After the longest court battle in the history of tabletop roleplaying games -- four years, eight months and 16 days -- the creators of Villains & Vigilantes have secured the rights to publish the game they created as teens in the 1970s. On Tuesday night, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman of Monkey House Games uploaded a version of the game to DriveThruRPG that included some new text in the copyright indicia (emphasis mine):
The Monkey House Games logo is a trademark owned by Monkey House Games. All characters, character names, and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks owned by Monkey House Games. Villains and Vigilantes is a trademark of Scott Bizar, used with permission.
This language is the first official sign that a settlement has been reached. I asked Dee for details, but all he was ready to say is that they are "pretty happy."
On July 27, 2011, Dee and Herman sued Bizar, the publisher of Fantasy Games Unlimited, for copyright infringement, asserting that his contractual right to publish their game had expired many years earlier and he kept this fact from them. The lawsuit began in Florida, moved to Arizona and ultimately reached the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit. I covered the case in detail in two posts on this blog:
- Villains & Vigilantes Creators Sue Game's Publisher, Aug. 4, 2011
- Villains & Vigilantes Creators Win Rights to Game, March 18, 2013
Dee and Herman signed a 1979 contract with Bizar that gave them the game's copyright. A contract three years later to publish a comic book stated that Fantasy Games Unlimited owned the trademark. After Bizar stopped being a full-time game publisher in 1987, Dee and Herman tried for years to reach a deal to publish the game under the trademark, to no avail. Then in 2010, a fan of the game who is also an attorney discovered that Bizar had dissolved Fantasy Games Unlimited Inc. in 1991.
Under the contract, this reverted all rights to Dee and Herman, so they published the game as the newly formed Monkey House Games. Bizar disputed their right to do this, and thus began the titanic battle of the lawyers.
Dee and Herman prevailed in court when an Arizona judge ruled in 2013 that Bizar lost all of his rights to the game by selling zero copies of it from 1990 to 1994. The judge also ruled that Bizar never had rights to publish electronic editions or derivative works, two things he's been doing the past six years on the Fantasy Games Unlimited website.
Bizar filed an appeal and the case was taken up by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed in a July 7, 2015, ruling that Bizar had lost the rights to publish the game over 20 years ago:
[T]he contract expressly provided that the agreement would terminate by operation of law if FGU, Inc., ceased to do business for any reason. The agreement also prohibited the assignment of any rights under the contract without the written consent of the other parties. By the terms of the agreement, when FGU, Inc., was dissolved in 1991, all rights to the 1979 and 1982 Rulebooks reverted to Dee and Herman. Accordingly, all sales after the 1991 dissolution of FGU, Inc., of the 1979 or 1982 Rulebooks were infringing acts.
Despite this finding, the appeals court sent part of the case back to Arizona to decide whether Bizar still owned the trademark.
Dee, an artist well known for his illustrations on early Dungeons & Dragons books and supplements, has been producing new games and Kickstarter projects in recent years at a prodigious pace -- which I assumed was due to the costs of fighting this court battle. In September of last year, Dee asked fans for help with legal expenses on GoFundMe, receiving $26,755 from 523 people. He wrote this in the fund-raising appeal:
Our claim that the publishing rights reverted to us has been upheld in court, but our opponent still claims to own the trademark to our game's name and he's suing us for using it. If he wins on that count, he'll be able to seize our creation and financially ruin us. We've been fighting for our rights for several years, and frankly we need money in order to carry this battle to a final victory. We just want to get back to making our games!
As a fan going back 35 years, I'm glad the case is over and two of the first RPG designers finally can publish their best-known game. I was hoping that a court would pry the trademark out of Bizar, because it makes no sense that he'd have a claim on it, but the guy has a kung-fu grip.
If you'd like to reward Monkey House for fighting like crazy over 1,724 days in court to publish a game that isn't going to make anybody rich, Villains & Vigilantes is available as a printed book for $16.99 from Lulu and an ebook for $7.50 from DriveThruRpg.
Update: This story was edited to reflect that the trademark's ownership was in a 1982 contract, not the original 1979 contract.