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Epic Games Founder On The Lawsuit Against Tech Giants

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Millions of people glue themselves to their various screens to play the video game Fortnite for hours on end. But right now, many cannot play on their mobile phones. That's because of a legal battle between the maker of Fortnite, Epic Games, and the platforms where you download the game, namely Apple and Google's app stores. The CEO of Epic hasn't explained what's behind his lawsuit until now. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Chelsea Nicole Sermons (ph) lives near Tampa, Fla. She works in customer service. Every day after work, she plays Fortnite for at least four hours. But now, many of her friends are locked out of playing.

CHELSEA NICOLE SERMONS: They can't play on their phones with me if they want to, and I had quite a few people that were really sad that they couldn't play with me anymore.

ALLYN: That's because Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has launched a war with Apple and Google. His beef is with the fees the tech giants charge developers to sell their apps on mobile app stores. That fee is 30%.

TIM SWEENEY: It's not just Epic being exploited by Apple, but it's every developer who goes along with that scam, colluding with Apple and Google to further their monopoly.

ALLYN: Sweeney is an eccentric computer programmer who lives in North Carolina and relishes going against the grain. He once collected Lamborghinis and Ferraris but has since given them up to become a nature enthusiast. He's purchased thousands of acres of land around the Blue Ridge Mountains.

SWEENEY: Once you start comparing the cost of a Ferrari to the cost of acres of land, you realize that a Ferrari is about a hundred acres of really prime land that could be conserved in North Carolina, and Ferraris seem like a pretty inexpedient use of money at that point.

ALLYN: He says it's been easier to launch a challenge against two of the most powerful players in tech from his corporate perch in the Research Triangle, far away from the Silicon Valley orbit that he does not want to be a part of.

SWEENEY: Everybody doesn't have a great incentive to challenge Apple and Google's 30% because they want to be the next [expletive] to charge 30%.

ALLYN: To be clear, Apple and Google take issue with Sweeney's accusation. They've long charged the same fee for in-app purchases. They say it pays for ensuring apps are safe and secure. Apple says Sweeney is positioning himself as a, quote, "modern corporate Robin Hood" when really, he's looking for a free ride. But this is important. Sweeney is not alone in attacking these commissions. Companies like Spotify have had the same complaint. During a July hearing on Big Tech's power, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about the fees. Here's Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANK JOHNSON: What's to stop Apple from increasing its commission to 50%?

TIM COOK: We - sir, we have never increased commissions in the store since the first day it operated in 2008.

ALLYN: Cook also points out that more than 80% of apps downloaded are free, meaning Apple doesn't take a slice of it. Sweeney, though, says, yes, that's true. But the most expensive apps, like Fortnite, do cost money because it takes a lot to create, promote and maintain them.

SWEENEY: And so these stores are making a lot more money from creative works than the creators.

ALLYN: Sweeney says, think about the future. If Apple and Google slap a 30% fee on new technologies, that is going to stifle innovation and more than that.

SWEENEY: It's going to be one of the worst dystopias you can imagine from the science fiction literature, with a few corporations controlling not just digital items and games, but everything.

ALLYN: Meanwhile, as Sweeney wraps up his fight with Apple and Google, Sermons from Florida says whatever point Sweeney has is lost on Fortnite gamers who played on their phones.

SERMONS: Some of those people that can't afford to spend money on a $400 console or, like, a thousand-dollar PC to be able to handle Fortnite's graphics and everything else that happens in it - now they can't even play the game.

ALLYN: In some ways, the Epic versus Apple and Google battle pits a multibillion-dollar company versus trillion-dollar companies. Sermons says the real little guy here is the Fortnite gamer who didn't pick this fight but is now being punished for it.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.