Hot Docs: EA sues Zynga over copyright infringement in “The Ville”

August 16, 2012

infringevilleIf you’ve been on Facebook in the past several years, you’d know of the games FarmVille and Mafia Wars.

The games’ maker, Zynga, is being sued by Electronic Arts (EA) for copyright infringement.

This isn’t terribly shocking, considering how highly lucrative Zynga’s games have become.

EA’s lawsuit is claiming that Zynga’s virtual life game The Ville “copied and misappropriated” elements of EA’s The Sims Social that are “original and distinctive.”

To anyone familiar with Zynga, allegations of copying another company’s game should come as no surprise.

EA’s complaint provides a detailed accounting of all of Zynga’s past “thefts”:

Zynga’s Mafia Wars very closely resembles Psycho Monkey’s Mob Wars.

Zynga’s FarmVille seems like a copy of Slashkey’s FarmTown, SocialApps’ myFarm and “various other farming games from China.”

Zynga’s Café World closely resembles Playfish’s Restaurant City

There are a few more in the complaint, but you probably get the idea.

Hot Doc: Elec. Arts Inc. v. Zynga Inc.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Nevertheless, this isn’t going to be an easy battle for EA.

First, there is very little case law relating to copyright infringement in video games.

There is, of course, the iconic Atari v. North American Philips from 1982, which ruled that Philips’ clone of Atari’s Pac-Man was infringing because, although it wasn’t “virtually identical” to the original, the clone “capture[ed] the ‘total concept and feel’ of and is substantially similar to Pac-Man.

Unfortunately, the video game industry has travelled light years since 1982, so we can’t really use Atari as too much of a reference in the EA/Zynga battle.

However, the general principle of copyright law remains guiding: you can’t copyright an idea, but you can copyright an expression of that idea.

Video games pose a particular problem for copyright law in this regard, though, because the line between idea and expression in a video game is very blurred.

For example, let’s say that you have an idea for a game – a lone vehicle with projectile weapons faces upward against an overwhelming number of enemies.

You express that idea in the form of a game called Space Invaders.

Then someone else comes along and creates a game that is essentially a clone of your game, except that the lone vehicle and the enemies look a little different, and the enemies move around the screen a little differently (by the way, that game’s called Galaxian, and it’s not as well known as it’s more enjoyable sequel Galaga).

Space Invaders vs Galaxian vs Galaga

Screenshots of Space Invaders (left), Galaxian (center), and Galaga(right)

Is that copyright infringement?

Nope.

And this is because of the special nature of video games when it comes to copyright – there are a very limited number of ways to express your ideas through video games.

When an idea and its expression become inextricably linked, the expression isn’t subject to copyright protection (this is known as the “merger doctrine”).

Without the merger doctrine, the video game industry would be far smaller than it is now, since different genres of games – such as platformers (Super Mario Bros.), first-person shooters (Wolfenstein 3D), and fighting games (Street Fighter) – wouldn’t be genres but copyrighted expressions of ideas belonging to the respective game’s original creator.

How does this all relate to the Zynga/EA case?

EA v Zynga alleged copying

Example of Zynga’s alleged copying from EA’s complaint

 

Zynga may be a notorious game cloner (in fact, its entire business model seems reliant on the practice).

But unless EA can elaborate in court on how the allegedly copied elements could be expressed differently enough to avoid infringement, I can’t see the suit being terribly successful.

Then again, some parts of The Ville so closely resemble elements of The Sims Social that a court could only conclude that Zynga’s game is effectively just a palette swap of EA’s.

However, it’s very unlikely that this case will get as far as a final judgment.

EA isn’t exactly regarded as a pillar of originality and innovation in the video game industry, and a new court ruling cracking down on game cloning would make EA and its deep pockets a very tempting target for lawsuits.

So while this lawsuit probably won’t provide any new legal guidance on video game copyrights, it’ll hopefully make Zynga and other similar cloners a bit less brazen.