Doctor Lautrec and the Dubious Breach of Copyright

Let’s solve mysteries via the touch screen in a way that completely avoids lawsuits!

By Katharine Byrne. Posted 09/05/2011 15:00 7 Comments     ShareThis

Doctor Lautrec and the dubious breach of copyright masthead

Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton may well be rivals in the upcoming 3DS game Professor Layton VS Ace Attorney but the acclaimed professor might just find himself in need of a lawyer or two when Doctor Lautrec busts his way onto the puzzle-solving scene later this year in Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights.

Phoenix: “Objection! That man is clearly a fake!”
Layton: “No, no, no, Mr. Wright– the man in question is sneaking off into the Paris underground behind you!”

By now Professor Layton should be a fairly familiar name in the handheld gaming sphere. With one film, three novels and almost four games under his belt (five if you live in Japan) Layton has turned the world of puzzle games upside down since his very polite and dignified introduction in Professor Layton and the Curious Village back in 2007. Armed with his classy top hat and young apprentice Luke, Layton has challenged players to solve hundreds upon hundreds of head-scratching puzzles over the years and, it’s probably fair to say, utterly dominated the puzzle genre on DS.

But the professor’s reign over gaming’s toughest brain-teasers is under threat. Newcomer Doctor Lautrec has already made his puzzle-solving debut on 3DS in Japan and will be coming to Europe and the US later this year, and from the gameplay footage we’ve seen so far it’s clear that the professor might have a bad case of devious doppelganger on his hands.

Imposter! Don’t think that moustache is going to fool anyone, pal. I do believe you’ve nicked the professor’s top hat!

Developed by Konami, Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights features the eponymous doctor trying to solve the mysteries of the Paris underground and uncover the treasure of Louis XIV. He’s joined by Sophie, a university student studying in Paris, and the official trailer teases us with the line “You see, she has a puzzle that only you can solve. You enjoy such things, no?” Hmmm… I bet.

Now Konami has tried jumping on the Layton bandwagon before when it released Zac & Ombra: The Phantom Amusement Park last year in Japan, but Zac & Ombra employed a much greater use of mini-games than the kind of traditional puzzles we see in Professor Layton. Although the game’s setup of a magician and his young female sidekick solving puzzles to uncover the mysteries of a supernatural monument (all told through a very similar art style and text-based narrative, I might add) probably deserves to be drawn into this copyright debate as well, there’s no doubting that Doctor Lautrec takes things just one step further in our imminent legal battle.

But just before we get into specifics, I’ll let our resident lawyer give you a quick recap on the basics of copyright law.

“At its heart, copyright law exists to protect authors from others using their work without their permission and profiting from their ideas. Works covered by copyright law tend to include novels, plays, films, photographs, architecture, maps, and computer programs amongst others. However, there are exceptions to these categories, such as computer programming languages, rules or algorithms used to create the work.

Japanese copyright law gives the author certain rights which arise automatically upon creation of the work, and these are divided into two groups: moral and economic rights. Moral rights give the author control over how their work is made available to the public, how their authorship is represented within the work and how their work is modified. Economic rights deal with how the work is reproduced, communicated or transmitted, and adapted (for example, through translation or the creation of a derivative work).”

For starters, Lautrec’s title gives him away almost immediately. As the trailer so kindly points out, the “doctor” of Lautrec’s title is in fact referring to his doctorate of archaeology, not medicine. Contrast this to Layton’s eminent professorship of archaeology (and the fact that his surname also begins with an “L”) and Lautrec is looking less and less credible on the identity front.

Then, of course, we have the similarities between each game’s puzzle-based nature, their vibrant anime art style and their distinctive British voice-acting. Moreover, both Layton and Lautrec are accompanied on their strange adventures by considerably younger companions who share their love of mysterious puzzles. Lautrec might just be able to distinguish himself from the professor by his love of running freely around his environments rather than the point-and-click method favoured by Layton and his sidekick Luke, but when director and producer Noriaki Okamura has described features of the game like walking around Paris, how the cave rooms are made, and how you battle enemies as being “all ‘puzzle’ related,” it’s difficult to see how Lautrec can stand up to the potential charges against him.

Interestingly, in the very same interview, Okamura said that he respected both the Layton games and Level-5 very much when the obvious parallels between them were brought up, but also that he “did not intend to make the game look like the Layton series.” Inspired by Layton, yes, but copied from Layton, no.

Then again, we’ve had several cases of dubious copyright infringement before in the gaming world but critics have tended to err on the side of homage rather than bearing their pitchforks with cries of “blatant rip-off.” When 3D Dot Game Heroes was released for PlayStation 3 in 2009, the over-the-top perspective and 8-bit art style were particularly close to The Legend of Zelda on NES, but most players revelled in the game’s nostalgic reverence to its source material and it generally received good reviews.

However, 3D Dot Game Herores was also met with disapproval by its copy-paste aesthetic and its failure to be particularly innovative, so perhaps the real concern for Doctor Lautrec is not whether he’s merely copying Professor Layton but whether he risks stagnating the puzzle genre as a result. We’re seeing this sort of thing play out right now with the FPS genre and the ongoing war between Call of Duty and Battlefield and their thousands of shooter clones. But the FPS isn’t the only genre to fall into this trap; we’ve seen it happen with JRPGs, platformers, and probably every genre under the sun at one time or another. Yet there’s often a good reason why we frequently see numerous iterations of the same game over and over again– it’s because they’re popular, and right now there’s no one more popular in the puzzle business than one Hershel Layton.

So get ready to dust off those brain-cells, readers, because it’s very likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of Doctor Lautrec in the coming years, especially if Okamura gets his wish granted and Level-5 agree to a Doctor Lautrec VS Professor Layton game!

7 Responses to “Doctor Lautrec and the Dubious Breach of Copyright”

  • 1332 points
    Andrew Hsieh says...

    I’ll have to play Doctor Lautrec before passing judgment (as it were) (ha ha) but honestly I’m looking forward to it! I think it’s actually because of the whole I’m-not-Prof.-Layton-really thing that makes the game so intriguing. Definitely gonna check it out.

  • 1379 points
    xeacons says...

    Oh, you know Edgey would totally be Layton’s lawyer!

  • 219 points
    Smith Stuart says...

    I don’t think a lawsuit would turn into anything. If Hiro Mashima can keep ripping off every little detail of “One Piece” with “Fairy Tail” and get away with it, then I take it the Japanese don’t make very much of shameless clones – at least not legally.

    Btw, great article, Katharine.

  • 360 points
    M. Noah Ward says...

    Nice story! I don’t think a copyright lawsuit would come out of this, but I think your point of making the genre stagnant is very legitimate. That said, I can see this game flopping as fast as Zac & Ombra did, removing the stagnation risk.

    From what I saw in the trailers, Lautrec seems pretty annoying– for some reason I keep thinking of House (the US TV show)– and part of the reason I love Professor Layton is the charming personalities of its cast. Lautrec just doesn’t seem as charismatic and, frankly, looks like an evil henchman from the Layton series to begin with. So that’s two strikes.

    Like Andrew, though, I’m still intrigued because I’m a sucker for adventure/puzzle games. If it bombs in reviews, though, forget it.

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