Fortnite makers sue Montreal game tester for allegedly leaking game elements

MONTREAL — The maker of the wildly popular game Fortnite is initiating legal action against a Montreal game tester, alleging he violated his contract by leaking a new online map ahead of its release date.

U.S.-based Epic Games International filed a statement of claim in Quebec Superior Court in late October against Lucas Johnston, alleging he was responsible for the publication of "highly confidential information" that amounted to a commercial secret.

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The court document claims Johnston took a screenshot of a new playing environment on Aug. 30 while he was working for Keywords Studios in Montreal, which provides user experience testing to game-makers.

Two weeks later, the image ended up on a Fortnite Competitions' official user forum, more than a month before its scheduled Oct. 15 release.

The company claims the leak "deprived the claimant of the element of surprise," tipped off its competitors to its strategy and affected its reputation among its peers.

"As the creative projects created by the claimant require a long period of time between the start of their conception and their commercialization, confidentiality is thus, throughout the process, essential in order to offer its users innovative projects at the forefront of the video game technology industry," the company wrote in the filing.

According to the allegations, which have not been tested in court, an internal investigation by Keywords Studios traced the origins of the leak back to Johnston, who was allegedly seen taking the screenshot on security camera footage.

The user who posted the image on the forum, who went by the name "chaad4," had three friends in common with a user named "FloocasJ," whose email corresponded to Johnston's. The investigation concluded Johnston had shared the image with his playing partners, the court documents say.

Johnston was fired on Sept. 13, the day after the image was posted, the documents say.

According to the documents, Johnston admitted taking the screenshot and emailing it to himself, but said he didn't know how it ended up online. Calls and an email to the addresses listed for Johnston in the court documents went unanswered, and The Canadian Press was unable to verify whether he is represented by a lawyer.

The company alleges Johnston violated a non-disclosure agreement and is seeking yet-unspecified damages exceeding $85,000.

The interactive multiplayer game has become a global phenomenon, with over 250 million downloads to date, according to the filing. A spokesperson for Epic Games confirmed that this is the third time the company has brought legal action against employees under similar circumstances. The other two cases were in the United States.

Michael Shortt, a Montreal-based intellectual property lawyer with law firm Fasken, believes the lawsuit is likely less about money and more about sending a message to workers.

"If they've suffered serious commercial losses on a worldwide scale, (the defendant) is not going to have the assets to pay that back," said Shortt, who specializes in the video game industry.

"The reason is likely that they want to send a message to everyone they work with, that people who leak information will face legal consequences — it's not something they can do and get away with."

He said video game companies such as Epic Games International have become aggressive in protecting their intellectual property, precisely because leaks are virtually impossible to prevent unless employees police themselves and refrain from doing it — under the threat of a lawsuit if need be.

He also pointed out that the revenue model of Fortnite — which is free to download and depends on players making in-game purchases to make money — may make the company particularly sensitive to any interference in its marketing strategy.

The case isn't the only one to involve Fortnite that is winding its way through the courts in Quebec.

In October, Montreal-based Calex Legal Inc. sought permission to sue Epic Games, as well as its Canadian affiliate based in British Columbia, on behalf of parents who allege their children have become dependent on the game.

Their class action request likens the dependence to a drug addiction, noting that the World Health Organization made a decision last year to declare video game addiction, or "gaming disorder," a disease.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 11, 2019.

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