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There was once a time when you could stroll through an arcade and see a line of pinball machines, usually being played by very irate people gyrating the machine back and forth showing it “who’s boss”. Always a simple game with a simple user interface (what arcade game today has only two buttons and involves actual moving parts, not virtual humanoids or dynamically generated special effects?) today, most pinball machines have been replaced by games featuring the latter characteristics. It’s all for the good of the industry I hear, or at least that’s the idea I get when I watch videos like these where kids react to a GameBoy (summary: a lot of kids saw it as the equivalent of an old record player). After all, pinball machines still use… Coins! Oh the humanity. Besides presenting “old” types of gaming interfaces, pinball machines have fallen out of favor in the last few decades because they are expensive to repair and some of the parts are hard to find.

Despite the headwinds, there are still many pinball enthusiasts who are out there trying to save the game, much like Skee-Ball devotees are trying to save that game by instituting tournaments and generating buzz by deeming it a sport “almost recognized in the 2012 olympics”. These coin-toting strongmen, with a flare for slapping giant wooden boxes and shaking them harder than a 7.0 Richter Scale earthquake refuse to let go of their insatiable appetite for blinking lights, multiplier jackpots, and the ever-elusive quest to make the top score board.  

If your goal is to keep the game relevant (and thereby ensure that there are enough new games and suppliers/servicers to help keep pinball machines ticking), how do you convince a younger and increasingly-tech savvy generation that pinball can be fun? You do what any enterprising tycoon does: you turn to synergies; brand and copyright synergies, to be exact.

The owner of one manufacturer of pinball machines in the U.S., Jersey Jack Pinball, (remarkably there are only two U.S.-based manufacturers of Pinball machines) is making a name for itself by upping the ante on the amount of bells and whistles that it includes in its pinball machines. Nice artwork and recognizable names like Wizard of Oz are just the beginning. Try flying mechanical monkeys, an LED back screen with high-resolution graphics, and Dorothy’s spinning house. Yeah, these aren’t your grandpa’s pinball machine. Another pinball machine bearing Metallica’s name features 12 songs from Metallica that play while users are snapping the flippers and watching the shiny silver ball make its way around the playing surface.

Such fusions of recognized names, imagery, and themes are the result of careful (and comprehensive) negotiations between the people responsible for the recognized imagery and names and the makers of the video games. There are a laundry list of issues that brand owners have to address including the relationship between the owner itself and the manufacturer of the game (does a joint venture make sense?), which names/characters/songs will be licensed, what to charge for each licensed item, and final approval of the designs for such games. Negotiation of such terms can take months if not years. As the owner of a well-known brand, it definitely pays to be nimble in such negotiations to capitalize on the swell of consumer demand that surrounds the publicity of a successful movie or TV show launch. Developers of the video games, too, have an incentive to be open in their negotiations and be willing to pay premium prices in some cases to gain access to some of the most recognized names/characters/songs. Or, as may have been the case with Jersey Jack, the idea for the pinball game and the inclusion of all the different characters may have been so unique and innovative that Warner Brothers, the current owner of rights in the name, screenplay, and characters, just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Video game licensing of well-known trademarks and on-screen characters (big screen, transplanted to the small screen) is nothing new. But the Jersey Jack game takes components from the Wizard of Oz and creates a dynamic user experience. It is precisely the kind of experience that players increasingly demand in their gaming environments because people want to be in the game and they want things from the game that make it more “real”. And this may have been the reason why Jersey Jack was able to secure so many rights: they had an idea for a game that got a player really involved, giving Warner Brothers and the Wizard of Oz additional goodwill, boosting the value of their brand.

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You might be asking yourself why Jersey Jack even bothered asking Warner Brothers, the current owner of rights in the name, screenplay, and characters for permission to use all of these items in The Wizard of Oz pinball game if some of the items, arguably, are in the public domain. You see depictions of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy, and all the other beloved characters all over the place like here and here. And there’s also the bit of confusion created by the separation in time between the book written in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum (which is in the public domain), and the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz (which is not in the public domain). This creates the somewhat awkward state of affairs where a storyline is open to unmitigated use but elements of the 1939 movie, the most well-known adaptation of the 1900 book, are still protected by copyright (but only until 2035). With so much uncertainty about where the copyrights and trademarks lie for subject matter from the world of Oz, it behooves anyone who may even approach something bearing the Oz name to contact the owner of whatever rights are at issue.

There isn’t any uncertainty as to what elements of the 1939 movie are protected. Depictions of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy and her red slippers, and (of course) all of the other beloved characters are all protected by copyrights, as are any depictions of the likeness of these characters. If these depictions are the most widely recognized (and likely to garner the most commercial success), licensing anything less or attempting to create your own characters based on the 1900 book would be an unmitigated disaster (kind of like the 2014 animated film flop Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return).

Commercially disastrous flops are, of course, not great starting points if you are trying to revive an entire class of games. I think that’s a pretty solid takeaway from all of this.

 


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