Until recently, if you heard the extended suffix "with friends" attached to something, you'd probably associate it with a handful of cutesy smartphone games like "Words with Friends," "Scramble with Friends" or "Running with Friends" — all Zynga games, all exceedingly family friendly. But the game maker is not happy about an app called "Bang with Friends," that has, well, different intentions, and is taking "Bang with Friends" to court, alleging trademark infringement.
"This is a case about illegal free riding on recognized and valuable intellectual property rights," Zynga said in a lawsuit filed this week in California district court.
"Bang with Friends," like many of Zynga's most popular games, is an app that lives and breathes on the borders of the larger Facebook ecosystem.
By logging in to Facebook or downloading an Android app (Apple removed the iOS version of "Bang with Friends" from its App Store in May), users can scroll through their Facebook book friends, swiping up or down to indicate whether they're down to "hang" or ahem, do more. The app, in short, promises to be "a completely anonymous way to hook up with your Facebook friends."
That has very little in common with a game like "Words with Friends" (itself a clone of the popular board game "Scrabble.") But Zynga now says that using "with Friends" in the app's name is basically a way to draw in more users at Zynga's expense.
"Zynga filed a lawsuit to stop blatant infringement of its valuable 'With Friends' brand," Renée Lawson, Zynga's deputy general counsel, told NBC News in an emailed statement.
"A company calling itself 'Bang with Friends' ... decided to gain attention for its sex-related app by leveraging Zynga’s well-known mark. Zynga is compelled to file suit to prevent further consumer confusion and protect its intellectual property rights against infringement."
In its court filing, (shared here by GigaOm), Zynga said that it had approached the hookup app developers "through informal efforts" to take action before resorting to a lawsuit, but negotiations about a possible name change eventually broke down.
"It now appears that [negotiations were] either ... a ploy or [BWF] has reconsidered in light of recent attention showered on it," Zynga said in its suit.
Bang With Friends did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News . But BWF co-founder Colin Hodge told PC Magazine that the company only heard about the lawsuit after reading about it in the news.
"As a technology company, we take intellectual property seriously and will evaluate the case in detail once we receive a copy," he said.
Greg Boyd, partner and chairman of the Interactive Entertainment Group at the law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, told NBC News in an email that the "Bang With Friends" case reminds him of Zynga's other legal disputes with the creators of "PyramidVille" (which has since been renamed "Pyramid Valley") and "Blingville," to rival game industry titan Electronic Arts, which last year sued Zynga for copyright infringement over its game "The Ville." Zynga, of course, is also known for its "FarmVille" games.
While a dispute like EA and Zynga's got into legal definitions of what parts of video games, exactly, a company is able to lay claim to, James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said that things are much more cut-and-dry in a case like the dispute over "Bang with Friends."
"It's not really a Zynga thing, it's more just a trademark thing," Grimmelmann told NBC News. "These cases have nowhere near the complexity of the gameplay lawsuits."
Grimmelmann added that BWF's best defense in this case, as with many defendants in trademark disputes, could be to claim that "Bang With Friends" was an intentional parody of the "With Friends" brand name from which Zynga is accusing it of profiting.
He said that the case likely will come down to "whether Zynga can show that there's been consumer confusion" over the "With Friends" label.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published August 1 2013, 3:35 PM