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Guy Debord's Widow Threatens NYU Professor with Copyright Violation

Guy Debord's Widow Threatens NYU Professor with Copyright Violation

Professor Is Accused of Infringing the Copyright of a Man Who Opposed Copyright

By ANDREA L. FOSTER, http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i33/33a01603.htm

Guy Debord, a Marxist philosopher who died in 1994, was no fan of private property. But apparently his widow is one.

A lawyer representing the widow, Alice Becker-Ho, has threatened Alexander R. Galloway, an associate professor of culture and communication at New York University, with legal action. Mr. Galloway says the lawyer has sent him a letter demanding that he stop distributing his online war game, which the lawyer says infringes a copyright held by the Debord estate. The French philosopher had created a similar board game 30 years ago.

But copyrights and some forms of intellectual property were anathema to Debord, says Mr. Galloway. The Situationist International movement, which Debord founded, in 1957, is a mix of anarchism and Marxism. Its followers scrawled "Abolish copyright" on walls during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris.

The humor in defending the property rights of Debord, a Marxist, has not been lost on scholars, who have publicized the case on their blogs.

Mr. Galloway does not deny that the two-person computer game he developed is based on Debord's creation, the Game of War. The philosopher, an avid student of war strategy, released a few handcrafted copies of the board game in 1978. The object of the game, which resembles chess, is to corner and destroy opposing pieces. Debord and his wife wrote a book about it that was translated into English last year.

One of Debord's games, cast in silver and copper, is on display at Columbia University's Buell Center for the Study of Architecture, alongside Mr. Galloway's computer version, called Kriegspiel. The object of Kriegspiel, German for a generic 18th-century war game, is the same as in Debord's game.

A computer programmer, Mr. Galloway says he spent about a year designing the digital game, which can be downloaded from the Web at no charge. "It's part of my scholarly research into how antagonism is simulated in war games and computer games," he said. "It's also part of my research into the work of Debord."

Despite the similarities between his creation and Debord's, Mr. Galloway disagrees that he is breaking the law. "I don't think I'm infringing on anyone's copyright in the creation of this game," he says, declining to discuss his legal situation further.

John Beckman, a spokesman for New York University, says only that it received a similar cease-and-desist letter and has responded.

Wendy M. Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is familiar with Mr. Galloway's case. The Debord estate, she says, is overreaching in accusing him of copyright infringement.

The idea for a game is not copyrightable, she argues; only the image of a game is. Mr. Galloway's game uses the idea of Debord's game, she says, but does not duplicate its artistry and detail.

Ms. Seltzer, a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University School of Law, sees similarities between Mr. Galloway's case and one involving the Facebook-based word game Scrabulous. In that case, the owners of the board game Scrabble have accused the developers of Scrabulous of infringing their copyright. Ms. Seltzer says that claim, too, is without merit.