The Internet is known for its more passionate, vocal users. Whether it’s trying to raise breast cancer awareness via Facebook or petitioning the world’s nations over important issues, people who would otherwise feel powerless can add just a little bit to a cause. They might do it to feel better about themselves, to fit in with their friends or maybe, just maybe, everybody genuinely likes to do a little bit of good in their lives. There’s another side to it though, when the passion, when the anger is misdirected and somebody ends up victimised; it happens all too often.

Who can forget the lady who, as a member of the PR team behind Telltale’s Jurassic Park game, borrowed a replica Jeep and then was dragged through the mud after the owner posted details to reddit and claimed the car had come back damaged? By the time counter-evidence had been presented to prove the “victim’s” complaint and everything backing it up had been fabricated, her personal details had been leaked and she’d spent hours avoiding phone calls, text messages, and emails. John Beiswenger, the author behind a series of novels in which a corporation sends people “back in time” via ancestral memories, is the latest victim of overly-defensive Internet masses.

If the novels’ scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a very similar plot to that found in the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed games. But Mr Beiswenger is more than just a novelist and, as a quick scan of his website will attest, he’s working towards things that will genuinely improve the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. At 75, the product research engineer probably shouldn’t be the victim of a smear campaign, a stunt that left his books rubbished on Amazon, rude emails sent via his website, and thousands of people he’ll never know actively hating him. It’s just not right.

Things only get worse when you take a second to look at the projects he’s currently involved in, from the Presymtec Monitor – a device which can alert you to illnesses before you show symptoms – to a series of housing structures the world over. Even two seconds of research or a moment taken to actually contact John and query what was going on would have revealed that this isn’t a man deserving of derision, and he certainly isn’t a man that would enter into a lawsuit frivolously.

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Pictured: Three of Beiswenger’s projects, from his website here.

So why was he the recipient of so much bile over the last few weeks? Mr Beiswenger claims that Ubisoft infringed on his intellectual property right – not because he’s vindictive or because this is a way to make a quick buck (anybody who’s been involved in a suit like this knows that the costs can be high and the rewards minimal) but because, as he puts it in an official statement, “I believe authors should vigorously defend their rights in their creative works. Otherwise, the laws protecting those rights simply have no purpose.”

Bethesda gave a very similar reason for suing Mojang over the use of the word “scrolls” in their next game. If they hadn’t defended their right to the word in this case, they wouldn’t be able to defend their right to the word in future cases. It goes a little deeper than just defending a trademark in this case though, and Mr Beiswenger feels that anybody who has read his book (as opposed to reading the sample pages on Amazon) will see the similarities. “Many said that you can’t copyright an idea, which is true,” he told me via email, “but you can copyright graphic descriptions written into a novel. Read the graphic description of the LINK lab and equipment. Then look at the Animus 2.0 lab and equipment. You be the judge.”

The people who wrote disgusting emails and bad reviews at Amazon probably didn’t think to actually read the book, however, or even consider spending a little bit of time thinking about what they were doing. Of the hundreds of emails he received from angry Assassin’s Creed fans worried that the next episode in their favourite series might be delayed, an overwhelming 95% were negative. One even went as far as to accuse John of travelling through time to steal ideas from Ubisoft in an attempt to sue them years later. You can only hope that, caught up in the manic-nature of the moment, he was joking, although sometimes it’s not easy to be sure.

A common counter to the suit was that there had been four games and multiple handheld spin-offs before legal proceedings had been entered into. If Mr Beiswenger was in this for anything other than money, why had he waited until the series was at its very peak before contacting his lawyers? The fact that not everybody plays video games aside, there are a thousand reasons why he might not have called Ubisoft out straight away, but, knowing that it was a sticky topic some detractors just couldn’t get over, I asked him about it anyway: “Except for MS Flight Simulator, I don’t play or follow video games (I’m a research engineer and prefer reality). My son and niece bought the original Assassin’s Creed and began to play the game in our recreation room downstairs early this year.

“Soon after the game began, my son came running up the stairs shouting, ‘Dad, it’s your book!’ He had read LINK years earlier and immediately recognized similarities. I thought, ‘That’s neat. They (the game writers) liked my novel.’ It was the first I heard of Assassin’s Creed. But when my son purchased Assassin’s Creed II, the Animus 2.0 lab and equipment, I believed, were absolutely copied from the LINK lab and equipment. It was then I realized that readers of my novel would think I took the LINK lab and equipment from the Assassin’s Creed game. My book is a Christian-SciFI novel. I had to object!”

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Pictured: The Animus 2.0 from Assassin’s Creed II (left), which allows Desmond to become Ezio (right).

It was difficult to deliver any sort of counter message to those fans so fervently opposed to anything that might block the release of Assassin’s Creed III, thanks in part to the biased nature of those covering the lawsuit on gaming sites and blogs. “Only about 5% of the writers knew at all what they were talking about,” Beiswenger explained, “because they either did not read LINK, the Complaint against Ubisoft, or neither.” They were repeating what they’d read without verifying it, without sourcing it and without thinking about the effect that their words might have. Facetious comments on gaming blogs are usually directed at PR spokespeople or faceless corporations, but occasionally the vitriol can be misplaced and we can forget, from our comfortable office chairs, that there are people on the receiving end of the attack.

Even the titles reek of a sort of school yard giggling, a kind of passive aggressive “what a joke” that unfortunately is passed onto readers who are far less likely to actually check what’s being presented to them. From the very get go, I would say that snide comments from uninterested writers have caused this lawsuit to become something incredibly nasty, where not only has the case not been presented fairly, using actual facts instead of misunderstanding and stipulation, but almost encouraging users to send threats. It’s one of those situations where what we write has a real-life knock-on effect and I’m not sure many of the writers, nor the commenters who voiced their anger in their thousands, realise just how nasty some people can be.

“Mat, it has been a
bad couple of
months […] for the
average author (not
just the smaller
ones), copyrights
may be useless
when a major
corporation is the
offender.”

It’s gone from a dispute between a small author and a major publisher into a dispute between a small author, a publisher, plus all of the publisher’s fans. Depending how the lawsuit had gone, it could have meant a new level of power to small authors without the money or, in some cases, confidence to protect their art. Instead, there’s just another reason not stand up to the big guy.

I have no opinion on the LINK case, I intend to pick up the book at some time in the future and decide for myself. For all I know, the masses might be right, but I can’t know that for sure because other than a short preview on Amazon I just don’t have the “ammo” to add to this debate. What I can discuss is this: some people should be ashamed of themselves. I’m paid to take games seriously, but sometimes you just have to take a step back and say “this is all a form of entertainment; let’s make it a little less life and death.” And part of that, I’m afraid, is not threatening people we don’t necessarily agree with. It’s about delivering facts rather than half-hidden insults, about looking into things we’re writing about and not taking anything for granted based on reddit posts and childish bloggers.

More recently, Mr Beiswenger has voluntarily dismissed the action, leaving the opportunity to sue again in the future. Ubisoft have moved to block any future lawsuits involving the similarities between LINK and Assassin’s Creed, an odd move from a multi-million dollar company when faced with the comparably limited resources of a product research engineer. I asked him why they would feel the need to do that: “If they have not infringed, why file to stop me from refiling my Complaint?”

Ubisoft issued a statement over their counter-case: “The plaintiff in the case alleging copyright infringement by Ubisoft has dropped his claim, without settlement. Ubisoft believes this suit was frivolous and without merit, and is seeking a ruling to prevent future related claims. We are proud of our creative teams and will continue to vigorously defend the intellectual property they develop.” We contacted the company for further comment and will update this article if we get anything back.

My final question to John was about the effect that the lawsuit has had upon him and his family and what he felt it had meant. “Mat,” he told me, “it has been a bad couple of months. Our faith has sustained us and we go about our lives as normal. For the average author (not just the smaller ones), copyrights may be useless when a major corporation is the offender.”

And no matter what your view of the case may be, I can’t help but agree with that last sentence. If you can’t even enter into a lawsuit in the hopes of protecting your work without being on the receiving end of all this hate – from regular people, not representatives of the company – then the major corporation is free to do what it wants without fear of repercussion; they know that if David tries to battle Goliath, the Goliath fan club is going to hunt him down. It’s a sorry state of affairs and, while the fallout is hardly the fault of Ubisoft directly, it’s a shame that things have turned out this way.