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THE CUTTING EDGE

Virtual Dogfight

Lockheed Martin's Effort to Cut a Licensing Deal With a Game Developer for the F-22 Raptor Has Flight-Simulation Enthusiasts in an Uproar

May 26, 1997|MARK GLASER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-22 Raptor, the next-generation Air Force jet fighter, was unveiled only last month, but already it's at the center of a pitched battle--this one in the realm of virtual piloting.

In what appears to be an unprecedented move by a military contractor, Lockheed Martin is seeking an exclusive licensing deal with a developer of flight-simulation computer games. The aerospace company is negotiating to sell the rights to the new plane's name, images, trademarks and even its blueprints to Calabasas-based NovaLogic Inc., and to bar any other game vendors from using them.

The effort has the small but dedicated community of flight-sim aficionados in an uproar. They fear such licensing deals will substantially increase the cost of developing games and limit the number of games based on each piece of military hardware.

Lockheed Martin's move raises a host of novel legal issues. According to the Air Force, the company doesn't own the rights to the name, and it's unclear who controls some of the other rights. And some wonder whether it's appropriate for a company to license proprietary (but non-classified) information about weapons systems that were developed with taxpayer funds.

"I'm all for protecting a company's trademarks, but this would be like negotiating with the contractor who built the Golden Gate Bridge for an exclusive license to use the bridge's name and pictures," says Dave Loda, a reserve Navy helicopter pilot who provides war-gaming support for the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Flight simulations, one of the earliest graphics applications on personal computers in the early '80s, have a loyal following among PC game players, with sales of more than $100 million annually. Traditionally, game makers--as well as model airplane companies and just about anyone else who cared--enjoyed free access to public information about U.S. military vehicles.

But with the F-22 Raptor, some lawyers at Lockheed evidently decided otherwise. Earlier this month, NovaLogic received a letter from Lockheed Martin saying that its upcoming game, F-22 Raptor, infringed on Lockheed's trademark to the aircraft name. The letter warned NovaLogic to remove all references to Lockheed and images of Lockheed aircraft.

On the other side of the country, in Research Triangle Park, N.C., rival game maker Interactive Magic received a similar warning letter relating to its planned flight-sim game, iF-22 Raptor.

John Garcia, NovaLogic's chief executive, says he was surprised to receive the warning from Lockheed, but he saw it as an opportunity to forge a unique agreement. "We got the same letter that I-Magic got," Garcia said. "And we figured the effective thing to do was talk to Lockheed Martin. We started by talking with Skunk Works [Lockheed's famed, top-secret aircraft development lab in Palmdale], but those talks have gravitated to Lockheed's corporate offices."

Garcia denied that NovaLogic was trying to secure rights to public information, and said it wasn't trying to restrict competition. Instead, NovaLogic wanted to get previously unavailable assets from Lockheed, including the cute skunk logo for Skunk Works, the F-22 Raptor logo and, perhaps, blueprints for the plane. Garcia believes that Lockheed's proprietary information could help make a more realistic game.

I-Magic's colorful chairman, "Wild Bill" Stealey, had a rather different reaction to the letter: He was furious, especially since it came a mere month before his game's June release. And he feared that Lockheed's action might set a costly precedent in the flight-sim industry.

I-Magic posted a portion of Lockheed Martin's cease-and-desist letter on its Web site and opened a forum to gamers, letting them discuss the possible NovaLogic pact. The forum has been raging for a couple of weeks, with some calling for a boycott of NovaLogic and others suggesting phone calls to Lockheed.

"If NovaLogic makes a deal, then it changes the economics of the industry," said I-Magic spokeswoman Lynne Beaman. "We don't want anyone to lock up a piece of military hardware. It makes the cost of making the game more expensive, and the price will go up for consumers."

Beaman said many at Lockheed--which has traditionally been happy to cooperate with the game company--were as surprised as I-Magic that the aerospace company was trying to license its materials.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Jeff Rhodes said Lockheed had never asked for licensing money in the past but that a meeting is scheduled for the first week of June to look at the matter.

"Our lawyers say that we own certain things," Rhodes said. "Some of the plane's technology is owned by us, but I'm not so sure about the pictures and images. The lawyers are hashing that out right now." Rhodes said giving NovaLogic a blueprint to the plane would probably require the permission of the Air Force.

Lt. Col. Napoleon Byars, chief of Air Force public affairs, said the names F-22 and F-22 Raptor are in the public domain and can't be trademarked.

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