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

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

Enlarge / An archived page showing some of the custom Steam imagery that has been taken down by Nintendo’s DMCA requests.

Nintendo has issued a number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) requests against SteamGridDB (SGDB), a site 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. That includes custom imagery 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 have gotten other sites in legal trouble with Nintendo, or even the emulators used to run those games. “We don’t support piracy in any way,” an SGDB admin (who asked 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 viewed by Ars Technica, dated October 27, Nintendo says some of the imagery on SGDB “displays Nintendo’s trademarks and other intellectual property (including characters) which is likely to lead to consumer confusion.” Thus, dozens of SGDB images have been replaced with a blank image featuring the text “this asset has been removed in response to a DMCA takedown request” (you can see some of the specific images that were removed in this Internet Archive snapshot from April and compare it to how the listing currently looks).

It’s just what Nintendoes

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

Thus far, Nintendo’s DMCA requests focus on imagery for just five Switch games that are listed on SGDB: pokemon 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 featuring the same exact characters) are unaffected, as are images for many older Nintendo titles.

The SGDB admin told Ars they had “no solid idea” why Nintendo’s requests have been so targeted. “I don’t know what goes 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 overlayed on top).
Enlarge / A page from SteamGridDB showing how the DMCAed images now appear (as well as one re-uploaded image with a cheeky transparent message overlayed on top).

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 admin. Nintendo’s requests so far seem to have ignored “completely original creations” and “pure fan art” even when that art involves drawings of Nintendo’s original characters.

It’s unclear if those kinds of images would fall under a different legal standard in this case. “If an IP holder asks to take down original creations then I’ll figure out the best way to handle that when it happens,” the admin said. “The site is basically all just fan art, we’re open to publishers reaching out and discussing any issues they may have. [The] best way to find 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 on everything from fan games to modern Game & Watch hacking videos to Mario-themed Minecraft videos.

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

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