Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Trademarking Infocom, again, part two

I posted yesterday about a company called SmartMonsters, who are running a port of (MIT) Zork in a MUD framework. They are trying to register the "Infocom" trademark.
But it turns out that someone else is trying to do the same thing. If you look at the URL infocom.xyz, you'll see a bare-bones site which claims "Infocom and the Infocom logo are trademarks of Infocom LLC." According to business records, Infocom LLC is a company formed in Colorado Springs in 2015.
Now, a US trademark search turns up no mention of this crew. And it looks like they've been claiming the "Infocom" trademark for years with no registration. But I am told that they are objecting to SmartMonsters' use of it. I don't really know how the trademark-tussling process works, so let's just say it's "in contention".
(I need hardly say that registering the Infocom trademark gives you no rights at all to the Infocom games. Those are covered by copyright, an entirely separate matter.)
So what are they doing with the trademark? The answer is a job posting that appeared last week:
In this position you will be provided with the source code for a proprietary assembler that consists of slightly under 4,000 lines of code. The source code you will study was written in assembly language to run on the TOPS-20 operating system on the PDP-10 mainframe computer. [...]
In this position you will play an important role by writing a functional specification document that describes the functions, program flow, error handling, and other information of the assembler that the person operating inside the clean room will need to know to develop a compatible replacement program. The replacement program is expected to be able to process the same input files and to generate bit-identical output files. [...]
The final specification will be made available under GPL-3.0-or-later. The software developed inside the clean room will be released under AGPL-3.0-or-later.
"Freelance Specification Writer" posted by Infocom LLC
This is an exact description of Infocom's ZAP assembler, which was part of their ZIL toolchain. (ZILCH turned ZIL code into Z-code assembly; ZAP turned the assembly into a Z-code game file.)
The source code in question turned up in the Infocom source-dump which appeared last year. Nobody noticed it right off. But a few months ago, a sharp-eyed user spotted ZAP buried in the MiniZork source directory.
The file "zap.mid" is MIDAS assembly code, an MIT variant of PDP-10 machine language. And it is indeed about 3800 lines long.
The job post describes a classical clean-room setup. You do this if you want to make a work-alike copy of someone else's program that isn't derived from their source code. The result does the same job -- "identical output", like the post says -- but you own it. This is legal because algorithms aren't copyrightable. (It may be ethically sketchy -- that's another whole question. But it's legal.) (Unless the algorithm is patented, but that's not the case here.)
So that's what this company is trying to do. The next question is, why? This is where my brain falls flat on the floor. And not just mine. I asked Jason Scott. He passed the word along to the old Infocom folks. Nobody, I mean nobody, can figure out what the point is.
The infocom.xyz site has two games up, which look like Lode Runner clones -- Linux only. This doesn't give much clue what line of business they're in, other than "not in it for the money".
(Yes, I sent them email, in case they were willing to tell me. They said "no further comment beyond what has already been made public.")
Let's be clear about what already exists. There are several open-source compilers that handle Z-code assembly. zasm does it; Inform 6 and ZILF both include the capability. We also have throrough descriptions of the Z-machine architecture, both Infocom's original document and the modern reconstruction. And of course there are dozens of open-source interpreters which play Z-code games.
All of these tools derive from the reverse-engineering work that went on in the late 1980s. The InfoTaskForce's seminal Z-code interpreter is archived here.
That was no kind of a "clean-room" project! The InfoTaskForce group dug into Infocom's proprietary games and interpreters, figured out how it all worked, and reimplemented it. (The Infocom spec document I linked didn't turn up until years later.) If Infocom, the original company, had wanted to make a legal issue of it in 1989, they probably could have. But they didn't.
After that, everything discovered by the ITF was public knowledge. The modern Z-machine spec (originally written by Graham Nelson) was a collation of that knowledge; Graham did not have to decompile Infocom interpreters. That spec has a Creative Common license (BY-SA-4, noted here). It's freely usable in every practical sense.
You can say that all modern Z-code/ZIL tools are "tainted evidence", due to the original ITF reverse-engineering. But it's a tenuous argument. And it still leaves the question of what you'd use a "less-tainted" ZAP assembler for.
Academic purposes? Studying Infocom's tools and processes is a worthwhile (and fascinating) goal. But it makes no sense to use a clean-room tool for that. You want to study every scrap of information available!
Compiling Infocom's ZIL source code for fun? There are plenty of people doing that already, using existing open-source tools. Some folks are even tackling bug fixes and modernization. (Yes, Activision's copyrights are a question here. The concensus is that volunteer updates to the source code are fan activity and basically okay. Don't go selling them, is all.)
Compiling Infocom's code for profit? A clean-room compiler or assembler doesn't give you any leverage there. You're still building a game file derived from proprietary source code. Again, selling it without Activision's permission would be right out.
Writing new, original ZIL games for fun? As I said, this is already a popular hobby. The forum is buzzing with ZIL programming chatter.
Writing new, original games for profit? I gotta tell you, ZIL is not the right tool for that job. Even if you think you're going to get rich off parser IF (tricky at best), you'll want a modern tool which can handle dense, highly-detailed games. Of all the Infocom alumni who revisited parser IF (Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Bob Bates), none of them chose ZIL.
For the sheer challenge of the hack? Maybe? But people usually don't put down money for that sort of fun. This setup involves hiring a documentation writer and a copyright lawyer, for a start.
So I'm left with nothing. My best guess is that they want to write unauthorized sequels to the Infocom canon, but they don't understand either the legal realities (a clean-room assembler gains you nothing) or the IF community. My second guess is that they want to contribute a legally unencumbered open-source tool, but they don't understand that this has no practical value. I dunno. They're certainly doing nothing to dispel the impression that they might have sketchy intentions.
On top of which, they consistently present themselves as "Infocom". Not "Infocom enthusiasts" or even "a new generation of Infocom". This tweet (from last year) is an eye-rolling example. I also see a discussion thread in which someone said they were (briefly) selling the old Infocom games without permission? I can't verify that, but jeez.
I guess we'll find out, or else they'll sink without a trace and we never will.

11 comments:

  1. Fully granting that ZIL is only for the disturbed and disturbing, but of the examples you listed, the only one who had access to a halfway serviceable ZIL compiler at the time of his return was Bates, wasn't it?

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  2. Ha. Good point.

    I guess I was thinking back to when ZTUU came out, and people were reasonably asking "Wait, will this be written in ZIL?" No, it'll be in a (then-) modern system. Which was cool! The grand elders are using our tools! (Or Kevin Wilson was, anyhow.)

    But it was reasonable at that point to think Activision *might* have a working ZIL compiler in a basement somewhere.

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  3. My money is on “compiling Infocom source for profit” and they are confused how copyright works.

    Maybe they saw Halt and Catch Fire once. I doubt a real lawyer is involved.

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  4. Just to muddy the water a tiny bit further, there's also "Infocom Remakes" on steam, which is described as "his Australian Indie studio is committed to converting the old Infocom text adventures to 3d first person adventures. 3D Text Adventure 2 is the second of these to be developed. These infocom remakes are practically exactly the same as the originals."

    Since the name of their game changed from "Zork Remake" to "3D Text Adventure", I guess they've never tried to lay claim to the trademarks. And so far, they're not charging any money for their one finished game.

    I haven't tried it, but I really don't see how it's "practically exactly the same".

    (I keep writing "they", but for all I know it's just a single person.)

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    1. Wow. I hadn't run into those at all. Somehow I'm not tempted to download the demo and investigate further.

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    2. (I see I accidentally wrote "his Australian" instead of "This Australian". Oops.)

      I'm guessing it's just someone who discovered Unity, or something similar, and has fond memories of the originals. I might have tried it if there had been a Linux version, though not with any high expectations.

      I was kind of curious to see how he might tackle some of the later games, because there are things I don't see how they could be translated into graphics at all. There doesn't seem to be much activity at the moment, though.

      The only Infocom game I can think of that actually *might* benefit from a graphical remake (though not *this* kind of remake) is Suspended.

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    3. Real Myst vibes is always a +1

      https://adventuregamers.com/games/view/38612

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  5. Now that GOG.com has proved that it's possible to sell really old games, there are some dodgy characters out there trying to find games in the sweet spot between completely valueless and well-known enough that the major publishers still have a vested interest in protecting their copyrights. There remain a fair number of games that are owned by publishers who, with mergers and acquisitions in the games industry being what they are, have no idea that they own them. Others have fallen into a complete legal black hole when their original publishers and/or developers vanished.

    A case in point which I stumbled upon recently is the Legend Entertainment games Eric the Unready and Superhero League of Hoboken, which are being sold by someone called Ziggurat Interactive. Bob Bates is highly suspicious that they have the rights to do so; he's been trying to buy back the Legend intellectual property for years, and keeps hitting a blank wall of cluelessness at Atari, who apparently own it now. The case of Hoboken is particularly telling: Marvel Comics threatened to sue Legend after the release of that game because they claimed to own the word "superhero." (Crazy, right?) The game was a miserable commercial flop, so Legend didn't bother to fight it. Instead they signed an agreement which gave them permission to sell through the copies in their inventory, but never to sell any more afterward. It seems *highly* unlikely that these Ziggurat people not only pried the rights away from Atari, but also managed to get Marvel Comics to lift their injunction on the game's sale. I suspect they're just banking on obscurity, whilst hoping to make a few extra dollars on a game a few people may remember and a few other random browsers might be charmed enough by to buy.

    This can all be very frustrating for us old-timers. On the one hand, it's great to see gaming's legacy titles getting properly preserved and made available at last in one-click-installable versions, given how the industry used to forget its own history. On the other, though, some of the people selling the games aren't quite kosher.

    Of course, what's odd about this Infocom business is that those games don't really fit into this rubric at all. They're well-known enough that anyone trying to sell them without permission would be called out on it about five minutes after they went up. And at the same time, they don't have *enough* lingering commercial value that making modern sequels would make much sense as anything other than amateur fan endeavors. (Maybe a modern Zork would attract some interest, although I'm not sure how much. And I think a sequel to Hithchhiker's could attract a lot of attention, if you did it properly through the Douglas Adams estate and got Steve Meretzky to write it. But that's about it.)

    In short, I'm flummoxed as well...

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    1. Marvel and DC hold a joint trademark on the term "Superhero", so the claim's not as crazy as it seems (although this random blog post from 2006 suggests the trademark wouldn't cover video games).

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    2. Not to mention the fact that the Zork Anthology collection is already *on* GOG. I'm sure it sells a bare trickle, but nobody can claim it's disappeared from the market.

      I can imagine some potential for a sequel or reboot. Zork has gotten the graphical sequel treatment, but it's never had the kind of massive fan extensions or re-imaginings that Colossal Cave has seen. There's room there for new ideas.

      But you wouldn't do it in ZIL!

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  6. The job page has been taken down and replaced with "The position has been filled."

    For the record, I'm going to paste the entire text of the job posting here. It was up from July 18 through August 3.

    ----------------------

    This is part of a clean room reverse engineering project. This position operates outside the clean room.

    In this position you will be provided with the source code for a proprietary assembler that consists of slightly under 4,000 lines of code. The source code you will study was written in assembly language to run on the TOPS-20 operating system on the PDP-10 mainframe computer. You will need know this assembly language or be willing to learn. It is likely that you will need to install an emulator to run TOPS-20 and to build and run the assembler so as to further study the software. Candidates that already have this knowledge are preferred but it is acknowledged that such people can be difficult to find for such legacy systems.

    In this position you will play an important role by writing a functional specification document that describes the functions, program flow, error handling, and other information of the assembler that the person operating inside the clean room will need to know to develop a compatible replacement program. The replacement program is expected to be able to process the same input files and to generate bit-identical output files.

    You will be expected to work with an attorney who will review the documentation to ensure that no copyrightable information is included in what goes into the clean room. This may include sending the documentation back to you along with feedback asking for revisions.

    The final specification will be made available under GPL-3.0-or-later. The software developed inside the clean room will be released under AGPL-3.0-or-later.

    You can be located anywhere in the world and you can choose your own hours, as long as requirements are met.

    Qualifications:

    - Proven working experience in technical writing of software documentation
    - Computer programming background
    - Knowledge of editors and tools
    - Excellent communication and writing skills in English
    - Demonstrated ability to produce high-quality documentation
    - Able to work independently
    - Applications must be submitted via email to (ORIGINAL ADDRESS REDACTED). A complete application should include a résumé, cover letter with salary expectations, and a writing sample (1000 words or less.)

    All materials must be in a free format (such as plain text, PDF, or OpenDocument, and not Microsoft Word). Email submissions that do not follow these instructions will probably be overlooked.

    ---------------------

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