If you were gaming on a PC just after the turn of millennium, you likely fondly remember the classic game No One Lives Forever. A genre turning first-person shooter that featured a strong, reasonably dressed female hero and a setting inspired by 1960’s spy films was received incredibly well by both critics and fans. And, because retro PC gaming continues to have a strong following, any of you that know what we’re talking about here are probably thinking you’d like to fire up a copy of No One Lives Forever on your updated machine and give it another go. Well, you can’t. You should be able to, but you can’t. And you have a complicated web of copyright and trademark rights-holders to thank for it.
Even if you’re a fan of retro-gaming, you may not be familiar with the company Night Dive Studios. Night Dive is the group that buys up the rights to older games, optimizes them for new machines, and then re-releases them on Steam and other outlets like GOG.com. They’ve done this with big-name titles in the past and they really wanted to do the same with No One Lives Forever and its sequel. And, because this is a reputable business we’re talking about, they decided to secure the rights for the game first. And that’s where it all went to hell.
Night Dive’s detective work began with tracking down and speaking with the game’s original developer and publishers. That meant getting in touch with the three main players: Warner Bros., Activision, and 20th Century Fox.
NOLF and its sequel were developed by Monolith, who are now owned by Warner Bros., under whom they released the acclaimed action game Shadow of Mordor just last year. NOLF was made using a framework called the LithTech engine, which is also now owned by Warner Bros. However, the first game was published by Fox Interactive, and there’s a question of whether 20th Century Fox or even Activision might have partial rights to the series, due to Activision’s 2008 merger with Vivendi, a separate media company that had acquired Fox Interactive in 2003.
Here’s where this gets really depressing. Because the game was released in an age before digital document filing was in widespread use, the rights contracts and paperwork we’re talking about here are all literally paperwork. And, after communicating with Activision, Fox, and Warner Bros., the response from all three was to essentially state, “We don’t really know if we have any rights here, and we aren’t going to look for the paperwork to make sure, but if you make the game and it turns out we do have those rights you’ll be facing legal action from us.” Keep in mind, this was the response from all three publishers who would take legal action concerning rights all three couldn’t be bothered to determine if they even had. You can imagine how frustrating that must be when, like Night Dive’s Larry Kuperman experienced, you just want to re-release a game and nobody can tell you who owns it. Take Kuperman’s interaction with Activision, for instance, to get an idea of how absurd this all is.
“So we went back to Activision and, [after] numerous correspondence going back and forth, they replied that they thought they might have some rights, but that any records predated digital storage. So we’re talking about a contract in a box someplace.” Kuperman laughed. “The image I get is the end of Indiana Jones… somewhere in a box, maybe in the bowels of Activision, maybe it was shipped off to Iron Mountain or somewhere. And they confessed, they didn’t have [their] hands on it. And they weren’t sure that they even had any of those rights.”
In a sane world, intellectual property rights that a company can’t be bothered to find out if they even have shouldn’t be rights that can then be sued over. Either they’re important or they aren’t, and if they’re important they should be maintained.
The upshot of this is that Night Dive discovered that, surprisingly, nobody owned the trademark for the game, so they filed a claim to it. Months later, Kuperman found out that Warner Bros. had filed an opposition to get an extension on the time they could use to determine if they had a trademark claim to the name. Again, they didn’t know if they had the rights, but they wanted to find out just to see if they could enforce legal action with them. The trademarks and other intellectual property would be used solely for legal action, as it quickly became clear that none of the companies involved had any interest in actually helping Night Dive re-release the game, even if they could have made money off of the arrangement.
We wanted Warner involved with this,” Kuperman told me, “so we said, there’s two ways we could work together. First, and our preference, is that we would do a licensed deal. We would pay them some amount of money up front to show that we’re serious, and then we would give them a backend share of revenues. And if that didn’t work for them, if they wanted to be the publisher of record, we’ll still do the development and the optimization of the game, and instead of our giving them a backend share, [they] give us a backend share. In either case, it seemed to us that they were gonna be making money that they wouldn’t have been making otherwise, with a minimum amount of effort. We weren’t meeting with a lot of enthusiasm. In fact, most of the phone calls were like, ‘That’ll probably never happen.'”
Activision and Fox responded similarly, saying they weren’t sure if they had any rights but not offering any kind of permission to move forward and retaining the option of legal action if Night Dive re-released the game. Keep in mind, please, that this frustrating nonsense is all the result of Night Dive attempting to do the right thing and license the game properly. And, for those efforts, they even got a legal threat from Warner Bros., because apparently nobody over at Warner bothers to talk between departments.
Then, in December of 2014, Kuperman and Kick heard from a lawyer representing Warner Bros. Kuperman explained: “Steve [got] what I like to call, the legal term for it is a ‘Scary Letter.’ It comes from an attorney representing Warner Bros. and basically says they’re aware of our filing for trademark, that they had contested that, and that if we went forward, specifically with a new version of No One Lives Forever, without doing a new deal with them, we would be infringing their rights and the hammer would fall.”
And that was after Night Dive had been desperately trying to do such a deal and meeting with nothing but questions over whether any of these rights Warner’s lawyer mentioned even existed. Warner further followed up saying they were no longer interested either in working with Night Dive to publish the game or publish it themselves, meaning Warner Bros. has made the conscious decision to let No One Lives Forever die off for good. Night Dive says it has given up the attempt and gamers who wanted a legitimate way to get a beloved old game are forced down the roads publishers claim are evil.
The people at Night Dive have ceased their attempts to re-release No One Lives Forever. They now control the trademark, but without a game to use it on, they’re going to let it lapse. No One Lives Forever will remain unavailable on digital stores, and modern gamers who want to play the games will have to either track down scarce physical copies or resort to illegally torrenting them.
Intellectual property: important enough to publishers that they’ll use it to kill off the attempt to release an old game, but not important enough to know if they actually have the rights to begin with.