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Did Game Maker Use 'Notched Pickaxe' as a Nod to 'Minecraft?'

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on December 07, 2011 5:47 AM

Last August, video game maker Bethesda filed a trademark infringement complaint against the makers of Minecraft, a sandbox-style game.

Minecraft developers were creating a new game called Scrolls, which Bethesda believed to be a little too similar to their own blockbuster video game franchise, The Elder Scrolls.

The suit garnered attention when Minecraft developer Markus "Notch" Persson's challenged Bethesda to a Quake 3 duel. If Bethesda won, Notch promised to change the name of Scrolls to anything that Bethesda would sign off on.

Bethesda declined.

But apparently there's no love lost between the two dueling game companies. In fact, Bethesda's recent Skyrim game (which is a continuation of The Elder Scrolls) seems to pay homage to Minecraft.

And it's not like the Minecraft developers are crying copyright infringement.

Specifically, one of the "tools" a character in Skyrim can equip is something called a "Notched Pickaxe," which resembles the main tool used in Minecraft.

Let's put our trademark and copyright thinking caps on. Under intellectual property laws, is a name like Scrolls infringing on The Elder Scrolls? And in that same vein, what about the "Notched Pickaxe" -- is this infringing on any of Minecraft's properties?

  • Scrolls does sound similar to The Elder Scrolls. Hardcore gamers will likely know the difference between the two at first glance. But for gaming amateurs, it could cause confusion.
  • It's hard to say whether or not the game company could actually claim copyright protection over a pickaxe though. Pickaxes are a rather generic tool, and it seems the only way people might know the reference to Minecraft would be to notice the tool's "Notched Pickaxe" moniker. It's possible that the Minecraft pickaxe could be infringed upon if it was unique in style and the artwork was very similar.

There's a lot more to be said about the realm of video game intellectual property. Like any copyright-able work, courts will likely have to look at multiple aspects of the game before rendering a decision. And for attorneys with an inner geek streak, following the Bethesda/Minecraft legal battle might be worthwhile.

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