Meet the Video Game Attorney Who Fights for Independent Developers
Ryan Morrison fights for the little guys.
Image: Ryan Morrison
Being an independent game developer is terrifying. Yet every day, hundreds of people are setting sail to chase a dream of building the next big indie hit. As if abandoning financial stability wasn't already scary enough, many more are finding that the water has more than a few sharks waiting for them. Cease and desist orders, trademark infringement, and poorly worded contracts are sinking ships at a rapid pace, and Ryan Morrison is doing something about it.
Better known online by his superhero-like moniker, the Video Game Attorney, Morrison has spent the last two years of his life standing up for the little guys. His firm, The Law Offices of Ryan P. Morrison, has defended hundreds of people across the entire sphere of video games, from small-time indie developers to professional eSports athletes.
"Growing up a nerd—being in that culture, you grow up hating bullies," Morrison told me. "And there's very few bullies like there are at the top of the intellectual property world." Morrison doesn't only protect developers from the overwhelming world of law and those who would wield it as a weapon, but educates them so that they can learn to protect themselves.
Though Morrison has only been practicing law for two years, a "baby" by his own account, he has already left his mark on the industry in numerous ways. He completed law school to find the legal job landscape brutally competitive and uninspiring. Around that time, Morrison started noticing an increase of posts to various game developer communities on Reddit complaining about King, creators of Candy Crush Saga, pursuing legal action against small development teams for infringing on its contentious trademarks of the words "Candy" and "Saga". Morrison saw his opportunity for something greater.
"I was sitting there, steaming and angry, thinking someone should help these guys," Morrison said. "That's when I realized, oh, I can help them! So I quit my job and reached out to everybody and said, 'hey, I've been an attorney for about eight days, but I'll help you for free if you want to fight this.'"
Working with the International Game Developers Association, Morrison co-authored a white paper about King's trademarks, eventually playing a central role in King losing its control over the word "Candy".
Seeing the anger and confusion from game developers over the case, and knowing that the reason so many fell victim to King was because they had ignored filing their own trademarks, Morrison took to the internet. "I went on Reddit just to say, 'guys, trademark your stuff and this won't happen,'" Morrison says. "I expected them to say 'okay' or 'eff off' or whatever, but instead the response was, 'what's a trademark?'"
And from there, a core principle of Morrison's evolving business was born: educating people. Morrison began doing a recurring Ask Me Anything on the /r/Gamedev subreddit, offering general (but not legally binding) advice and answering questions.
While Morrison's firm has its fair share of paying clients, he tells me that he is always willing to do what he can to help someone in a bad place—even for free. Much of this work revolves around fighting cease and desist orders because so many companies prey on those they assume won't have legal representation. As soon as they hear Morrison on the phone, most will never call back.
But big companies like King aren't the only legal problem for indie developers. Many developers don't treat their projects like a proper business. They casually start working together without taking the time to create contracts that spell out provisions for each contributing member. "They just start making something, and what they don't realize is that they're creating a partnership and joining a lot of intellectual property together that they might not be meaning to," he says.
The problem is that, in instances without a clear contract stating otherwise, the work one developer contributes to a project will remain theirs if they leave the team—even if they've been compensated for it. If an artist leaves, it pays to have a legally binding contract that spells out every possible outcome. "Contracts will not only save the project," Morrison says, "They will save your friendship."
A similar situation developers can find themselves in is contracting labor outside of a partnership, like commissioning art or music for a game from a freelancer. In Morrison's experience, many developers fail to provide proper assignment clauses and are unknowingly only purchasing a license instead of the rights to the work itself. Morrison has seen what happens firsthand when the artist legally revokes the license they sold.
"That kind of terrible human being does exist in this space," he said. "They hold games hostage after they do well because they know they still own something. A lot of people look at this as publisher versus developer, where the bad guy is a multimillion dollar company coming after you. Sometimes it's just an asshole down the road. There are bad guys everywhere."
Fortunately, getting an attorney to draft up proper contracts isn't a huge expense. Some of these documents can be easily handled without an attorney, like non-disclosure agreements that follow basic template, and copyright applications, which is a simple process. For more complicated contracts, Morrison strongly urges that developers seek legal help.
When it comes to small developers entering into a contract with a publisher, it's common to see the narrative that publishers are greedy businessmen eager to strip every molecule of joy out of their lives. But that's just not the case. In most instances, the problem is that developers are terrified of properly negotiating fairer terms. Morrison uses the analogy of the high school rock band signing to a record label, explaining how the pressure of "making it" forces many to shut their mouths and sign the dotted line. "In reality, I've worked on a ton of deals," he says. "We've never lost one because of what we asked for, and we've never sent one back as is."
But times are also changing, with the rise of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, publishers recognize that their ability to exert dominance over a developer has significantly eroded. While these instances can still exist, such as with Guns of Icarus, Morrison contends that it isn't nearly as common anymore.
Morrison's popularity among game developers signals an important truth about breaking away from the shackles of corporate life. While designing a game might be what you're good at, being successful requires a far broader skillset than just programming or art. You need to be equipped to run a business, even if it's just a tiny one in your basement. And any good business owner understands their weaknesses and seeks to compensate with outside help. For hundreds of developers, Ryan Morrison is the person you turn to, even if it's just to ask a simple question.