Nintendo goes after fan-made custom Steam “icons” with DMCA takedowns

Enlarge / An archived page showing some of the custom Steam images removed by Nintendo’s DMCA requests.

Nintendo has filed a number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) requests against SteamGridDB (SGDB), a site that hosts fan-created icons and graphics used to represent games on Steam’s front-end interface.

Since 2015, SGDB’s collection has grown to include hundreds of thousands of images representing tens of thousands of titles. That includes custom graphics for many standard Steam games and emulated game ROMs, which can be added to Steam as “external games”.

To be clear, SteamGridDB doesn’t host the kind of ROM files that got other sites into legal trouble with Nintendo, or even the emulators used to run those games. “We do not support piracy in any way,” an SGDB administrator (who wished to remain anonymous) told Ars. “The website is just a free repository where people can share options to customize their game launchers.”

But in a series of DMCA requests reviewed by Ars Technica, dated Oct. 27, Nintendo says some images on SGDB “depict Nintendo’s trademarks and other intellectual property (including characters), which is likely to cause consumer confusion.” For example, dozens of SGDB images have been replaced with a blank image that says “this item has been removed in response to a DMCA takedown request” (you can see some of the specific images removed in this April Internet Archive snapshot and compare it with what the offer currently looks like).

It’s just some Nintendoes

The SGDB administrator said they were “not surprised at all” about Nintendo’s DMCA requests, adding that they “have gotten some from other publishers in the past and complied accordingly.” When pressed, however, the admin could only think of a handful of other DMCA requests the site has received since its inception in 2015.

So far, Nintendo’s DMCA requests focus on images for only five Switch games listed on SGDB: Pokémon Scarlet & purple, Splatoon 3, Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildand Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Other Switch games listed on the site (some with the exact same characters) are not affected, as are graphics for many older Nintendo titles.

The SGDB administrator told Ars that they had “no good idea” why Nintendo’s requests were so targeted. “I don’t know what’s going on in their legal department.”

A page from SteamGridDB showing what the DMCA images look like now (as well as a re-uploaded image with a cheeky transparent message on top).
Enlarge / A page from SteamGridDB showing what the DMCA images look like now (as well as a re-uploaded image with a cheeky transparent message on top).

Even for the Switch games in question, the DMCA requests focused on images that “directly used sprites and assets from [Nintendo’s] IP,” said the SGDB administrator. Nintendo’s requests so far seem to have failed to include “entirely original creations” and “pure fan art,” even when that art involves drawings of Nintendo’s original characters.

It’s unclear if those types of images would fall under any other legal standard in this case. “If an IP holder requests that original creations be removed, I’ll figure out the best way to handle that when it happens,” the administrator said. “The site is basically all fan art, we’re open to publishers reaching out and discussing any issues. [The] the best way to arrive at a good course of action is to discuss options.”

Nintendo’s SGDB takedowns come a few months after the company used similar requests against YouTube videos explaining how to install Switch emulators on the Steam Deck. Before that, the company used DMCA requests for everything from fan games to modern Game & Watch hack videos to Mario themes Minecraft videos.

“In the realm of companies relentlessly trying to control their own story at the expense of research and reference, Nintendo ranks first with Monsanto, coal companies and the mafia,” Jason Scott of the Internet Archive told Ars in 2018. “You expect emotions when people talk about old video games, but one of them shouldn’t be fear.”

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