November 12, 2013

Game Over for “Full Screen Mario” as Nintendo Copyright Pulls Plug

It wasn’t so long ago we were talking about the full screen release of the original “Super Mario Bros.,” powered by HTML5 and made available to the masses by way of computer science student Joshua Goldberg of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. Well, that particular round of fun took a little over a month to go from “in play” to “shut down” as copyright issues rear their ugly head once more.

Not at all surprisingly, the issue was one of intellectual property. After all, Goldberg’s work was pretty much a direct port of the entire “Super Mario Bros.” title using all the original characters without even much in the way of changes to provide some kind of fig leaf as protection under parody laws or the like. Though Goldberg certainly improved on the original–offering up not only the original game, but also a level creation tool and a random map generator–there wasn’t much that was specifically different.

Nintendo offered a statement making its case clear, and from a legal standpoint it’s hard to match this one for sheer rationality. It said, “Nintendo respects the intellectual property rights of other companies, and in turn expects others to respect ours as well. Nintendo is seeking the removal of the content, as we vigorously protect against infringement of our intellectual property rights.” Goldberg subsequently removed the game without incident on November 2, complete with Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) notice and a note from Goldberg himself, saying that the game had reached “nearly 2.7 million unique visitors” during its period of operation.

Of course, it’s not hard to look at something like this and think that maybe Nintendo’s starting its copyright thrust in entirely the wrong direction. What amounts to a loving tribute to a magnificent old game that’s still popular today really is somewhat different—if not necessarily different in a legal sense—from, say, the collections of ROMs out there on various torrent sites or the abundance of Flash game versions of old eight-bit classics. But legally at least, Nintendo likely has the right of it.

That being said, there were certainly different ways to address this situation. Nintendo’s in desperate need of more games on the Wii U, and has been trying to pull in indie developers like nobody’s business thanks to things like the Nintendo Web Framework. Goldberg managed to modify an entire game in HTML5 and include a level editor and random level generator. That’s the kind of thing that should be extremely valuable to Nintendo, and it would probably have been worth bringing Goldberg in on the action.

Still, this shows the incredible power that HTML5 can offer, and provides a clear lesson for game-strapped Nintendo. One computer science student took somewhere around a year to turn one of the biggest game titles around in terms of sheer longevity into a workable online experience that not only offered the original game but also a set of fairly major improvements. A staff of 10 professionals should be able to do likewise in a matter of weeks. Perhaps Nintendo’s greatest asset is its incredible depth of characters and intellectual properties, so putting this asset to work using simple methods like Goldberg did may well prove to be Nintendo’s saving grace. Whether Nintendo can get some value out of this incident or not remains to be seen, but it may just be the answer the company has been looking for.

Edited by Blaise McNamee


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