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Contours of Copyright #4: No Protection for Game Play 12/21/2016

Posted by Morse Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Games & Interactive Entertainment, Intellectual Property.
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The battle between an Ancient Chinese themed game, and a Wild-West game, reminds us that rules of game play are generally not protectable by copyright, but certain expressive game aspects may be.HGZ Headshot Photo 2015 (M0846618xB1386)

Discussion: The plaintiff in DaVinci Editrice v. ZiKo Games (S.D. Tex. 2016) published Bang!, a role-playing card game with Wild-West themes that became a world-wide success. Bang! players are assigned one of four roles – Sheriff, Deputy, Outlaw or Renegade – each with its own “winning condition” (e.g., the Sheriff wins by outliving the Outlaws and Renegades).  Each player also gets assigned a card evoking a familiar Wild-West character (e.g., Calamity Janet) with its own unique ability and 1-to-5 “life points.” Players also draw “weapon cards” (enabling them to reduce competitors’ life points) and “mount cards” (enabling them to gain distance from competitors, making them harder to attack).

One defendant, Yoka Games, based in China, produced the card game Legends of the Three Kingdoms, distributed in the U.S. by the other defendant, ZiKo Games, LLC. Despite the different setting (Ancient China) and accompanying different artwork, the four roles in LOTK – Monarch, Minister, Rebel and Turncoat – had the same abilities, functions, goals and winning conditions as the comparable roles in Bang!; players were subject to nearly identical rules of play; players drew Chinese hero cards with similar abilities and life points as the Bang! character cards; and similar action cards were used.

Notwithstanding procedural wrangling over the lay vs. expert status of a witness and arguments about the significance of various similarities, this was an easy summary judgment for the Court:  “Bang!’s characters, roles, and interactions are not substantially similar to those in LOTK. The aspects of the roles, characters, and interactions that are similar are not expressive, and aspects that are expressive are not substantially similar. ZiKo and Yoka are entitled to summary judgment of noninfringement.”

An Interlude for Copyright Aficionados:  The Court’s reasoning begins with the black letter principle that copyright protects expression, not ideas. Therefore, “Copyright does not protect game rules because they fall within the section 102(b) exceptions for an ‘idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation’.”

On the other hand, the Court acknowledges that “courts have found expressive elements copyrightable, including game labels, design of game boards, playing cards and graphical works.” The present dispute focuses on the roles and characters and their interactions, which are very similar in both games. Thus, the key issue is: Are the characters’ similar interactions “unprotectable game play,” as the defendants argue, or “protectable expressive content,” as the plaintiffs argue?

The Court begins by distinguishing two types of games: (1) those like books and movies, which have a progression of events (plot) and developed characters (who interact following a script) “that make the game expressive” (e.g., The Legend of Zelda), and (2) those like NBA games, which consist of “loosely prescribed progression” (“teams trade offensive possessions over four quarters”) between players with assigned roles (guard, forward, center) but without predetermined interactions, which are therefore neither expressive nor copyrightable.

Bang!, says the Court, “has no specific plot or detailed information about the characters that tells us what these characters will do or how they will interact with other characters.” Rather, like basketball, Bang! has created a number of roles, defined their alignment with and opposition to other roles, and created rules for their interaction, but has not created a scripted or detailed performance for each game.  Thus, Bang! is more basketball than novel, and its character interactions are not protected by copyright.

The Court also addresses character copyright and explains why LOTK wasn’t infringing, despite the near-identity of the 4 main roles (excluding their look and labels). The answer lies in the “distinctiveness” requirement: To earn copyright protection, characters cannot be stock, generic or indistinct, but must embody enough original expression to attain copyrightability. However, “Bang! has no specific plot or detailed information about the characters… LOTK’s alignment of roles tracks Bang!’s, which in turn was drawn from the general alignment of stock characters in ‘spaghetti Westerns.’”

The Court also considers and rejects the plaintiff’s argument that, even if the characters themselves are not copyrighted, their special abilities may be: “The Bang! characters’ abilities are largely drawn from stock-character abilities. Like a punch or kick in a karate game, Bang! characters’ abilities are common in games in which the object is to kill the other players.” Moreover: “Even if the Bang! characters’ abilities were not stock, they are still not expressive because they are essentially rules of game play.”

A similar conclusion applies to the plaintiff’s key claim, namely, that the Bang! characters’ interactions via the game rules are themselves subject to copyright. But that argument fails here for the same reason it failed at the higher level of character copyright: “Bang! characters do not have delineated personalities, temperaments, back stories, or other features typical of characters in movies and books that contribute to making those characters’ interactions protected.”

Conclusion: The Court was mindful that game rules are generally not copyrightable, a principle that anchored its holding in favor of the defendants. However, the Court did recognize at least three game elements that could potentially give rise to copyrights:

  1. expressive graphics or other original visual elements;
  2. a relatively fixed progression of themes, dialog, mood, setting and character; or
  3. well-delineated characters themselves.

Still, if a character (whether in a novel, film or videogame) is not sufficiently distinct to be copyrightable – which may be because it is a “stock” character defined only by generic traits, or because it is a positional player guided only by rules of play – then its interactions with other characters will not be copyrightable, unless these interactions are at least partly fixed or scripted.

In short, despite displaying some of the artistry of its namesake, DaVinci’s characters (and their traits and interactions) were too stock and generic to be copyrightable … and thus its suit failed to produce more bucks for its Bang!.

For more information on this topic, please contact Howard Zaharoff.

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