Released last year, One Hour One Life is a multiplayer survival game on PC with an interesting twist: new player characters are the offspring of previous player characters who have lived an in-game lifetime in one hour. What’s even more interesting is the developer, Jason Rohrer, publishing the source code for the game in the public domain (which is available on GitHub), meaning anyone is free to use his work to adapt and release a brand new game; the only catch is it must be labeled an unofficial adaptation. One such adaptation published by TapTap, a mobile games developer, has skirted around that stipulation, leading players to believe that the game is an official release by Rohrer.
According to a blog post published by Rohrer, he had been in talks with the mobile games developer since May 2018, laying out exactly what he would like them to include in order to avoid the exact situation he finds himself in now. However, the developer chose to use phrasing that can be considered confusing to players. Instead of the suggested iOS store description, “This is an unofficial adaptation for iOS of the original desktop game by Jason Rohrer,” TapTap chose the wording, “This is the unofficial expanded version of Jason Rohrer’s desktop game ‘One Hour One Life’, adapted for iOS.” The devil is in the details, so they say, and their version has left players thinking it is an expanded Rohrer original for the mobile platform.
The blog post also mentions that original credit and declaration that it’s an unofficial adaptation only appear when the game is launched for the first time, which can be easily missed, claims Rohrer. He says that even reviewers can’t distinguish that it is an unofficial version. After the game was released as a free demo in China, the game attracted a massive player base, though credit to Rohrer was missing. “The wording on the splash screen AND in the TapTap app store text was missing. No mention of it being an adaptation, no mention of it being unofficial. How many Chinese players played the game? 50,000? 100,000? And none of them were aware of what they were playing.”
Rohrer is now in a conundrum; with the game being part of the public domain, what recourse does he have to prevent his work being masqueraded as an original game? According to the post, not much, but a copyright claim is definitely not a valid recourse. Currently, Rohrer is still in talks with the mobile developer to add the changes and disclaimers he feels are warranted, and still holds firm that his work belongs in the public domain. “And finally, has this experience made me second-guess the public domain? Do I wish I had retained the copyright to the game? No.”