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

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

An archived page showing some of the custom Steam images that have been removed by Nintendo's DMCA requests.
Magnify / An archived page showing some of the custom Steam images that have been removed by Nintendo’s DMCA requests.

Nintendo has issued a number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) requests against SteamGridDB (SGDB), a website that hosts custom fan-made icons and images 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. It includes custom images for many standard Steam games and emulated game ROMs, which can be added to Steam as “external games”.

To be clear, SteamGridDB does not host the kind of ROMs that have gotten 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 asked to remain anonymous) told Ars. “The site is just a free repository where people can share options for customizing their game launchers.”

But in a series of DMCA requests seen by Ars Technica, dated Oct. 27, Nintendo says some of the images on the SGDB “depict Nintendo’s trademarks and other intellectual property (including characters) that are likely to cause consumer confusion.” Therefore, dozens of SGDB images have been replaced with a blank image with the text “this resource has been removed in response to a DMCA takedown request” (you can see some of the specific images that were removed in this snapshot from the Internet Archive from April and compare it to how the listing currently looks).

That’s exactly what Nintendo’s is

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

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So far, Nintendo’s DMCA requests focus on images for just five Switch games listed on SGDB: Pokemon Scarlet & Violet, 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 unaffected, as are images for many older Nintendo titles.

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

A page from SteamGridDB showing how the DMCAed images now appear (as well as one re-uploaded image with a cheeky transparent message superimposed).
Magnify / A page from SteamGridDB showing how the DMCAed images now appear (as well as one re-uploaded image with a cheeky transparent message superimposed).

Even for the Switch games in question, the DMCA requests focused on images that “straight up used sprites and assets from [Nintendo’s] IP,” according to the SGDB administrator. Nintendo’s requests so far appear to have ignored “completely original creations” and “pure fan art,” even when that art involves drawings of Nintendo’s original characters.

It is unclear whether such images will fall under a different legal standard in this case. “If an IP holder asks to take down original creations, I will figure out the best way to handle that when it happens,” the administrator said. “The site is basically just fan art, we are open to publishers getting in touch and discussing any issues they may have. [The] the best way to find a best practice is to discuss alternatives.”

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 applied DMCA requests to everything from fan games to modern Game & Watch hacking videos to Mario-themed Minecraft videos.

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“In the realm of companies ruthlessly working to control their own narrative to the detriment of research and credentials, Nintendo ranks up there with Monsanto, coal companies, and the mob,” Jason Scott of the Internet Archive told Ars back in 2018. “You expect emotion when people talk about old video games, but one of them shouldn’t be fear.”

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