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Exclusive: Rockstar Successfully Defends GTA Strip Club Lawsuit

A new court ruling has revealed that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas creator Rockstar Games has successfully defended a lawsuit by the owners of the Playpen Gentleme...

Simon Carless, Blogger

August 2, 2006

4 Min Read

A new court ruling has revealed that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas creator Rockstar Games has successfully defended a lawsuit by the owners of the Playpen Gentlemen’s Club in Los Angeles, which claimed that the game's strip club 'The Pig Pen' violates the club's trademarks. According to documents obtained by Gamasutra, a California district court ruled in favor of Rockstar Games in 'E.S.S. Entertainment 2000 v. Rock Star Video', agreeing that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas did not violate the strip club’s trademarked Play Pen sign, and was protected under the First Amendment. The ruling appears to be important to game developers everywhere, not just Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto creators, in that it suggests that stylized or parodic versions of real-life location can be used in video games, providing a couple of specific First Amendment rules are met. The final judgment regarding the Pig Pen, which is located in GTA: SA's 'Los Santos' locality, generally agreed to resemble the real-life Los Angeles Play Pen, suggests: "The court finds that defendants' use of the Play Pen trade dress and trademark bears some artistic relevance to the Game, and does not explicitly mislead consumers as to the source or content of the Game... they are entitled... to a First Amendment defense." Play Pen Vs. Pig Pen The longform summary of the case reveals further details, explaining that: "The Play Pen is a strip club located on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles... The Play Pen's "logo" consists of the words "the Play Pen"... and the words "Totally Nude" displayed in publicly available font, with a silhouette of a nude female dancer inside the stem of the first "P"." It continues: "The neighborhood of "East Los Santos" is the Game's version of East Los Angeles... strip clubs, taco stands, and warehouse-type architecture are found in this area of downtown Los Angeles... one of the businesses located in East Los Santos is a virtual, cartoon-style strip club known as the "Pig Pen"." The crux of the matter seems to be the claim that, although "The [Rockstar North] artists used the photographs of the Play Pen and various other East Los Angeles locations to design aspects of the Pig Pen", they "changed the names, building designs and overall look and feel of the locations... to make them fit the virtual, cartoon-style world of San Andreas and the series' irreverent tone." Games - Not Strip Clubs! The defendants in the case conducted a survey of 503 players of San Andreas. They were shown a screenshot of the Pig Pen and asked what, if anything, the image called to mind. 16 mentioned "the Play Pen", while 27 said the Pig Pen was a generic strip club. Five thought that the Pig Pen was endorsed by, sponsored by, or affiliated with the Play Pen. Further differentiating the products, the ruling comments: "Strip clubs and video games are not related products. The Play Pen is a public establishment, where food and refreshments are served and live nude dancers perform. Video games such as San Andreas are generally played at home, sitting in front of a screen." So how did Rockstar win the case? Apparently by proving that First Amendment protection applies in this case. A cited case in the ruling was MCA Records' lawsuit involving the catchy Aqua techno song 'Barbie Girl', in which it was ruled: "Trademark rights do not entitle the owner to quash an unauthorized use of the mark by another who is communicating ideas or expressing points of view." The Courts' Conclusion Overall, it was noted of GTA's Pig Pen strip club: "Any visual work that seeks to offer an artistic commentary on a particular subject must use identifiable features of that subject so that the commentary will be understood and appreciated by the consumer." This fact, alongside the fact that the court ruled that the parody did "not explicitly mislead as to the source or content of the work" - referencing the survey of GTA players, who largely did not believe that the Play Pen club was involved in the game, a summary judgment ruling the case in Rockstar's favor was given. Rockstar was successfully defended by Karin Pagnanelli, an attorney from Los Angeles firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, who prepared the brief on behalf of Rockstar Games. [An amusing aside: Nikolas Taylor, the Lead Map Artist for the Los Santos section of the game, testified that he and other artists changed elements because they wanted to create "a fictional city that lampooned the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles", but he "agreed, however, that he did not choose the word 'Pig' because he wanted to parody strip patrons, or because he found anything humorous about pigs."]

About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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