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Video Game Developers Settle Copyright Infringement Suit

February 20, 2013
Joshua L. Cannon

The scope of copyright protection and whether a particular work infringes the copyright of another can be difficult issues when traditional types of media, such as books or movies, are involved.  When newer types of media, such as video games, are involved, these questions can become even trickier.

A recent case between Electronic Arts and Zynga highlights some of these difficulties.  The parties recently settled EA’s claim that Zynga’s video game “The Ville” infringed on EA’s copyrights in its “The Sims” video game franchise, specifically “The Sims Social.”  EA’s complaint was dismissed with prejudice by the District Court for the Northern District of California, though terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

As noted by many observers when EA filed its complaint in August 2012, the case presented several interesting issues regarding the scope of copyright protection.  EA’s complaint contained only a single claim for copyright infringement, so the court would have potentially needed to address these issues head-on.  EA likely faced an uphill struggle in the case, where it would have had to prevail on several difficult copyright doctrines, not the least of which would be identifying and distinguishing the legally protectable expressions in the game from the game’s ideas and concepts which are not entitled to copyright protection.  EA then would have had to show that elements of “The Ville” were substantially similar (in the legal sense) to the protected expressions in “The Sims Social.”  Another potentially tricky issue lurking was whether different expressions of a social simulation game in which the player serves as “god” can be separated from the idea of such a game under the merger doctrine, such that copyright protection was even available beyond literal copying.  Because a legal victory for EA would have likely had significant consequences for an industry in which a certain degree of “copying” is the norm, a settlement was likely in both parties’ best interest.

A copy of EA’s complaint can be accessed here.

The information contained herein is not intended as and should not be construed as legal advice.  Please consult with legal counsel before taking any action based on this information.