Taking chess into the courtroom: an out-of-bounds assertion of copyright on chess moves

This is a bit old, but the topic once again came up in conversation when I was chatting on FICS (freechess.org).

According to this chess24.com blog post/press release, a US Federal judge denied monetary damages and a temporary restraining order sought by Agon (World Chess US, Inc. and World Chess Events Ltd.) against three different companies which run chess websites, including obviously the aforementioned chess24.com (the other two sites, it appears, are chessbomb.com and chessgames.com). Essentially Agon claimed copyright over the actual moves of a chess game and thus the ability to control their broadcast. The ruling establishes once and for all that the moves of a chess game cannot be copyrighted; however, the commentary and analysis of a chess game can still be copyrighted as before.

The judge got this one right in throwing out the lawsuit and restraining order. Apparently, common sense was lacking at Agon, something I would hope has been rectified going forward. The current knowledge base of chess, backgammon, checkers, and other board games comes from the moves of all games played before under the same ruleset. (The rules of chess have changed over the centuries, with the most recent rule change regarding the actual play coming sometime in the 19th century, that being the elimination of a requirement that pawn promotions be to a piece already captured, e.g. allowing a second queen or third knight, rook, or bishop. See Wikipedia for more details.)

The article quotes an email from Yasser Seirawan, which I think says a lot about just how absurd Agon’s position was:

Chess event organizers have a monopoly on absolutely clear uncontestable copyrightable materials: They have all photography rights; all webcam rights (of the players in action over the board); all audio rights to their own online show; they have all post-game interview rights; including still photography, video and audio; press conference rights; they have all promotional rights that feature the players; they have merchandizing rights to the players’ images and likenesses; as well as other numerous rights.


[P]ossessing all these rights, what do they decide to do with their time and money? It really is crazy: They spend large sums to go after the one single right they do not have: Copyright of chess moves for a very, very small period of time. Why do they do this? To prevent others from promoting their event? It really is a self-inflicted injury that is plainly stupid. The chess moves of a chess game have been held to be in public domain for decades, even centuries. The recording of a chess move made is held to be a “fact.”


Today’s organizers accept that chess game notation falls into public domain but now they make a new argument: They have the copyrights to the chess moves during an event (only) and that immediately after the game is finished (not the event which is days and weeks long), only then do the moves of the games played fall into “public domain.” It is a staggering argument to make. In my view, it is just plain rubbish. How to argue that “ownership” is granted for hours or possibly even minutes? At which government agency should organizers “register” such “fleeting” ownership claims?

Indeed, the idea that one can claim only copyright over the live broadcast of an event is absurd. To be fair, the live broadcast rights to NFL football games are probably its most lucrative property, and the NFL (and AT&T, the owners of DirecTV) would much rather you buy the NFL Sunday Ticket package for you to follow an out of market team than set up a bootleg live feed from your friends in whatever city. (Actually, the NFL and AT&T would be just as happy if you went to a local sports bar that paid the commercial rate for NFL Sunday Ticket, but that’s another story…)

There is really no such income stream from the live broadcast of a chess game, match, or tournament. I hate to admit it, but chess is incredibly slow-moving (most of the time) compared to football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, MMA, boxing, and auto racing. For that matter, the pace of the game moves slower than even golf, which is hardly the biggest draw on television these days, though it still gets plenty of TV time. Even blitz chess is probably too highbrow for the large audiences that watch sports like football and basketball. Thankfully, for now, we have the Internet for the things too narrowly focused for the 500 channels of cable TV we were promised with the “information superhighway.”

The chess24.com article ends with the following quote:

This year chess24 has now “won” legal battles in both Moscow and New York, but the only real winners in such situations are lawyers. The cases have eaten up a huge amount of time and money that could instead have been devoted to chess, while also damaging the most valuable commodity chess possesses – its positive image.

Attorneys (lawyers) do perform a valuable service for society. To say the least, I would probably not be here to write this blog post were it not for the services of attorneys over the years. I know a lot of people love to make jokes about lawyers and they are probably one of the least-respected professions in existence. It is easy to overlook the good that the good lawyers do, including those who take cases at no cost to the represented (“pro bono”, which literally means “for good” in Latin, referring to the greater good).

The attorneys defending the companies behind these three websites, and in a broader sense, the legal rights of the chess community to discuss and share the moves of high-level games in real time, did not work “pro bono”. Those companies had to pay the attorneys quite a bit of money–and that is money that could, and should, have been used for promoting the game of chess instead. I’m not sure who is responsible for contracting with Agon to be the promoter of chess events, whether it’s someone at FIDE or elsewhere, but this role should be rethought. I would like to see it required, as a condition of organizing future events, that Agon either repay the legal fees of the companies and individuals they sued, or donate an equivalent amount of its profits, adjusted for time value, to national chess federations and/or non-profit online chess-related websites/communities. Nowhere does chess24.com make their legal bill totals public that I can see, but I can imagine the total going into six figures easily, if not surpassing the million-dollar (US) mark.

If Agon is unwilling to do this, then they need to be replaced with promoters who actually give a tinker’s damn about the right thing to do. If we do not hold Agon accountable for trampling on our rights as chess fans and players, then they are free to do it again and again at their leisure, which is completely unacceptable.

Bughouse on a chess server: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Note: this post was originally written back in late 2015. A lot of this is of mainly historical interest; the activity level on FICS has dropped off precipitously in the intervening time period of about six years. However, I still feel the story needs to be told, as something like this could happen to other game communities elsewhere.

Despite being a fairly avid chess player, I have not written anything chess-related on this blog until now. Maybe it just seemed like most of it would not make a good topic, but I think I have finally found something that does.

I had an interest in chess ever since someone in my family bought the Video Chess cartridge for our Atari 2600 way back in the day. I finally got to where I could beat it a few times on the easier difficulties, and later progressed to Sargon II on my Atari 1200XL. I played in exactly one scholastic tournament where I’d come in third, during my very brief time as a school chess club member in middle school (I would later transfer to a different school which unfortunately did not have a chess club; the high school I would wind up in also did not have a chess club, though by that point the “no pass no play” rule would have kept me out of it anyway.)

I kind of put chess on the shelf for a while until I got my first Internet access. And so, in the early morning hours of 1996 July 1, I began what would later become a somewhat intermittent love affair with chess on the Internet by signing up for an account at the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS), which today is at freechess.org but at the time was using the hostname fics.onenet.net (which no longer resolves).

Over the years off and on I’ve played mainly longer games, of an estimated time of 15 minutes or more, called “standard” under FICS’s rating system. Nevertheless I have played some faster games, including something called bughouse. “Bughouse” is an old slang term for a mental hospital; bughouse, the game played with chess pieces, got its name from the chaos which ensued over both boards with pieces being swapped back and forth. (It’s also known as Siamese chess, tandem chess, and some other names.)

Yes, I did say both boards. Bughouse is a team game, with one player on each team playing as white and one as black. Captured pieces go to a partner who can drop them on any vacant square in lieu of a move, with the exception pawns cannot be dropped on the first or last rank. The object is to either win on time, or by checkmating the opponent’s king. One checkmate or one fallen flag decides the game for both boards. Typical bughouse time controls were “5 0” (five minutes, no increment) in the early days. Over the years, they have been reduced to “2 0” (two minutes, no increment).

That’s two minutes. For each player. To play the entire game.

Suddenly the moniker of “bughouse” starts to look damned accurate.

If that was everything, if bughouse were just two chess games joined into one making something completely different, with players respecting the same decorum appropriate for a chess server, there wouldn’t be an issue. If only that were the case in reality. Abuse of all kinds is a problem on many chess servers; on FICS, bughouse players account for a disproportionate amount of it (both my personal observations and what I have heard talking to admins). Here is a somewhat abridged version of the “help abuse” file on FICS, with an emphasis on rules bughouse players have been known to violate at various points in the past:

The purpose of FICS is to provide a free, friendly, family orientated means for chess enthusiasts to play chess and discuss topics of interest. When abusive actions occur, FICS administrators have the authority to take steps to stop these actions from occurring. […] Examples of abuse include, but are not limited to:

1. Harassment of users including harassment related to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc and discussion which promotes such intolerances.

2. Harassing, threatening or abusing a staff member (administrator, SR, CA, TM or someone who has been asked to act on their behalf) in the course of their duties.

3. Obscene communications – all public communications should be appropriate if viewed by our youngest members (some as young as 8 years old).

4. Profanity.


6. Making public accusations against other players (including in finger or formula notes) including but not limited to accusations of abuse or accusations of cheating.

7. Connecting to the server as a guest to get around censors or noplays directed to your playing account by another player.

8. Using blindfold, team or other accounts including unregistered handles to evade server sanctions that may have been imposed on you.


11. Distributing, buying, selling, handling, or attempting to gain the personal information of another person (including real name, email address, password etc) without permission, or any server related file or screen information which is not available to all registered users by legal server means, or any server document or correspondence not intended for general viewing. Attempting to obtain such information by deceit.


15. Throwing games or knowingly allow another user to throw games to you, or agreeing results in advance, or aborting on purpose by disconnection to avoid rating changes.


19. Tampering with timeseal or interface code to facilitate cheating, or development of such cheating facilities including distributing the (amended) code.


22. Creating unauthorized duplicate accounts or helping others create them.

23. Inciting, encouraging or helping other users to commit acts of abuse

That’s quite the laundry list, even omitting some of the rules (I included 12 out of the 23, so a nominal majority). The full file is available from the FICS website and is the de facto “terms of service” for the server.

For a majority of the time FICS has been online, the official bughouse channel for forming partnerships and getting games going was channel 24. Sometime in the past few years (perhaps 2012 or so?), channel 24 was quietly removed from the official channel list, as profanity, obscenity, the occasional cheating accusations, and other types of indecorum became the norm as opposed to the exception. That doesn’t mean channel 24 is no longer used for bughouse chat, just that it’s no longer officially mentioned in either the server output or the “help channel_list” file.

In a real life chess club, there’s a sense of decorum. The same would be said, for the most part, on FICS as well. The chess players, with the possible exception of those who specialize in “lightning” games (time controls with an estimated time per side of lower than 3 minutes, usually “1 0” and “2 0″ on the modern day FICS), do a reasonable job of maintaining decorum. The bughouse players, on the other hand… I’ll just say that before I actually started regularly reporting the more flagrant cases of abuse (mainly profanity, cheating accusations, and chat which indicated someone has multiple/”dupe” accounts), channel 24 was often a zoo. The only times it wasn’t a zoo, was during the hours it would be completely or nearly dead. Even then I think some players simply don’t know the rules, so I have taken to reminders like this one:

[23:28:11] QBall(24): Reminder: Examples of abuse include, but are not limited to: … 4. Profanity. … 6. Making public accusations against other players (including in finger or formula notes) including but not limited to accusations of abuse or accusations of cheating.

The reactions to my reminders? Let’s just say that they illustrate the somewhat sarcastic maxim “no good deed goes unpunished.” The bughouse players don’t give a damn, and at least one of them apparently can’t type a complete sentence without a swear word in it to save his/her life. (Note: by default, FICS replaces known profanity/obscenity with the characters “#$%&” in order, repeated. The default “tolerance” setting is 1, on a scale of 0 to 5 where 0 will even censor “damn” and “hell” and 5 is completely uncensored letting you see all chat, no matter how profane/obscene, in all its uncensored “glory.” Partly so I may report the most flagrant violations, and partly because I feel like I just don’t need it, I have mine set to 5.)

Granted, there was a long time (up until at least 2002 or so) where admins did try to keep a check on the bughouse/channel 24 crowd, but eventually it would appear it was determined letting the lesser indecorums slide was worth the decrease in workload.

Perhaps the most flagrant example of abuse came in 2002. A user who went by the handle of Seipman was banned from FICS either permanently or indefinitely on or about 2002 January 26.

Before I get into the rest of the story, a bit of an aside here. Seipman had revealed himself to me as a jerk some time before this. I don’t have logs, but I recall an incident where I was his partner in a bughouse game and he was upset about the way I played. We had a won game and he threatened to resign if I didn’t answer his criticism about my moves within 10 seconds. He also threw a game at some point in the same session, assumably to show me how bad I was playing (which taught me nothing, lowered my rating even further, and possibly even opened me up to sanctions as well). Anyway, after the game where he threatened to resign a won game, I unpartnered him and swore never to play either against him or partner him again. (This was, I think, sometime in 2001.) It was no big surprise to me that he was banned from FICS.

Anyway, after Seipman was banned, he created an unauthorized duplicate account Daysleeper. As Daysleeper, Seipman played the role of a model user. He was added to the tournament manager list, then the service representative list, and then finally and most unfortunately, he was made an admin. That lasted until 2002 September 6, a mere seven months and change since Seipman’s last login under his original handle. The exact reason Daysleeper’s admin status was terminated isn’t stated, however it can be assumed he was found to, at minimum, be an unauthorized duplicate account.

During that time, Seipman (as Daysleeper) copied a bunch of notes files of various users. This wasn’t known until early 2005, when Seipman logged back on to FICS as a guest, and tried to blackmail his way back on to the server. Needless to say, this didn’t work at all (in fact, Seipman probably threw away any hope of having his original ban overturned), and after word got out the admins decided to have a “town meeting” to discuss what had happened. The chat log from that meeting on 2005 May 2 is still available and contains a lot of informations for the terminally curious.

Thankfully, that kind of egregious abuse has only happened once. It would be one thing if Seipman were the only such abuser in the bughouse community. However it was at one time very common to hear of a player getting banned and coming back as a dupe, or even for someone to openly ask in channel 24 “whose dupe is xxxx?” (Yes, when I see these, I report them; they are evidence that someone has a duplicate account they are not supposed to have.)

Today, it’s almost impossible to go through a week’s worth of hanging out on FICS without having someone drop some kind of swear word, or otherwise say something not allowed by the rules. In fact, on the day I first wrote this post, someone re-published their private tell, along the lines of: “partner (another player) and throw 200 points pls, ty gg” (sic). This falls afoul of at least one rule (either harassment or inciting others to throw games, depending on the exact context, which at the time I did not dive deeper into).

Particularly frustrating to me is seeing titled chess players (FM, IM, GM) come on FICS to play bughouse, and do nothing to assert a leadership role to discourage the indecorum (since apparently the admins/SRs refuse to do so). Honestly, I would expect better from people who have, in most cases, devoted the majority of their lives to chess.

I do appreciate what the admins do to keep FICS running; I would not continue to play there if I didn’t. That FICS has lasted as long as it has, in an era where web-based chess servers are rapidly becoming the norm, is a testament that the administration is getting at least some of it right. However, I would like to see the trend of indecorum in bughouse turned around. I believe that with the appropriate leadership, bughouse players are capable of respecting the same decorum as chess players on a chess server. My understanding is that abuse is abuse, regardless of whether it happens in shouts, channel 1, channel 50, channel 24, channel 10, private tells, or otherwise. Hiding channel 24 by simply omitting it from the official channel lists will not solve the issue long term (in fact, it is an acknowledgement of how bad the problem is, and does absolutely zero to fix it). In a real life chess club, the club’s leadership would crack down quickly on indecorum from a few bughouse players. Is there a reason why FICS admins can’t do the same?