Last week, the outright theft of a Flash game, republished for sale on the iTunes App Store with Apple's approval, jarred the Flash development community. Though the app later was removed, anecdotal reports of similar ripoffs came trickling back.
It was easy to sympathize with both the developers and with Apple. For developers, months of hard work, offered for free on the web, are usurped for a profit over iTunes. For Apple, among the thousands of submissions it reviews, spotting a direct copy of a Flash game would be difficult, unless a reviewer had knowledge of the game in question.
That reasonable threshold would seem to be crossed with iTunes' approval of something called Free Running - a direct copy of Canabalt, the critically acclaimed Flash game that became one of the iPhone's earliest hits. As first reported by Giant Bomb today, Free Running simply slaps a new title and a new title screen on Canabalt. Everything else, in visuals, gameplay, even the "about" screen crediting original developers Adam Saltsman and Danny Baranowsky.
Worse yet, Free Running rips itself off. The same publisher offers a Free Runner for a buck and it too is a straight copy of Canabalt, right down to the about menu screen that references original creators.
Saltsman, via Twitter, said that Free Runner was taken down today, yet both versions were still available for 99 cents as of 8 p.m. EDT.
Free Running/Runner's publisher, PLD Soft, is like the studio that ripped off Flash hit Clash of the Olympians, Vietnam-based, and evidently unconcerned with U.S. copyright law. Removal of their apps is about the worst that's going to happen, given the prohibitive expense of an international lawsuit over a 99 cent app.
That makes it more imperative upon Apple to develop some sort of control or certification, lest its closed platform become overrun with thinly disguised spam stolen from Newgrounds, Kongregate, or other Flash sites, sold for real money, of which Apple gets a cut.
After the incident with Clash of the Olympians last week, Kotaku was contacted by another Flash developer, Nitrome, detailing how two of its titles, Icebreaker and Skywire were stolen and published on the iTunes App Store. Complaints about Skywire's doppleganger resulted in its removal from the store, but with zero followup from Apple staff to Nitrome regarding its intellectual property.
Keeping watch over the iTunes catalog is hard even for a developer, especially a prolific one, says Nitrome's Matthew Annal. "It is hard enough with 90 games to search the App store periodically to see if we have been ripped off," he said, "but with a simple name change it is impossible for us to see what is there that might include our material. There could be many more of our games on there and we would not know."
Giant Bomb guessed that when Saltsman and Baranowsky's Semi Secret Software made Canabalt open source last year, intending to foster Indie games development and trusting the community's use of their work, PLD simply strode in, compiled it for the iOS, and shipped it off to Apple. Giant Bomb also points out that another app offered by PLD was branded a scam by an iOS app review site.