It’s not uncommon to see corporations go after fans who are engaged in infringement of that company’s intellectual property, and it’s easy to understand why even if you don’t always agree: every business wants full control over their IP and how it’s used and sold, and these fans are taking money out of the pockets of said business or using the IP in a way that the company doesn’t agree with, or often both. And it’s usually the case that these corporations prevail; after all, they have both the legal rights to that IP as well as a legal team to see out these cases, whereas individuals are probably put in some degree of financial distress just to afford a single lawyer for their case. Which raises an interesting question: what exactly are these corporations getting out of the lawsuits they pursue against individuals?
Timothy Geigner at Techdirt has a follow-up to a recent story about RomUniverse, a site run by Matthew Storman that featured recreations of classic Nintendo games called ROMs and was recently shut down when Nintendo filed suit against it and other ROM sites over ostensible infringement issues. I say ostensible because such sites existed for years unperturbed, but as Nintendo and others came upon a way to sell classic games digitally without having to invest in physical media, so went their leeway for ROM sites. Of course it’s their right to do so, and that blind eye isn’t necessarily a defense for Storman and others to run their sites in perpetuity.
But it’s worth asking what Nintendo and others like them are getting from those suits beyond shutting down the enterprise in question. Nintendo won the suit and $2.1 million in damages for the numerous instances of infringement, an amount that isn’t all that significant to Nintendo’s bottom line but is devastating to any individual outside of the fabulously wealthy. Indeed, it’s seemingly the case that Storman has been unable to make even the $50 monthly payments on the judgment that was set by the court.
As Geigner points out, Nintendo could have gone about shutting down the site without setting financial ruin upon Storman for a monthly amount that comes out to the price of a Switch game. Is it about sending a message with the damages to prevent future infringement? Maybe, but the legal fees alone would be enough for the average gamer thinking about starting their own ROM site to think twice. Nintendo wasn’t wrong to want the site shut down, nor were they necessarily wrong to assert some financial damage from ROM sites when they have their own version on offer. But trying to extract $2.1 million from people who might not even have $2,100 in their bank accounts feels like a fruitless punitive exercise that isn’t serving much of any purpose.