Electronic Arts has announced that it will no longer pay gun manufacturers a licensing fee to use the names and likenesses of their products in its games, ending an ongoing controversy surrounding stealth advertising of weaponry to a young audience.

If you've ever wondered why first-person shooters often have oddly-named firearms, the answer is a legal one: gun manufacturers protect their intellectual property most vociferously, making sure that while rival manufacturers may be able to copy the look and feel of their firearms they can never copy the name. A Colt Python is always manufactured by the Colt company, for example, and woe betide any other manufacturer who uses the Python - or, worse still, Colt - marque.

In the early days of gaming, when the initial wave of first-person shooters appeared, nobody really gave much thought to this matter. Graphics were such that it could be hard to tell exactly what it was you were supposed to be shooting with, and while the pistol in Id Software's Wolfenstein 3D may have ostensibly been a Luger it was in reality a somewhat mushy conglomeration of pixels that could equally have been a piece of plumbing equipment. Even its next-generation successor, Doom, simply gave its firearms generic names: the pistol was simply the Pistol, and the shotgun the Shotgun. Only the BFG-9000, the game's biggest weapon, received anything like a proper designation, and nobody could accuse that plasma-spitting monstrosity of being based on a real-life weapon.

As technology progressed, however, manufacturers started sniffing around for some of that lucrative gaming cash. The first to be hit were racing games: suddenly you had to start paying a license fee if you wanted your game to include a Subaru or Ferrari. The gun manufacturers would follow, leading to games like GoldenEye on the N64 which skirted the issue by giving clearly-recognisable firearms like the Walther PPK the name PP7, and the Heckler & Koch MP5K the name D5K. While the design of the weapons remained the same, their designations changed to avoid the potential of trademark infringement.

Soon, gamers started demanding more realism in their games, however - and companies like Electronic Arts, Activision and others were quick to oblige. Forging deals with weapons manufacturers, games like Call of Duty started to include real-world weapons - not just in their overall design, but in their names too. It became commonplace to see brands like Colt, Walther, Smith & Wesson and Israel Military Industries popping up on-screen when you unlocked a new weapon.

In recent years, however, the relationship has been a source of controversy. Gun manufacturers have been accused of using games to advertise their products to impressionable teenagers, who - in parts of the US, at least - can grow up to own real-world versions of in-game weaponry like the giant .50 calibre Barrett sniper rifle seen in numerous militaristic titles. Last year, Electronic Arts itself was brought under the spotlight when it signed a deal that allowed gamers to buy real military equipment from links located on its Medal of Honor: Warfighter micro-site. Once spotted by the press, the site went dark with EA officially ending all cross-promotional activity with military equipment vendors by the end of the year.

The company continued to fund weapons manufacturers through licensing deals, however, not wishing to go back to the days of the PP7 and DK5. Now it says that it won't be doing so any longer - potentially souring the previously mutually beneficial relationship between games developers and weapons manufacturers, which often includes all-expenses-paid trips to see - and use - real-life weapons and support in recording audio for use in games.

Speaking to Reuters, EA's Frank Gibeau explained that he is latterly of the opinion that games developers shouldn't need to pay for a licence just to use real-world firearms in their titles. 'We're telling a story and we have a point of view,' he claimed in an interview with the news agency. 'A book doesn't pay for saying the word 'Colt,' for example.'

It's an interesting approach: Colt is a registered trademark, and thus protected in law - but Gibeau is claiming that such protection doesn't extend to fictional use, only to other manufacturers attempting to pass off products as being produced or approved by Colt itself. Thus, Gibeau is claiming, EA can get away with including a Colt M16 in its next game, and calling it just that, but not realising a game called Colt of Honor.

For the firearms manufacturers, EA's decision to end its license agreements is going to lead to a difficult decision. On the one hand, it's a loss of revenue and - potentially - a loss of control over their closely-guarded brands. On the other, the free advertising each company gets from having its products included in the games will continue - and that may be worth far, far more than the license agreements themselves.

The move comes at a time when weapons manufacturers and developers of first-person shooters are under increasing scrutiny, following several high-profile fatal shootings in the US. When gun control is a hot topic, it might be a good idea for manufacturers to simply accept EA's decision and sit quietly down, lest they draw too much attention to themselves over what is an incredibly emotionally-charged topic.

As for Gibeau's theory as to the freedom of fictional creations, that will be tested in June when EA takes on Bell Helicopter in the courts over the unlicensed use of the company's vehicles in Battlefield 3.
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