Senior advocate and member of the Rajya Sabha Abhishek Manu Singhvi has found himself in the midst of a controversy for raising a question in Parliament allegedly on behalf of a private firm he has represented as a legal counsel in the Karnataka High Court. Singhvi’s question on government rules and regulations about online “gambling” games had been listed for an answer on December 16. But he withdrew the question after the controversy.
The Congress MP has represented Gameskraft Technology, a Bengaluru-based online gaming portal, under the scanner for alleged tax evasion and intellectual property theft issues.
It has been alleged that top executives of Gameskraft Technology – a start-up which claims to be India’s fastest-growing web and mobile gaming company – stole data from a rival firm, Play Games24X7, where they used to work earlier, to develop a version of their flagship online game, Rummy Culture.
On November 11, raids were conducted in at least 10 different venues connected to Gameskraft Technology by officials of the Goods and Services Taxes (GST) department. On the same day, Singhvi had appeared as a counsel for the firm in a case wherein an association representing online gaming portals, the All India Gaming Federation, has challenged the ban imposed by Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on all forms of online gambling and betting.
Among the senior executives of Play Games24x7 who left the company to set up Gameskraft were Vikas Taneja and Deepak Singh.
The writ petition filed by the association is currently pending before the principal bench of the Karnataka High Court. In his question, which had been marked as “starred” for a written reply, Singhvi had sought to know the position and policies of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on “games of skill” as compared to “games of chance.” Online gaming portals have repeatedly claimed that card games, including rummy and poker, are games of skill and hence cannot be categorised as gambling.
Rules of the Rajya Sabha make it imperative for members to ensure that an arm’s length distance is maintained between their financial or pecuniary interests and that of their immediate family members from issues raised in the house that are supposed to pertain to public interest. Singhvi’s conduct allegedly smacked of a conflict of interest between his profession as a lawyer and the privileges he enjoys as a Rajya Sabha member.
In his question, Singhvi had sought the following information from the Information & Broadcasting Ministry: “(a) Details of advisory issued by the Ministry on advertisements on fantasy sports; (b) Reasons for not making any differentiation between games of skills and games of chance in it (c) Policy position of the Ministry on these categories.”
When contacted by NewsClick, Singhvi denied any intention on his part to violate the principles of conflict of interest. He said: “The question, in any event, stands removed from the ballot because the intention was not even remotely to transgress any conflict of interest. I have never appeared for any company dealing with fantasy sports generally except for online rummy operators. I have appeared on the legal point of ‘games of skill’ versus ‘games of chance’ and only for online rummy operators. Secondly, the first time I appeared for the same was more than eight years ago in the Supreme Court.
“Thereafter, I have appeared on different occasions in different high courts like that of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madras, much before the current Karnataka case. Thirdly, all these appearances were for one or two companies on the issue of online rummy alone. Fourthly, as a senior counsel, I am engaged by different solicitors, and each time I neither deal with the client nor know about the clients. Fifthly, the question (a) related to advertisement, (B) was a completely valid question on the established law of more than 70 years first laid down by the Indian Supreme Court in (the) Chamarbaugwala (case) in the 1950s, making a fundamental distinction between ‘games of skill’ and ‘games of chance’ and (c) was merely consequential. Hence there was nothing improper. Sixthly, the question was only a conceptual question about ‘games of skill’, and I do not have the remotest interest in any operator.
“Even the slightest idea of conflict of interest never entered my mind. Seventhly, a number of leaders in the past few days including Sushil Modi, Sanjay Jaiswal and several other leaders from South India have also asked questions on the issue, highlighting the ongoing debates over the issue amongst the policy community.”
On December 3, BJP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Modi, another Rajya Sabha member, raised a question as to whether the government of India plans to regulate online gaming given the fact that it was fast turning into an “addiction” among internet users.
Modi had said that the average time spent on online gaming had gone up to four hours a day post-COVID from the average of 2.5 hours per day before the pandemic. He had said that the number of online game users will touch the figure of 6.57 million by the year 2025 as compared to the current figure of 4.3 million users. This sector’s revenue is also projected to more than double in the next five years to Rs 29,000 crore in 2025 from Rs 13,600 crore at present.
The GST raids on Gameskraft Technologies in November had followed an investigation, which cast suspicion on the rapid growth of the company in less than four years after it was incorporated in June 2017 with a relatively low paid-up capital of around Rs 30 crore. While several laptops and hard drives were seized during the raids, the whereabouts of the company’s owners and promoters were allegedly not known at the time.
“In a period of less than 6 months, Gameskraft India Private Limited launched Rummy Culture (sic), Domain, web application and android application. For a small company to do so much in a small amount of time does raise suspicion,” states a portion of the GST investigation report, which was accessed by the authors of this article.
It has been alleged that Gameskraft stole intellectual property while designing its flagship product, Rummyculture, a web and mobile gaming application allowing internet users from anywhere across the globe to participate in an online version of the popular card game. The company claims on its website that Rummyculture is “India’s most trusted and RNG certified rummy suite to help businesses build a customized rummy game.”
(RNG stands for random number generation, which is a process of generating a sequence of numbers and symbols that cannot be reasonably predicted or, in other words, or the particular outcome sequence will contain some patterns detectable in hindsight but unpredictable to foresight.)
It has been alleged that Rummyculture is nothing more than a blatantly plagiarised version of RummyCircle, another online gaming owned by a different company going by the name Play Games24x7 Private Limited. This firm was incorporated in Mumbai over 15 years ago in June 2006 with a paid-up capital of approximately Rs 23.56 crore. It has been claimed that particular senior executives who used to work with Play Games24x7 left the company to set up the rival Gameskraft and used the former’s intellectual property to develop its version of the online card game. Both Rummy Circle and Rummyculture offer rewards, cash prizes and online entertainment to internet users registering on their respective apps.
The similarity between the two apps does not stop here. The GST investigation report states that there are “a lot of similarities” between Rummyculture and Rummy Circle and that “the biggest finding being the similarities in the communication messages exchanged between the client and the server.”
The probe found similarities in the communication process and the web applications of both as well as the Android application, which is meant for use on mobile phones. “Key-value pair naming of the messages interchanged between the client browser and web application… Rummy Culture (sic) has added Base64 encoding of the messages, so they need to be decoded,” the report claimed, adding: “End-points were similarly named – Rummy Culture uses m-plartform.rummybattle.in while Rummy Circle uses m-platform.rummycircle.com.”
There were similarities in the user interface design of both web applications including positioning of players, opponents, cards; the content of the score window; the messages displayed before gaming starts; the content of disconnection settings and the content of the game information window.
The probe was undertaken after a first information report (FIR) was lodged by the Mumbai Police on January 22, 2019, nearly two months after it first received a complaint against Gameskraft. The FIR was registered under IPC Section 379 of the Indian Penal Code (punishment for theft) and Sections of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000. The criminal case in this regard is pending in the court of the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Mumbai.
A questionnaire was emailed to representatives of Gameskraft. Among the questions asked was why the company chose to assign a similar name to the endpoint of the online rummy game of its rival company, why it decided to assign a user interface design to its gaming app which is similar to the one that is used by its rival Play Games24x7. A separate questionnaire was emailed to representatives of Play Games 24X7. Among other queries, the company was asked to provide material evidence that would establish theft of its intellectual property by Gameskraft.
No responses been received to the questionnaires emailed till the time this article was published. This article will be updated as and when responses come.
The accused firm, Gameskraft, has on its part claimed that all companies that have web-based and Android-based applications of the online rummy game are bound to have a similar set of sequences and functionalities. “The rummy game has sequence of steps which are exactly same and as such the game can be played only in a pre-determined manner with the similar sequence of steps. Therefore, the sequence, functionalities and options are likely to be same except the difference in the Graphical User Interface (GUI), animation, screen display, etc.”
The company has further argued: “Such similarities are bound to happen when two websites are providing an activity which can only be done in a single way. For example, all the antivirus programs provide similar type of functionalities to scan and remove the viruses and as such their functionalities are similar but it does not make their source code as same and as such, merely the functionalities are similar will not make the source code as same.”
It has also argued that it has a far better set of experts in comparison to those of its competitors, that has independently developed its own software which is not only customer-friendly but is also far superior to the gaming applications of other companies. Gameskraft has further claimed that the criminal complaint against it is merely a ploy by its rivals to extract its source code and client database so as to get a greater market share in the burgeoning online gaming business.
Alleging police high-handedness in the investigation of the case, Gameskraft had in April 2019 also demanded the case be transferred to the cyber cell of Mumbai Police for a fair and transparent probe. An application in this regard had been made by Gameskraft to the then Mumbai Police Commissioner Sanjay Barve. The fate of the application could ot be ascertained by the writers of this article.
“The local police (department) does not have the requisite skills to understand the complex technical issues is going by the whims and choices of the complainant without appreciating the disastrous consequences of their acts and manipulating the evidence to the advantage of complainant illegally and unlawfully,” Gameskraft has alleged.
Apart from Rummyculture, the accused company Gameskraft has other gaming platforms that ho by names such as Nostragamus, Rummytime, Gamezy and Pocket 52. The company also claims it is a Guinness World Record holder for having conducted the world’s largest rummy tournament ever.
The rival application Rummy Circle used to be operated by Play Games24x7 under the brand name Games24X7.com. The company’s website states that the rebranding of the app to Rummy Circle was done in August 2012 following the immense popularity of online card games in India.
The brand battle between two rival online gaming companies is taking place at a time when there is a debate raging in the country over the legality of rummy. In September 2021, a single judge bench of the Kerala High Court quashed a petition demanding a ban on online rummy in the state even as the Karnataka government is reportedly preparing legislation to ban online games that involve betting and wagering. Earlier, in August 2021, the Madras High Court had declared as invalid a law put in place by the Tamil Nadu government to ban online games like rummy and poker.
The battle is far from over.
The writers are independent journalists.