Assassin’s Creed maker sued for copyright infringement

"I wonder if I can find a lawyer around here"

A science fiction author has sued games company Ubisoft for copyright infringement in its wildly popular game series Assassin’s Creed. The plaintiff, one Mr John L Beiswenger, is asking for either $1,050,000.00 USD for infringement, or up to $5 million USD for wilful infringement of his novel Link.

It would be fair to say that Link is not a runaway publishing success, or that it seems to have set the literary world alight. The book’s synopsis in Amazon (one has to guess written by the author) reads:

“Contrary to the beliefs of Nobel Laureate Dr. Francis Crick and most modern day scientists, but in alignment with the religious beliefs of billions of human beings on earth, the soul is alive and well and active in our daily lives. Contrary also to the beliefs of most neuroscientists, it is the soul, not the brain, which is designed to remember.
This story principally takes place in the facilities of Search International, Inc., a product research firm near Madison, Wisconsin. They call their work “product research,” because the engineers, medical professionals and scientific staff are specifically focused on the development of new products for client manufacturers.
Commercialization of new technologies was the company’s only objective until an unusual accident occurred; an accident which led management and the biotechnology research staff known as the Biochip Team into a discovery beyond their imaginations, a discovery which could well be considered the most important to mankind for all time.
The truly astonishing hypothesis, developed by Search International, suggests that at the functional center of the nucleus of every cell is an atemporal Particle of zero mass and infinite capacity for memory a biological singularity. The same Particle is a component of every cell in the body. It is the “fabric of the soul.”

Ugh. If the introduction is anything to go by, the book does not look promising. Not my cup of tea to say the least. According to the complaint, the main plot in Link is that scientists have discovered a way to access genetic memories from a subject using a memory device called, you guessed it, Link. It allows people to witness historical events, but as far as I could tell from the excerpts included in the complaint, it does not allow the person to participate. The plaintiff argues that Assassin’s Creed is too similar to the plot of Link for it to be a coincidence.

For those unfamiliar with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, it is a game in which the protagonist, who is a descended from a line of assassins, is forced to use a device called the Animus, which allows him to awake genetic memories from one of his ancestors. The plot revolves around using those memories to uncover a series of artefacts called Pieces of Eden. During the gameplay, you switch from the present to the past, and you have direct input in finding the pieces.  Mr. Beiswenger claims that there are too many elements in Assassin’s Creed similar to his novel. The complaint states:

“42. The Assassin’s Creed video game introduces the Animus device and process; the characters describe the Animus as a device and process that allows the user to access, recall, relive, and reexperience ancestral memories stored in the DNA in vivid detail.
43. A major plotline of Assassin’s Creed is based on the access of ancestral memories via the Animus.
44. Another major plotline is the introduction of Abstergo Industries and the Templars verses the Assassins in a good vs. evil theme.
45. In the Assassin’s Creed video game, characters access ancestral memories of historically accurate persons, events and times.
46. In the Assassin’s Creed video game, characters encounter biblical and spiritual plotlines such as Gods, Adam and Eve and Pieces of Eden.
47. In the Assassin’s Creed video game, characters frequently use the words “genetic memories,” “ancestors,” “link,” “synchronize,” and “assassins,” and variations thereof, when describing the Animus device and process.”

Even if we grant those plot similarities (and they seem quite thin to say the least), does the plaintiff have a case? I would almost state with certainty that he does not, according to well-established US case law in this area. In Nichols v. Universal Pictures, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to look at the similarity between a play and a motion picture, both featuring Irish youth marrying Jewish counterparts without the agreement of their respective families, both resulting in comedic situations. The judges in that instance found that while copyright does protect characters and plots, the copying must be substantive, and stock elements and tropes are not protected. The idea is not protected, it is the expression of the idea.

I have played the game, but not read the novel (and do not intend to), so I can only give an uninformed opinion. From the excerpts in the complaint, and from the plot elements discussed, there is just not enough similarity to warrant copyright infringement. Characters are a very important element in Assassin’s Creed, and there no similarity whatsoever in that respect. Moreover, character development is perhaps one of the most important elements of the game, the gameplay rests entirely on the character’s ability to uncover the plot and find the artefacts. This is not even hinted at in Link from what I’ve read.

Now excuse me, I will go and dust-off my copy of the game and kill me some medieval guards.

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