the Rogers test; they cannot establish that REBELLION has no artistic relevance to Defendants’ computer game, or that it is explicitly misleading as to source or content. Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED."

The full judgement can be found here and a summary analysis of the judgement can be found here.

This judgement is an important result for anyone developing games and for the gaming community as a whole. First, it reaffirms that video games are protected by the First Amendment. Second, it establishes that artistically relevant video game names are also protected by the First Amendment so long as the name isn't explicitly misleading about the content of the game or who created it. Finally, it demonstrates that a First Amendment defense of a video game can be successfully applied to a motion to dismiss thus "preventing a chilling effect on speech". This last point is particularly important to smaller developers who cannot afford to enter a lengthy and expensive court battle. We are very proud that this judgement could help others in the future.

With this case resolved, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recently allowed us to move forward on trademarking the name "Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion" and our Certification of Registration is forthcoming.

Finally, we wish this story had a happy ending. Last week we received notice that Rebellion Developments and the Kingsley brothers have submitted evidence in opposition to our trademark application in Canada and we have unconfirmed reports that they issued a cease and desist order to our partner in the United Kingdom. We fully expect they will continue this worldwide but so long as the countries they choose to oppose us in protect freedom of expression, we intend to continue fighting.


Creating Stellar Phenomena

11/6/2013 11:45:53 AM

I haven't written a developer journal in ages, but with the release of the Stellar Phenomena DLC for Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion today, I thought I'd give it a go. This DLC adds a number of elements to Sins that I've long thought of, so seeing it come into being has been a blast.  As with everything Sins, I worked closely with Ironclad in designing Stellar Phenomena, as did the rest of the team in creating it.  I love getting to work with Ironclad on this stuff, so the past couple months have been pretty sweet. ;)

When we made Forbidden Worlds, our goals were pretty simple:  we wanted to add a little more specialization to planets, increase the types of planets in the game, and add in some more planet bonuses. Revising the planet textures during this process was a bonus, as was being able to more than double the number of planet bonuses available as a way to flesh out the Sins universe. Did you know that if you select a planet with a bonus and then hover your mouse over the slot in the lower left center of the UI that an Infocard will give you lore info on it?  Honestly, I didn't for a long time, but there's some cool stuff in there!

After the success of Forbidden Worlds, we started to think a lot on what we could do next in the Sins universe and we went back and forth brainstorming with Ironclad. As many Sins players know, we're very limited in what will safely 'fit' into what's left of our 32-bit (2 GB) memory limit, plus what will overtax the simulation and what we can actually accomplish with the time we have.  It's actually the #1 consideration we face right next to making sure we stay true to the Sins universe. 

One thing that we've always felt Sins needed more of were special, non-habitable gravity wells that had some kind of strategic significance on gameplay. To address this, we went in two directions by adding three new types of stars (Black Hole, Pulsar, and Neutron Star) and six new types of gravity well in the DLC (Comet, Antimatter Fountain, Radiation Storm, Ship Graveyard, Shattered Dwarf, and Ice Field). Each of these new areas has some kind of effect on passing vessels, or in the case of the Ship Graveyard, is a resource rich area to hold via its special outpost.

Another new feature we added in the DLC was random events. This is a feature that we've talked about for years as a way to force players to deal with situations they couldn't entirely foresee. Of course, since these events are potentially very...shall we say...disruptive, we've made this a gameplay option (enabled by default). Some of the events you may encounter are quite beneficial like the Economic Upturn that gives all players a big boost to income and trade; however, others may bite you if you're not careful. One of my favorites is Partisans, so you'd better watch out if you're going to lose a planet to culture! ;)  Not all events are global or stationary either - some may move around the map, forcing you to re-evaluate your strategies. 

I and everyone at Stardock and Ironclad hope you enjoy Stellar Phenomena!

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion–What’s new

6/12/2012 4:23:22 PM

Introduction – The Sins of a Solar Empire

imageSins of a Solar Empire is a game set in a distant future where mankind has expanded into the stars, creating a loose networking of colonies that become known as the Trade Order. Over a period of a thousand years, the Trade Order worlds experienced peace and prosperity. All of that, however, changed twenty years ago when the aliens arrived.

The Vasari Empire once ruled over countless worlds. For thousands of years, they were unstoppable and considered invulnerable to any external or internal threat.  However, approximately 10,000 years ago, an unknown force began wiping out their worlds. When it became clear that they were helpless to stop this force, they fled their own empire and have, ever since, traveled across the stars, just ahead of the unknown terror that pursues them.

While lacking numbers, the remnants of the glorious Vasari empire never had any problems entering into a new space, taking what they needed, and moving on.  That is, until they came in contact with the humans of the Trade Order.  At first, Trader worlds fell to the Vasari. But soon, mankind formed the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC), relearned the art of war and began to push back against the invading Vasari forces.

In this stalemate came the exiled race called the Advent.  Once human, they had been banished from Trader space long ago due to their experiments in human biological and cybernetic enhancement. Now they’re back and they wish to take what they believe is theirs.

Entrenchment & Diplomacy

Through the course of the conflict, different techniques were attempted to bring the war to an end. Massive star bases were built to defend planets in the hope of making it too expensive to conduct war. Instead, casualties simply soared. Then diplomacy was attempted to try to bring about a negotiated settlement. It failed.

The Rebellion

This brings us to Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. The three races have each been split in two as civil war has broken due to years of conflict and destruction.  The TEC, Vasari and Advent have slowly ground one another into dust with the survivors clamoring for their own vision of what constitutes victory – at any price.

The highlights

imageWithout going into all of the hundreds of new features, changes and additions in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion here is a brief summary:

For the first time since the original Sins of a Solar Empire was released, we have a single, fully integrated game, built from the ground up to deliver a spectacular PC-exclusive strategy game experience.  Unlike the two stand-alone expansions previously released (Entrenchment and Diplomacy), Rebellion expands across the board. Nothing in the game was untouched.  The starbases got enhancements, the diplomatic features were improved, the graphics engine was overhauled, the computer AI greatly updated, the pirates reimagined, the multiplayer vastly improved.

Of course, those kinds of meat and potato improvements don’t tend to get a lot of attention in reviews or in marketing. But to gamers, they matter. They matter  because the things that have made Sins of a Solar Empire the most popular space RTS of all time have been taken to their next logical step.

More obvious, however, are the new additions to the game. These include:

The Titans which are, in essence, like the super star destroyers of the Sins universe. As huge as capital ships were in Sins of a Solar Empire, the titan class ships absolutely dwarf them.

New ships such as the new capital ships and cruisers such as the Corvette help ensure that each faction doesn’t just play differently but plays even more uniquely than ever before. Having two years of player feedback on cool ways to make the Vasari, Advent, and TEC play uniquely didn’t hurt either. : )

Factions of the three races now bring new depth. They come in two flavors – Loyalist and Rebel. As you can imagine, this feature results in hundreds of additional changes to the game play since each faction has their own tech tree, ships, etc.

Victory Conditions. We heard you. We listened. We added.  Sins of a Solar Empire is famous for delivering 4X strategy in a real-time game.  But for players who wanted to be able to focus their games (particularly for shorter games), new victory conditions were added that help ensure that Sins remains a compelling multiplayer experience as well as being able to enhance single player replayability.

Join us

If you don’t have Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, join us.  Few games have been able to keep the same team together to polish and enhance for as long as the Sins team has had.  Thanks to gamers like you, Stardock and Ironclad got to spend a lot of extra time on Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion to make sure it was “just right”.  

[Get Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion]

Rebellion Reviews

The reviews are in!


"Scroll smoothly from a single fighter out to a god's-eye view of a cluster of stars gives an unmatched sense of scale."



"Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion will happily strip-mine your life of its free time."



"Rebellion is the best way yet to experience the strategic joys of the Sins of a Solar Empire franchise."


Strategy Informer

"...this is the ultimate version of Sins of a Solar Empire, this is a very good 4X space strategy game..."


Quarter to Three

"Rebellion is nearly as revolutionary with its new subfactions, and it’s easily as revolutionary with its new victory conditions."


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