in other news, DOOM comes. Now.
September 8, 2003 2:49 PM   Subscribe

White Wolf sues over copyright infringement in Underworld. Their complaint via Penny Arcade, and a comic from same.
posted by e^2 (45 comments total)
I think the PA cartoon pretty much sums it all up.
posted by riffola at 2:53 PM on September 8, 2003

Oh also a more permanent link to the PA strip "The Dark Procession".
posted by riffola at 2:55 PM on September 8, 2003

Love Boat vs. Star Trek
posted by bobo123 at 2:59 PM on September 8, 2003

As a former Vampire devotee back when it was still a card game (Clan Ventrue in the house!), I have to say that the first thing I thought of when I saw the trailer for Underworld was, "wow, bet White Wolf can't wait to sink their teeth into this." (Yes, I really did make that bad pun in my own head at the time. Sometimes I think my brain is trying to kill me.)
posted by scody at 3:03 PM on September 8, 2003

Plaintiffs claim over 60 points of unique similarity between Underworld and their work. "Ours is a huge fictional world, supported by over 200 volumes of fictional material," asserts Mike Tinney, White Wolf’s President.

With "over 200 volumes of fictional material" to draw from, I wouldn't be surprised if "Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star" has over 60 points of similarity...

Can I call "FrankenFox" on this lawsuit?
posted by wendell at 3:06 PM on September 8, 2003

remember that scooby doo where the gang trapped all the vampires and werewolves together, and every time a vampire bit a werewolf it turned into a vampire, and every time a werewolf bit a vampire it turned into a werewolf?

(you know, game of life!</russian accent>)
posted by dorian at 3:09 PM on September 8, 2003

Underworld pretty clearly draws on White-Wolf as an inspiration, as did the Blade movies, but from what I've seen heard so far, that's all it really seems to be: inspiration, not plagiarism.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:18 PM on September 8, 2003

I wonder if Solistrato gets a cut of this if they win. (Have I got a memory on me or what!)
posted by thirteen at 3:25 PM on September 8, 2003

So, does Anne Rice get to sue White Wolf.
This would be funny if it wasn't so serious.
posted by daveg at 3:39 PM on September 8, 2003

You sure do!!! Holy crap, man! Thing is, I only wrote for Mage...I mean, er, WHERE'S MY FUCKING MONEY?!?!?!

Considering how derivative the World of Darkness is from its own sources, this takes balls the size of Idaho. This is like irony frosting on a cake. Of Darkness!
posted by solistrato at 3:41 PM on September 8, 2003

OK. I read through the complaint. I'm not sure what White Wolf claims they created. Yes, they point out many similarities between Underworld and the WoD, but common ancestry does not denote theft. It gets to the point where they explicitly point out that both stories are derived from Romeo and Juliet, but don't recognize the irony that they didn't write that particular play. Some stuff:

1) They make a relatively big deal about the fact that vampires hide. Well, yes. They're bogeymen of olde, of course they hide. They're the evil, scary monsters of the city. Bogeymen don't walk down the street, either they'd get arrested or we'd get out of dodge. On a related theme, they don't like the the vampires are organized...again, did White Wolf invent the concept of a secret society with unusual powers? They actually quote "strength of ten men" without realizing it far predates them. They think speedy (celeritous?) vampires is a grab from them too.

2) They don't like the idea of the vampire/werewolf crossing being so dangerous. Yes, because White Wolf invented the idea that established family lines and races could ever value purity, and certainly do not want to be interwoven by blood to so called enemies. Clearly, such a thing could never happen in real life, and could only have been imagined in the World of Darkness.

3) They seem to be making a claim to the Gothic lifestyle. I'm not actually kidding.

4) They may have coined a few phrases here and there that were actually theirs. The "Embrace" is the only one that came to mind, but there's one or two others. They're drowned out, though, by all the names that they seem to claim that aren't their own: Coven? Bloodlines(game notwithstanding)? Blood? THE LETTER V? Literally, at one point, they complain about Arab Vampires, because that infringes on the assamites. You can't make this stuff up.

5) Since White Wolf saw fit to complain about things that didn't happen ("they don't suppress vampire reflections, just like us") what about all the things that weren't used? The world-defining war between the Camarilla and the Sabaat? Hunters? Vampires actually being divided into explicit houses (not just those who are seen enjoying themselves and living richly per Toreador and Venture)? Older generations being vastly more powerful simply by dint of being closer to Caine? The desire of younger generations to drain the blood of the elders? Ghouls? Hello?

Ultimately, this is a Database case: White Wolf created a universe -- effectively, a self-consistent fictional database of public domain myth -- and is now trying to claim that usage of elements from this database constitutes theft from them. Certainly, the company added value to the stories of old, and was richly rewarded by the public for their actions. But they did not do, say, as Shadowrun did, as Warhammer 40K did, as any of a thousand well-drawn sci-fi and fantasy books and RPGs did: It did not start from scratch and create creatures from whole cloth. White Wolf took advantage of the publically available myths, revamped them better than anyone else, and made a killing. It is ridiculous that they imagine they have the legal right to prevent someone else from trying to do the same.

But then, IP law is always somewhat ridiculous, isn't it?
posted by effugas at 3:50 PM on September 8, 2003

From the trailer, it looks like Buffy meets The Matrix by way of Doom ... so I guess they're going to have nicked some ideas from *somewhere* ...
posted by carter at 3:56 PM on September 8, 2003

From the trailer, it looks like Buffy meets The Matrix by way of Doom ... so I guess they're going to have nicked some ideas from *somewhere* ...

It's Hollywood. The place feeds on recycled ideas. (pun fully intended.)
posted by solistrato at 4:04 PM on September 8, 2003

After watching the trailer for the first time, I too say the producers of the Matrix have a better case of infringment than White Wolf.

After the third or fourth homage to the matrix by other films, I thought people would let it go, but apparently not.
posted by mathowie at 4:21 PM on September 8, 2003

I think Metafilter has a better case of for infringement against Underworld. I mean, the movie's got like one color...and it's ours!
posted by effugas at 4:25 PM on September 8, 2003

White Wolf Lawyer: Well we have vampires, and they have vampires, and we have werewolves and...

Judge: Ok, asshat. You're done. Get out.
posted by bshort at 4:34 PM on September 8, 2003

Asshat? Watch your language, buddy! You want Fark to sue?
posted by leotrotsky at 4:58 PM on September 8, 2003

"Blade" still kicks everyone's arses when it comes to vamping in cities.
posted by meehawl at 5:25 PM on September 8, 2003

well, I wrote a story about something similar to Underworld that was published in a literary mag in 1985 (vamps and werewolves as mob-like figures with a long held hatred and elves as the self-imposed peace keeping force between them) so I'm gonna sue everyone.

I did really like Kindred: the Embraced when it was on TV. But they're still so, so sued.
posted by supershauna at 6:06 PM on September 8, 2003

AKAIK, the lawsuit is kinda about two things, the 60 points of similarity and that it directly plagiarizes the Nancy Collins story "That Monster Love" published by WW in like, 1995 or something.
The points of similarity are, I believe, to show that the world that Underworld takes place is derivative in more than just look and feel, but in also in specifics (and yes, any one point of contention is going to be weak, the idea is that the summation is greater than it's parts,) as well as ripping off the story.

White Wolf is not claiming they invented vampires and werewolves, or even pleather clad badasses fighting in a gothed-out city. I mean, WW isn't stupid, and I assume they aren't going to just throw away money for a stupid reason. If their suit was as stupid as PA tries to make it out to be, it never would have happened.

(Via a long thread over on
posted by Snyder at 6:31 PM on September 8, 2003


I read through the complaint. I'm not sure where they get 60 points of contention, because there's around 130, but they're all so amazingly weak (they have decadence! they have elders! they know shakespeare!) that I just can't see this going anywhere.

Look. The bottom line is, White Wolf turned Montague and Capulet (public domain characters) into Vampire and Werewolf (public domain myths) and is peeved that others might do the same.

Just because you aren't stupid doesn't mean you don't try jackpot lawsuits.
posted by effugas at 7:01 PM on September 8, 2003

The bottom line is, White Wolf turned Montague and Capulet (public domain characters) into Vampire and Werewolf (public domain myths)

This doesn't weaken their case perceptibly. A derivative work can itself be copyrightable even if its sources are in the public domain. Since there are no new ideas under the sun, it's how you combine the ideas that brings originality to a work.

The more similarities they can show, the lesser the likelihood the similarities are a coincidence.
posted by kindall at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2003


That's disingenuous on its face. White Wolf's case would be stronger if this was an entirely unique universe that had never been imagined before; Anne Rice and countless others imagined "Vampires Among Us" for years. If it would be stronger for being unique, it is weaker for being one of many (albeit the best; I'm really a fan).

Yes, a derivative work can be copyrightable. But look at what they're assembling. It's beyond weak; it's utterly banal. With the notable exception of:

* An elder is revived using the blood of a younger vampire, and
* An elder murdered to prevent an "abomination"

...I just didn't see much beyond overlap in _mostly_ common terminology and material cribbed from Romeo and Juliet. White Wolf wasn't the first to borrow from Shakespeare. Where do they get to claim Underworld stole from them?

Strength of Ten Men. Feh. These are not the best kids out of law school.
posted by effugas at 7:53 PM on September 8, 2003

posted by majcher at 8:40 PM on September 8, 2003

I was going to post something thoughtful, but after majcher's comment I can't seem to stop giggling.
posted by BT at 8:55 PM on September 8, 2003

I think that the merging of werewolf and vampire legends with Shakespeare is sufficiently unique to be copyrightable. Although some of the details of such a story are probably pre-determined by the sources, there are a number of changes that could be made. For example, it would have been relatively trivial to make the Juliet counterpart a werewolf rather than a vampire. The writers of "For the Love of Monsters" and "Underworld" happened to choose to make the Juliet counterpart a vampire. I suppose one could argue that this was the "obvious" choice for the mapping given stereotypical male/female attributes (male strong like wolf, female sexy like vampire) and that the creators of both were just being lazy. But I think that a series of similarities like this, where things could have been different but were not, could be pretty damning. In particular there is no reason that the creators of "Underworld" couldn't have made their screenplay about two groups of vampires or chosen different monsters. It is the details of a work that are protected, not the basic idea, and there are a lot of important details here that are similar.

I'm not saying there's infringement here -- that's for a court to decide. But there certainly could have been. I really don't care for the way people are dismissing this suit out of hand. If you think the idea of mapping "Romeo & Juliet" to warring bands of monsters is too obvious to be protectable, then I guess a musical version of the play set in 1950s New York wouldn't be creative enough for you either, eh?

Public opinion about copyright will continue to be fucked until more people create their own works instead of passively consuming what others make. The creators' side of the issue is too often unfairly trivialized. Try making something of value yourself and see how much you like it when someone rips it off.
posted by kindall at 10:26 PM on September 8, 2003

In reading the suit further, I found out I goofed: it looks like they did switch the genders around. I did look for that before posting but must have misread something.

I do have to say that the fact that the vampires are depicted as casting reflections in both works (contrary to tradition) looks pretty bad for "Underworld." That's a kind of odd detail to just accidentally get the same. As is the use of silver nitrate for the bullets used against werewolves and the lack of a stake-thorugh-the-heart option for the vampires, those are both pretty odd to happen to be the same. Some of the plot points seem similar enough to give me pause as well.
posted by kindall at 10:35 PM on September 8, 2003

I would just like to point out that much of Shakespeare's work is not original anyway -- he used sources from throughout Europe and Britain's history. Heck, Bram Stoker was just laying down rumours and other writing before him in an intelligable way. When it comes to these things there are no primary sources anymore. I've a feeling that in the end we'll get The Terminator outcome and future prints will acknowledge the inspiration somewhere in the credits.
posted by feelinglistless at 11:30 PM on September 8, 2003

Scientific approaches to ancient myths are de rigeur nowadays; see those awful midichlorians that just infected the Star Wars universe. Just part of the culture shifts -- updating the old with the scent of the new.
posted by effugas at 11:59 PM on September 8, 2003

Am I the only person here who hasn't got a clue who/what White Wolf is?
posted by salmacis at 1:25 AM on September 9, 2003

Heck, Bram Stoker was just laying down rumours and other writing before him in an intelligable way.

IIRC from my Bram Stoker class (yes, what else do you think English majors do? Write?), it was more than just an assembling of legends from the region: It was an homage to Stoker's own stymied homosexuality in Victorian society.

Or, something deep like that. I'm a programmer/MIS now, so I don't exercise my English muscles as much as I should.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:51 AM on September 9, 2003

Public opinion about copyright will continue to be fucked until more people create their own works instead of passively consuming what others make. The creators' side of the issue is too often unfairly trivialized. Try making something of value yourself and see how much you like it when someone rips it off.

I'm not convinced of that. I find it quite depressing that Disney and Warner built their empire plundering a rich public domain at a time when copyright was much more liberal. Three of the greatest animated films in history, "The Band Concert" by Disney, Chuck Jones' "What's Opera Doc" and Jones' "One Froggy Evening" were made during much more liberal copyright terms that permitted them to parody good material made within the last century. (While I'm on the Chuck Jones topic, the best gag in "Monsters, Inc." is a frame-for-frame homage to "Feed the Kitty").

While most certainy as a creator copyright is important to me, don't you think that it has gone just a little bit too far when it is used to not only punish plagarism, but similar ideas as well? The basic facts of the matter is that historically, the most creative environments involve liberal exchanges of ideas rather than over-zealous enforcement of perceived property rights. American music developed in an environment where everybody was not only learning from each other but trying to outdo each other on their own tunes and licks. Science works because anybody with the funds and expertise to do so can reseach a phenomena.

It is quite possible that WW is correct in this. However, this points to a failure of contemporary copyright to create a healthy environment for the development of the arts and sciences than otherwise.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:34 AM on September 9, 2003

White Wolf is a game company and fiction publisher that became popular with its line of gothic/punk horror roleplaying games.

If you read the complaint, there are 116 similarities.

There's a lot of shared terminology: Werewolves call vampires "Bloods", a werewolf/vampire crossbreed is called an "Abomination," the process of turning someone into a vampire is called "embracing," vampires are organized into "Old World Covens" and "New World Covens", and vampires are organized into groups called "Bloodlines."

While many of the other similarities could be coincidental -- such as the use of "silver nitrate" bullets, the fact that vampires cast reflections, and the description of vampire leaders as "elders," looking at everything as a whole, I have trouble believing it's purely coincidental use. It looks to me like the scriptwriters were pretty big Vampire: The Masquerade fans.

Another odd similarity that seems more coincidental: Both are producing videogames with Valve's Half-Life engine that have Bloodlines in their titles.
posted by rcade at 6:51 AM on September 9, 2003

I've seen at least two vampire movies where the vampires didn't cast reflections. I think they even both had the same sort of "Ha! don't believe everything your read in story books!" line.
posted by straight at 7:21 AM on September 9, 2003

I think the real story here is how much money Tycho is gonna make from this can't-miss movie pitch:

Romeo and Juliet is a Goddamn timeless template. I saw it set in Ireland with an all female cast and it still worked, one family was all lesbians and one was all dinosaurs. You just can't fuck it up. You dab your eyes at the end and wonder what is so wrong about the love of a lesbian for a dinosaur.
posted by straight at 7:28 AM on September 9, 2003

It's all the Methuselahs' doing! AAAAGH!

.: blinks :.

Oh, not playing a campaign. . .
posted by SentientAI at 8:13 AM on September 9, 2003

The main reason I think the lawsuit is frivolous is that I'd seen a bunch of stuff about the movie, none of it seemed original to me, yet I've never read or heard of White Wolf and their role-playing games before. Which suggests that all the stuff they have in common is already part of the collective fantasy/vampire media culture.
posted by straight at 8:29 AM on September 9, 2003

I think that's a pretty poor standard, because it gives people license to steal anything as long as the material being taken is evocative of a particular genre.

There's nothing in Harry Potter that isn't reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the other fantasy novelists who preceded J.K. Rowling. But that shouldn't make it acceptable to write a book containing 116 points of similarity to Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.
posted by rcade at 9:17 AM on September 9, 2003

If the screenwriter(s) used the World of Darkness and For the Love of Monsters as a specific starting point, then White Wolf has a case. But it's still ironic.
posted by solistrato at 11:07 AM on September 9, 2003

That was a Real Ghostbusters episode, dorian. Damn I'm trivial.

It seems an old Slashdot thread touched on this very same subject, by the way.
posted by tyro urge at 12:30 PM on September 9, 2003

Straight, I think you're wrong there. The point is that although WW uses a lot of material based in folklore and myth carried around by all of us, there's enough stuff in their universe that differs from the standard idea to make it unique. And if someone copies those parts, then they're infringing. This is WW's contention.
posted by e^2 at 2:34 PM on September 9, 2003

e^2, what I'm saying is that even the stuff WW claims to have invented must've already passed into contemporary vampire lore, because I've seen it elsewhere: vampire families, vampires with reflections, "the Embrace," vampires vs. werewolves, silver nitrate, etc. They've been stolen by other media or they weren't really unique to WW.
posted by straight at 3:32 PM on September 9, 2003

"But that shouldn't make it acceptable to write a book containing 116 points of similarity to Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

I wouldn't be surprised if Harry Potter had 116 points of similarity with White Wolf's line of games.
posted by Stuart_R at 4:56 PM on September 9, 2003


I'm curious where you've seen Silver Nitrate and The Embrace.
posted by effugas at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2003

Well, let's see ... silver nitrate used to kill vampires starting sometime around 1993 in the Laurell Hamilton vampire book series ... Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter. And I am pretty sure that Anne Rice used the term "embrace" for turning someone into a vampire, but I haven't read them since they came out sometime in 1993. Googling for a reference to it led to a realization that "embrace" and "vampires" have gone hand in hand in many books and movies though.

It seems to me, after reading through the entire complaint, that about 95% (if not more) of the points of contention could be equally applied to almost every vampire book and movie I have encountered (and I love them, so that's quite a few).
posted by Orb at 10:40 AM on September 10, 2003

« Older US Army Used Reporters for Own Ends in Iraq War   |   The Elizabethan World Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments