Bad Apples: App Store Packed with Cheats and Knockoffs
The App Store has filled up with game cheats in recent months, including all these for The Sims 3.
CREDIT: Apple Inc
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the maxim holds true in Apple's App Store. For almost every popular game, such as "Angry Bird," "The Sims 3" and "Bejeweled 2," there are now several "cheat" applications or knockoffs made by outside developers.
"When so many obviously spammy and trademark-infringing apps are getting through, it makes every trivial rejection by real developers even more frustrating," wrote Marco Ament, lead developer of the Tumblr and Instapaper apps, in his blog recently.
Exercising control over a sprawling App Store festooned with bootlegs will be a challenge for Apple, said Mark Beccue, a senior analyst at ABI Research.
The App Store now has more than 200,000 apps, and the four-billionth download in April came right on the heels of the three billionth in January. Dominating downloads are game apps for the iPad and iPhone.
This gaming success has spawned a whole cottage industry of cheat apps that also go by the euphemisms of "achievement guide" and "walkthrough."
Developer InTekOne, LLC, based in Mitchellville, Maryland, has put out nearly 30 of these apps just since late February for the games mentioned above as well as the hits "Call of Duty: World at War" and "Monopoly."
Many such cheat guides outright duplicate or bear a likeness to the genuine game's icon displayed in the App Store, though with a colored "cheats" label of some sort. Yet these apps are not sold or licensed by the games' original makers, raising issues of copyright and intellectual property (IP) infringement.
Birds angrily copycatted
"Angry Birds," the top paid-for app in almost 50 countries from the United States to Kazakhstan, provides an example of the proliferation of cheat guides and imitations.
Those looking to buy it in the App Store from their iPhone must discriminate between the real game – signified by a red, mean-looking cartoon bird – and an InTekOne cheat app that largely mimics the logo, and a knock-off game deceptively entitled "Angry Bird – Bonus Edition" made by B.M. Worldwide. (This developer also makes an app called "Plant vs. Zombie – Kids [sic] Edition," a blatant rip-off of PopCap Games, Inc's popular "Plants vs. Zombies" that also has an InTekOne cheat guide devoted to it).
Several other cheat guides available a few weeks ago for "Angry Birds" have since disappeared. For "The Sims 3" and its "World Adventures" expansion app, however, there are presently 10 cheat guides, and the lone real "Bejeweled 2" app right now has four cheats. InTekOne has guides for both.
InTekOne did not respond to a contact attempt from TechNewsDaily. But in a disclaimer for its "Angry Birds Walkthrough," the company offers the following legal and ethical footing:
"This guide is not endorsed by or affiliated with the creator of this video game or its licensors. This application complies with the US Copyright law guidelines of "fair use". All images were cropped with lower resolution and used only to convey what the application is about. All characters, their names, places, and other aspects of the video game described within this application are trademarked by their respective owners. This application does not copy any portion of the game, nor does it contain screenshots of the game, only original text descriptions."
When contacted for comment on the rash of cheat guides for "Angry Birds," developer Clickgamer only said: "Our position is that we do not condone infringement of rights in any form or manner."
Similarly, Zynga – maker of "Mafia Wars" and other blockbuster titles – said through public relations manager Lisa Chan: "Zynga does not condone the use of cheats, hacks or exploits of any kind. We have not published, approved or otherwise endorsed a guide to any of our games."
When asked about pursuing legal action against parasitic developers, or if cheat guides in fact helped sales of the genuine app, Zynga did not respond.
"The developers might not be saying anything because [the cheat guides] do encourage people to buy the game," speculated ABI's Beccue. If "the guides prevented people from playing the game, then [developers] would be after them."
Developer Ben Cousins sells over 30 cheat apps on the App Store, plus a number of apps that bite off other games, such as "Duck Hunter" (the classic "Duck Hunt," recreated) and "iFart – Epic Rip Edition" (copied from the wildly successful "iFart").
He defended his practices regarding the cheat guides, saying they fall under "fair use," a vague doctrine in United States ' copyright law that allows for some limited reproduction of copyrighted material. As the U.S. Copyright Office said on its Web site: "The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission."
In an email, Cousins explained how he sees this applied to his products. "The main factor of measuring "fair use" is the effect on the original product, and the main purpose of these guides is to improve the experience of the original purchase. If a player is stuck at some point in the game, a guide may help them get past that point and continue to enjoy the game."
"We have also spoken to many developers/publishers over the past year and many do not mind these apps as long as they are properly denoted as guides," Cousins also said. The App Store icons for his apps are clearly marked as cheats, achievement guides, and so on, and some do not contain any imagery from the original app logo.
Cousins went on to say that unofficial strategy guides for video games have long been contentious. But in the end, these guides and products like the "For Dummies" series of reference books, such as (Microsoft) "Word for Dummies" and (Adobe) "Photoshop CS4 for Dummies," "have flourished over the years because they are viewed to enhance the users' enjoyment of the original purchase," Cousins said.
Policing the App Store
Apple could, of course, crack down on these cheat guides if it so chose. Apple has rejected many an app over years on the always-debatable decency grounds, or for containing IP elements construed as too closely matching those of Apple's own products.
In general, though, cheat guides do not meet into these criteria. "If it were illegal to have cheat guides, then Apple has ground for purging them," Beccue told TechNewsDaily.
Apple is aware of the issue posed by cheats and copycats in its App Store. "As an IP holder ourselves, we understand the importance to developers of protecting their IP," said Apple spokeswoman Trudy Miller in an email."We have a process in the App Store for developers to alert us to possible IP infringement and when we're notified, we may remove the infringing app until a resolution is reached between the parties."
The proper procedure for developers who feel like they are getting ripped off is to email Apple at firstname.lastname@example.org about the specific infringing apps.
Ultimately, the removal from the App Store of cheat guides or copycat apps found to be objectionable largely rests with the developers themselves.
"It's not Apple's responsibility to make sure someone's rights aren't being infringed," Beccue said.