I’ve been reading into the Zynga vs. EA lawsuit regarding the allegations that ’The Ville’ infringes on the copyright of ‘The Sims Social.’ What I’m learning is even though there are vast similarities, copyright infringement will be a difficult case to prove. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the ‘expression’ of an idea. This means, if I want to make a game about caring for digital pets, I have every right to do so. But if I were to use the same content like sound effects, names and pet graphics of an existing game, I would be infringing on their rights. However, it’s unclear just how different the content needs to be in order to be legal.
I’ve been following Dan Lee Rogers, a lawyer who posts on this subject and he’s pointed to a few prior cases of interest. One being a case between Apple and Microsoft. In 1994 Apple sued Microsoft claiming their Window’s Operating System infringed on the Mac’s user interface. However, even though there were vast similarities between the two user interfaces, Apple did not succeed. The court concluded that the expression of the idea of a user interface was standard to all operating systems.
Next, he pointed to the case between Atari and North American Phillips. Atari sued Phillips since they believed K.C. Munchkin infringed on the copyrights of Pacman. In this case, Atari won. However, they won not because the mechanic or the layout was too similar, only because the Munchkin character had the same chomping animation and that the enemies were ghosts – just like Pacman. It seems, if the character was themed differently like a frog and the ghosts were flies, there would have been no case at all.
There are a lot of accusation that EA made that are just not going to hold up in court. However, I find the most incriminating evidence to be that Zynga used the exact same RGB values and total amount of choices for the character’s skin tones. I’ve taken a look through Zynga’s other games, and none of which use 8 skin tones or any of these exact colors – it doesn’t appear Zynga could argue this was coincidence.
Could this be enough to prove a case of copyright infringement? I have no idea. Personally, the thought of “borrowing” something as simple as skin tones wouldn’t even cross my mind as a game designer.