An epic battle is underway over one of the oldest super-hero roleplaying games, but sadly it won't be settled by muscle-bound men in tights. The creators of the game Villains & Vigilantes, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Scott Bizar, the longtime publisher of the game. The suit, filed July 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, claims that Bizar has no right to publish the game or any related products and illegally profits from their sale.
Villains & Vigilantes was created by Dee and Herman and first published in 1979 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc., a corporation founded by Bizar. The game, one of the first to extend Dungeons & Dragons-style play into the super-hero genre, was popular in the early '80s and spawned a comic book series and other spin-off products. But by 1987, Fantasy Games Unlimited had run into financial difficulties with distributors and its business activity slowed to a crawl.
In June 2010, Dee and Herman started Monkey House Games, LLC and announced they would be publishing a new version of the game, which has been copyrighted in their names since its first edition. Dee told Ain't It Cool News that they had never been informed by Bizar that Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc., ceased to exist in 1991, which he said caused the publishing rights to revert to them:
We started to become unhappy in the late 1980s when FGU stopped advertising V&V, taking it to conventions, or even soliciting distributors. When it became clear that this situation wasn't going to change, we started looking for ways to get our game back. But for years, it looked hopeless. The contract seemed to give Scott Bizar enough loopholes so that he could keep it in force perpetually with little effort, and attempts to purchase the publishing rights from him were met by outrageously high price tags.
Our contract was with Fantasy Games Unlimited, Inc. -- which, we recently discovered, was "dissolved by proclamation" by the state of NY in 1991 ... It no longer exists. And the contract clearly stated that if FGU, Inc., ever ceased to exist, then the publication rights reverted back to us.
Bizar's a high school teacher in Arizona who kept his old games in print and ran a game store in Gilbert, Ariz., that closed in 2007. He told an interviewer in 2000, "My principal trade is now teaching not publishing. When you're over 50 and married with a child you cannot allow yourself the same delirious adventures as when you're 20 or 30. ... I no longer promise to fight as hard as I did in 1987, when the distributors refused to sell FGU products because they were not presented in boxes like TSR products."
Dee's a game developer whose credits include the TWERPS and Quicksilver roleplaying games, the Warchest board game, and the computer game The Sims: Castaway Stories. In 2005, he released Living Legends, a super-hero game intended to be a sequel to Villains & Vigilantes. Herman's a writer published in comics such as Elementals, Robotech and Just Imagine and the computer games Ultima VI and Wing Commander II.
For the past 12 months, both Monkey House and Bizar have been actively publishing and marketing Villains & Vigilantes and related products. Bizar's sole proprietorship, also called Fantasy Games Unlimited, has brought on new game developers. After Monkey House attempted to register a Villains & Vigilantes trademark on June 16, 2010, Bizar did the same a month later, leading to a case before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that began in March. The filing of this suit will likely cause that case to be suspended pending the result of litigation.
Brent Rose, the Tampa attorney representing Dee and Herman, told me in email that the suit was filed after other means of resolving the dispute were attempted. "There were cease and desist letters issued by both sides," he said. "We requested arbitration or mediation or even just a teleconference to just try and work things out before filing our federal lawsuit, but our written requests were either ignored or refused."