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The play store bully

I recently had a little adventure on the Google Play store, where I publish a few apps. I wanted to share the story with you, because it illustrates the danger of having a single company (Google) that dictates an entire platform (Android) and its app store (Google Play Store).

It's about a game app called Infinite Maze. This is a cute little game that Theo Danes and I created as an entry for the 2014 Best Illusion of the Year Contest. A playable optical illusion! We didn't win, but I'm proud to say that we made the finals.

You can read more about the illusion here, but this post is about a trademark infringement that was filed by Namco against a dozen-or-so apps, including Infinite Maze. Namco is the company behind Pac-man. Their exact allegation was:

this app infringes PAC-MAN in the first game screenshot; PAC-MAN is clearly seen as the game title

Besides punctuation, there is something very wrong with this allegation: It is not true. Sure, Infinite Maze is a labyrinth game, and it's clearly inspired by Pac-man. In the past, I have even referred to it as Infinite Maze of Pac-man. But before uploading it to the Google Play store, I removed all mention of the word 'pac-man' in the game so that I wouldn't violate any trademarks. The word 'pac-man' now only occurs in the app description in the context of 'a pac-man-inspired game'. A phrasing that, as far as I know, doesn't constitute trademark infringement. But even if it does, Namco's specific allegation is that the word 'pac-man' is seen as the game title in a screenshot, which is utter, full, and complete nonsense.

I was informed of this allegation only after the app had been pulled. No warning. No advance notice. No chance for rebuttal. Google deals swift justice.

Google doesn't want you to bother them with this kind of trivial stuff either. In their notice, they provided an email address of someone at Namco, and said that they would re-instate the app only if that person "contacts us specifically authorizing your app to be re-published." So Namco is allowed to judge their own allegation. Somehow I think their judgment will be biased.

So I sent Namco a friendly e-mail, explaining that their allegation was false, and asking them to retract it. I suggested that they may have seen a video about the illusion, in which the name 'Pac-man' did occur. Perhaps they mistook this video for a video of the game itself? I was being nice you see, providing them an excuse for their sloppy behavior. And I'm a reasonable guy. If they would explain to me in a fact-not-fiction-based manner how I infringed their trademark (although I doubt that I did), I would happily fix this.

No reply.

So I sent another mail, again friendly, asking them to at least reply. After all, this e-mail address was provided to me by Google as my Namco contact regarding this issue.

No reply.

So then I filled out an on-line form at Google to file an appeal. I explained clearly that the allegation was factually incorrect. I quickly received a reply, apparently automated: Appeal rejected. Please stop bothering us.

So let's summarize:

  1. Namco accuses Infinite Maze of trademark infringement based on incorrect information.
  2. The app gets suspended without warning or chance for rebuttal.
  3. Namco doesn't reply.
  4. Google rejects the appeal by default.
  5. The app is still suspended.

Is this really an ecosystem that you want to depend on as a smartphone user or app developer? Infinite Maze pretty much served its purpose as an entry in the 2014 illusion contest, so its suspension doesn't affect me much. But imagine that this would happen to an app that you have invested a lot of time and money in?

App stores are powerful in today's smartphone-based lives. But Google, didn't you know that with great power comes great responsibility?

And Namco, face it. You're a ghost of eighties past, doomed to forever chase a yellow disk.

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