Should Apple Bust App Store Thieves?

Should Apple Bust App Store Thieves?

When a service as ambitious as Apple’s App Store becomes enormously significant and lucrative over the course of a few years, you can expect a touch of anarchy. For instance, there is a small but growing problem with video game theft on the iPhone, iPod touch and other devices. We’re not just referring to instances wherein a game is a hit and a million clones show up–though that’s a problem, too. Rather, a studio will have its game swiped wholesale and listed on the App Store at a much cheaper price.

Wherever there is a large gathering of people, there will be a few jerks skulking in the shadows. What’s troubling is Apple’s apathetic response to the problem. When the legitimate studio complains about the theft of its IP, the corporation is slow to respond, even when there’s no question that theft has occurred. A recent example is The Blocks Cometh, a Flash game by the indie studio Halfbot that ended up being swiped and put up for sale on the App Store while Halfbot was making its own plans to port the game to iOS. Not only did Apple approve the imitator, but it was also featured on iTunes’ “New and Noteworthy” showcase, even after the theft was reported.

Halfbot’s Derek Laufman is realistic: He knows that a good idea will eventually be imitated. But he has limits. “The concept I can let slide but stealing our name and art is a down right shi**y thing to do,” he told Destructoid.

Apple pulled the illegitimate version of The Blocks Cometh, but only after Destructoid and Reddit kicked up a fuss about the matter and the collective Internet shouted in Apple’s ear. Until then, Laufman says he was helpless to rouse the company.

It’s possible Apple didn’t want to concern itself with an iOS port of a Flash game, but The Blocks Cometh isn’t the only instance of blatant theft going on in the App Store. More problems arose when Lugaru HD, a popular indie action game being sold via the Mac App Store, was ripped off in early February. The imitator, which is being sold under the simplified name Lugaru,is listed on the Mac App Store alongside Lugaru HD–for $1.99 versus the original’s asking price of $9.99.

Jeffrey Rosen, one of the creators behind Lugaru HD, told Kotaku about Apple’s lack of action. “We are not happy about this situation,” he said. “It is not uncommon for people to sell pirated copies of our game, but we were completely caught off guard that Apple would approve this for sale on the App Store without any due-diligence.” After Apple “looked into the matter”–during which the phony version of Lugaru was still available for download–the imitator was finally pulled from the Mac App Store on February 10. Wolfire, the studio behind Lugaru HD, says it has yet to hear anything from Apple about the theft.

“We don’t think that the customers should be punished for buying the fake version,” Rosen wrote on Wolfire’s blog. “They probably just assumed that all the games in the App Store are legitimate.” Wolfire is thus providing a free download of Lugaru HD to anyone who accidentally paid for the ripoff.

Wolfire did release the game’s source code in 2010, but it says it still retains all the rights to the art assets. iCoder, the studio that ripped off Wolfire, responded to the accusations with a shrug and an “Oh well.” There’s no mistake: The studios that steal know exactly what they’re doing in the name of a quick buck, and it’s nauseating to witness.

Nobody expects Apple to wield a club and hunt down each and every rip-off artist, but it’s insulting indie studios–the backbone of the App Store–by turning away from and even encouraging incontestable instances of game theft. If it doesn’t start doing more to protect the IP of its supporters, the consequences may unravel the App Store in the long run. Lawless game publication and theft is one of the biggest reasons the game industry crashed in the 1980s.

That’s not to say that we want to see a return of the draconian publishing rules that Nintendo enforced in the NES era in order to lift the home console market back on its feet (though we’re curious about what an “Official Apple Seal of Quality” might look like). But Apple needs to smarten up. We’re living in an age where anyone with a great idea for a game is invited to share it with the world. If Apple doesn’t cherish what it has, developers will come to mistrust the App Store and take their ideas to a competing digital distributor. There’s no shortage of options.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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