A Kickstarter project to recreate the ZX Spectrum is in disarray after it was revealed that many of the original developers of the included Spectrum games had never been paid for the inclusion their work.
Elite Systems raised £63,194 to make a Bluetooth version of the classic British ZX Spectrum computer on Kickstarter, offering rewards including the Bluetooth Spectrum itself, printed artwork from spectrum games like Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner and the ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection app for iOS and Android. As well as being used to play Spectrum games, Elite Systems plans to ensure that the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum will “optionally” work as a standard bluetooth keyboard for Windows and Mac computers.
But it is the app, required to use the device to play Spectrum games, which has led to disgruntled developers coming forward.
The ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection app was first released on Apple’s App Store in September 2010, boasting of “100% original and ‘officially licensed’ ZX Spectrum games”. Through in-app purchases, a further 25 collections of Spectrum games were added over the next three years.
But despite the licensing agreements being signed, it seems very few developers were actually paid the royalties they were owed for the inclusion of their old games in the Elite Collection app.
Steve Wetherill, who currently works for Kixeye in San Francisco, is one of those developers. In December 2010, Elite Systems licensed a number of his games for inclusion in the app. As the lead programmer on titles such as 1985’s Nodes of Yesod and Robin of the Wood for Odin Computer Graphics, Wetherill was entitled to royalty payments from Elite.
“We received (initially voluntarily, but later upon my prompting) royalty statements from Elite showing sales of the Odin titles,” Wetherill wrote in a statement on his site. “Eventually [they] dried up completely… Over time, it became clear that royalties due under the agreement (which were to be paid within 30 days of the end of each calendar quarter) were not being paid. It is now over three years since this agreement was signed and to date no royalties have been paid.”
“This Kickstarter campaign has raised over $100,000 (£65,000) on the back of “officially licensed” software,” Wetherill continued. “However, I understand that in the cases of at least 6 individual developers, as communicated both publicly here and through private correspondance with each individual, the fees due under those ‘official licenses’ have in fact not been paid… To put a finer point on this, if you don’t pay the license fees, you’re not an official licensee.”
Despite the years of unpaid bills, it was only once the Kickstarter achieved a modicum of success that developers spoke out. Many of them had assumed that they were the only one not being paid, and were wary of making their stories public – until they heard how many others were similarly affected. One developer, Steve Crow, the author of Starquake, Firelord and Wizards Lair, even claims that no contract was ever signed with Elite.
Following the wave of complaints, Steve Wilcox, the head of Elite Sytems, removed the app from sale and posted a public statement on his site.
Calling the various developers’ claims “far too wide wide-ranging to be addressed in this single response”, Wilcox did acknowledge that as director, he “may have failed in my duty to ensure that some of the reports and some of the payments – due to the ZX Spectrum game developers, with whom Elite has contractual relationships – were made in accordance with the agreed terms.
“I am working toward that unacceptable position being remedied within the next 28 days, sooner if possible. I believe that all of the ZX Spectrum games included or included as in-app purchases within the above referenced apps were included with written consent, where such consent is available but I will need to review the written records relating to some 200 games before making a more fully informed comment.”
Wilcox, who directed the Guardian back to his online statement when asked to elaborate on the situation, is currently telling developers to write to gopher a hotmail address, email@example.com, to “set out any and all issues which they wish to be addressed in writing”.
While many gamers may think that software as old as that shipped by Elite Systems is somehow in the public domain, the truth is that games are covered by copyright in just the same way – and for just the same time – as other creative works.
“Older games are sometimes treated as ‘abandonware’”, says Wetherill, “which is an invented term used to justify the copying of games.
“I think people sometimes have the sense of, ‘I bought that game in 1985, why should I pay for it again’, but in that respect I think games are not really much different to other media – you can’t play your old vinyl records on a CD player, you have to buy the CD. On the whole though, in this case most feedback seems sympathetic.”
Cronosoft’s Simon Ullyatt takes a softer view. His company handles the rights to games by developers Bob Smith and Jonathan Cauldwell, and he has also accused Elite Systems of failing to keep up with royalty payments. “Some games (in fact quite a lot) are already in the public domain, and the game creators have given their blessing. Terms like ‘abandonware’ spring to mind.
“I would imagine many games creators don’t mind too much that their games are freely downloadable regardless of copyright in theory, for individual use… However, when a third party profits financially from selling other people’s work without permission or payment, it is a completely different matter.
“As with all markets, such as music and movies, there is always going to be a proportion of the population that will get the items for free, and those that choose to pay for them,” Ullyatt continues. “There’s little we can do about that, but commercial piracy is different. I’m sure we’ve all downloaded a new movie from the internet, but that’s a world away from copying that movie on an industrial scale, and then selling it.”
Wilcox has promised to sort out the issues with all the concerned developers before the end of February. In the meantime, the creation of the first prototype bluetooth spectrum continues, and the final version should be with backers by September 2014. Whether they will have any games to play with it by then remains an open question.