Bethesda has raised eyebrows in the gaming community by going after independent developer Mojang, home to Markus 'Notch' Persson and the hit sandbox game Minecraft, over alleged trademark infringement.
While Notch and his company are best known for Minecraft, a voxel-based create-'em-up which has recently surpassed three million downloads despite little in the way of advertising, there's another game in the wings. While little is known beyond the title - Scrolls - it's already generating some interest.
Sadly, that interest is unlikely to be welcomed. Bethesda Softworks, a giant in the gaming industry, is suing Mojang for alleged trademark infringement.
"About half a year ago, our lawyers recommended us to register Minecraft as a trademark, so we did," Notch explains in a post to his blog. "I had voted against it initially, but we did it anyway. Better safe than sorry, and all that. At the same time, we also applied for [a trademark on] Scrolls, the new game we’re working on. We knew of no similarly named games, and we had even Googled it to make sure."
While it's true that there are no mainstream titles called Scrolls, Bethesda is arguing that the name comes dangerously close to one of its own trademarks: The Elder Scrolls. Part of a years-long series of games - including Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, and the soon-to-be-released Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls is Bethesda's bread and butter.
"Out of the blue, we got contacted by Bethesda's lawyers," Notch explains. "They wanted to know more about the Scrolls trademark we were applying for, and claimed it conflicted with their existing trademark The Elder Scrolls. I agree that the word Scrolls is part of that trademark, but as a gamer, I have never ever considered that series of - very good - role playing games to be about scrolls in any way, nor was that ever the focal point of neither [sic] their marketing nor the public image."
Despite not holding a trademark on the individual word 'scrolls' used in the context of a computer game, Bethesda appears adamant that Mojang's upcoming title will infringe upon its existing trademark. "Today, I got a 15-page letter from some Swedish law firm saying they demand us to stop using the name Scrolls, that they will sue us - and have already paid the fee to the Swedish court - and that they demand a pile of money up front before the legal process has even started."
This is despite Notch's offer to ensure that Scrolls would never have a prefix, in order to minimise even the slightest chance of confusing the two properties. That's an offer, incidentally, to which Bethesda never responded.
"I sincerely hope Bethesda isn't pulling a Tim Langdell," Notch concludes, referring to the notorious case of a man who claimed to have absolute rights to the word 'edge' when used in a gaming context. While his claims ultimately failed, they cost his victims - including EA, for having the temerity to release a game called Mirror's Edge - dearly in the process.
On the surface, it's hard to see how Bethesda could have a case for trademark infringement: the two games are very different in style, and picking individual words from an existing trademark is disingenuous to the point of allowing KFC to sue any Indian restaurant with chicken tikka on the menu. A verdict in Bethesda's favour would also ignore prior use of the mark in such small matters as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Scroll Android tablet range from Storage Options.
Sadly, for all Minecraft's success, Mojang remains a small, independent studio, and if the case reaches the inside of a courtroom Bethesda will be fighting from a far stronger financial position.
At the time of writing, Bethesda has not issued a formal statement on the case or responded to our request for comment.