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[KH Explains] Ruling calls time on Lineage clones

Court rules in favor of NCSoft over Webzen in intellectual property suit

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : Aug. 20, 2023 - 15:42

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Logos of NCSoft and Webzen (provided by each company) Logos of NCSoft and Webzen (provided by each company)

A district court has ruled in favor of NCSoft, a major South Korean game developer, in an intellectual property suit that could significantly impact the landscape of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, in the country.

Lineage, a megahit MMORPG developed by NCSoft in 1998, has led to the birth of the term “Lineage-like games” – referring to many MMORPGs that resemble major aspects of Lineage such as the user interface and basic playing rules. However, the trend of Lineage-like games springing up over the past two decades in the country may now come to a stop in light of the latest court ruling.

The Seoul Central District Court on Friday ruled in favor of NCSoft over Webzen, a local game developer of the mobile MMORPG R2M, saying that R2M violated the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act against NCSoft’s Lineage M, a mobile game based on the intellectual property of Lineage.

The ruling came after two years and two months since NCSoft filed the lawsuit against Webzen in June 2021, in which NCSoft claimed that R2M copied Lineage M’s systems of bonus rewards from monster hunting and item collection in violation of the Copyright Act as well as the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act.

The court ordered the defendant to pay 1 billion won ($746,000) to the plaintiff, along with damages for delay with a 12 percent annual interest rate until the compensation is fully paid. The court also ordered Webzen to cease servicing R2M.

Although the court sided with NCSoft, its assertion of copyright infringement was not accepted by the judges.

“It is difficult to say that the defendant violated the copyright on the entirety of the plaintiff’s game just by using similar concepts,” the court said in its ruling.

“In terms of the overall atmosphere, the defendant’s game has a similar feel to the plaintiff’s game. But it appears that the defendant used the conceptual methods that are traditionally and typically used when developing an idea, which is not subject to copyright protection, into a game.”

Regarding the violation of the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act, the court explained that the launch of Webzen’s R2M infringed on the potential earnings of NCSoft’s Lineage M, citing the first paragraph of Article 4.

"The defendant's release and provision of the defendant's game that imitates the plaintiff's performance is an unauthorized use of the plaintiff's performance in a way contrary to fair trade practices or competition," the court said, adding, “If the defendant’s act is not regulated, there are concerns that the gaming industry may no longer have reasons to try coming up with new combinations of in-game playing rules.”

Webzen claimed that a number of games similar to Lineage M had been released since its launch in June 2017 in addition to R2M.

In-game images of Lineage M (above) and R2M (Captured from each game's official online communities) In-game images of Lineage M (above) and R2M (Captured from each game's official online communities)

Both NCSoft and Webzen have made it clear that they will appeal to a higher court.

NCSoft said it will look to expand the size of the compensation, as the original lawsuit’s damage was just a part of the entire damage it took. The firm noted that this ruling will serve as a meaningful moment to shift perspectives in the gaming industry.

Webzen announced on the official online community of R2M that the company was preparing legal measures to prevent the elimination of the game. It added that R2M’s service will not be stopped until the appeals court’s ruling, which will take quite some time.

According to Webzen’s regulatory filing, R2M’s sales of 32.9 billion won took up 13.59 percent of the game developer’s total sales last year.

As of Friday’s market closing, NCSoft’s stock stood at 250,000 won, down 1.19 percent from the previous day, while the price of Webzen decreased by 3.4 percent to 14,500 won.

The court’s ruling in favor of NCSoft is likely to have an impact on another ongoing legal battle involving NCSoft and Kakao Games. In April, NCSoft filed a lawsuit against XL Games and its parent company Kakao Games with the Seoul Central District Court, alleging that the latter parties’ MMORPG ArcheAge War imitated the content and system of NCSoft’s Lineage 2M.