Sometimes video game property rights get really complicated, and when that happens, there’s inevitably a lawsuit. This is what’s happened in the case of the Star Control series. Star Control 1 and 2 were designed by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche and developed in their studio Toys for Bob. The games were published by Accolade, and for a while, everything was just peachy.
In 1999 Accolade was purchased by Infogrames and in 2001 Infogrames acquired Atari via their purchase of Hasbro Interactive. Infogrames and Atari existed as two separate companies under the same umbrella until 2009 when both companies were united under the Atari, SA moniker. Atari, SA filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and Stardock won a winning bid in an auction for the Star Control franchise during Atari’s asset liquidation.
The problem is, Atari likely didn’t own the rights to Star Control, at least not the ones that Stardock claims it now possesses. Stardock filed suit against Reiche and Ford in December 2017 after the two unveiled their intention to develop a sequel to Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters called Ghost of the Precursors, but the big question is whether they have the right to order a cease and desist or not.
Stardock has its own Star Control reboot in production called Star Control: Origins and has been selling Star Control 1 and 2 through Steam since late last year. Oddly enough, the GOG.com versions of Star Control 1 and 2 were being sold by agreement with Reiche and Ford for a revenue split, but according to the countersuit Stardock has reneged on that deal and is keeping 100% of the profits now. Both Stardock and Reiche and Ford claim ownership of the games, so who’s in the right?
According to the countersuit filed by Reiche and Ford, their publishing arrangement with Accolade expired in 2002. At that point, the full rights to the trademark returned to Reiche and Ford who released an open-source version of Star Control 2 to the public titled The Ur-Quan Masters.
The suit alleges that Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, approached both Reiche and Wardell in 2013 and asked if the two would license the Star Control trademark to Stardock and work on a new game the company wanted to develop. The two declined as they had planned to make their own sequel to Star Control 2. According to the suit, Wardell approached them again several times throughout 2015-17 about developing a new Star Control at Stardock.
Reiche and Ford state that Atari did not own the rights to Star Control 1 and 2 to sell, and both Wardell and Atari have admitted in private that Reiche and Ford own the copyrights to the first two games in the series. Since the suit doesn’t concern the ownership of Star Control 3, it seems that Stardock may own at least partial rights to that game, but without permission to use Reiche and Ford’s alien and ship designs those right might be worthless.
Reiche and Ford see an injunction against Stardock to halt development of Star Control: Origin and sales of Star Control 1 and 2 through Steam. The two also seek to recover any revenue from the sale of those games and legal fees.
Game Revolution reached out to Stardock PR for a statement and received the following concerning Stardock’s suit against Reiche and Ford:
We had no choice but to take legal action to defend the Star Control IP. We remain fans of Paul and Fred, but have to defend our ownership of the Star Control intellectual property to ensure we and the fans can continue to tell great stories in the Star Control multiverse. – Kevin Unangst, VP Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, Stardock
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the complexities of what happens to a trademark when studios are sold, go bankrupt, sell their assets, combine, and so on. Star Control is a much-beloved franchise, and I can only hope that whoever ends up winning this battle brings an awesome new game to the series’ legion of fans.