Grandfather of Computer Games Law

Robert Bond

Legal 500 once described me as “The grandfather of computer games law.” The reason behind the title is a story worthy of the name.

In 1979, I had just qualified as a solicitor in the UK and was focusing on corporate and commercial law. My next door neighbour, who was nineteen years old, used to keep me awake at night with strange electronic sounds coming through the apartment wall. He told me he was building a video game based on Space Invaders. After learning that I was a lawyer, he asked me if he could engage me to set up a limited company for him and advise him generally on business law. His first game was called “Invaders Revenge,” and his company was called Zenitone. Within a year, he had signed his first publishing deal with a French company, and he needed me to draw up a computer games publishing agreement.

One of the first things I learned in 1980 was that there were no precedents for a computer games publishing agreement. I ended up using a combination of a book publishing and a music publishing agreement, but I began creating new definitions around coding and exclusive and non-exclusive rights.

Zenitone went on to publish a number of arcade and table-top games during the early eighties. From there, I was introduced to a gaming company called Domark. Domark’s first game, “Eureka,” was written by Ian Livingstone. Ian Livingstone is the man behind Dungeons and Dragons and also Games Workshop. He is now a special advisor to the UK government on the computer games industry.

Eureka was an adventure game where, at the end of each level, the gamer would find one digit of a telephone number. The first person to complete the game and call the number would win a cash prize of around $50,000. This was a lot of money back in 1984, and when tackling the legal issues, one of the areas we had to consider was gaming laws and laws of chance or skill. The final clue led the caller to dial the number to a telephone at my home. For months, no messages were received. Eventually, there was a winner who was a child named Matthew. What I had not considered was a child winning a cash prize. In those days, we had not considered either the question of age verification or the privacy of children.

The prize had to be disclosed to Matthew’s parents and then placed in trust until he reached an age of maturity. Interestingly, for a number of years, Matthew came into Domark to test computer games. He subsequently became an employee of Domark, later part of the Tomb Raider franchise, and finally, a VP at Electronic Arts.

Domark went on to do a number of James Bond games such as “A View to a Kill” and “Live and Let Die.” That led to interesting legal issues. These included rights in game coding, image rights with respect to actors from the Bond films, music rights with respect to digitised versions of the Bond theme, and a whole host of issues around spin-off merchandising rights and timing of the release of the game to mirror premiers of the relevant Bond film.

By the late eighties, the computer games industry was growing fast, and there was considerable cross-over between the computer games industry in the UK and that on the west coast. Apart from European legal work for US corporations such as Maxis, Lucas Arts, and Electronic Arts, I was also working with European companies including Ubisoft, Core Design, Rare, Elite, and Eutechnyx.

Intellectual Property was a major issue for all of the computer games industry during the late eighties and we had many fascinating discussions over the protection brands, such as “Tomb Raider” and “Big Mutha Truckers.”

With the growth of the computer games industry came concerns around regulation and, indeed, antitrust investigations, particularly around the controls by hardware and cartridge providers. This led to work in competition law and regulation in general. I was fortunate to be asked by founder members of the European Ledger Software Publishers Association to represent the trade body on its incorporation. This subsequently led to drafting the age-rating standards for UK computer games, which was subsequently adopted on a wider basis.

In 2005, acting for Linden Labs and their Second Life brand led to a whole range of legal issues because Second Life regulatory and legal challenges often mirrored real life. Creating intellectual property rights in a virtual world, addressing age verification and identity in a virtual world, considering banking, anti-money laundering, and other financial regulations in relation to Linden dollars all led to a rapid learning curve of the complexities of managing a massive multiplayer product.

One of the stimulating aspects of being a lawyer in a rapidly developing digital media sector has been creating new legal precedents and living on the edge in terms of advice. There were so many times where I would work with a young associate on some completely new type of agreement only to say when the job was done, “Do you realise that you are now an expert? After all, no one else has done this before.”

Experiences in relation to the risks associated with the online world in the mid-2000s led me to setting up an initiative in our law firm called “The i in online.” This subsequently became a not-for-profit in its own right. It provides advice and guidance and carries out research and training on how to help children manage their privacy and reputation online.

The experiences and challenges of shaping computer games law has given me a great foundation as a privacy and cyber-security lawyer, and still enables me to work for new digital media companies from all over the world.

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Robert Bond

Robert Bond is the head of Data Protection & Cyber Security Laws Group at Charles Russell Speechlys in the United Kingdom.