The case in question was Atari v North American Philips Consumer Electronics, decided by the United States Court of Appeals in 1982. The case dealt with the well-known game Pac-Man, created by Atari and Midway in the sunrise of the 1980s, which sold a staggering (at the time at least) 7 million copies. In the wake of Pac-Man's popularity a similar game, K. C. Munchkin, was created by North American Philips. Due to the incredibly similar styles and mechanics of both games Atari sued North American for copyright infringement, which ultimately was decided by the US Court of Appeals 7th Circuit.
The court initially described the copyrighted work in question, which, to the uninitiated, consists of a maze-like playing area, where the player controls the Pac-Man creature, moving him through the maze collecting pellets and fruits, accumulating points as they go. In addition to this the game contains four characters which pursue the main character, often called ghosts, which try to touch Pac-Man, thus 'killing' the character and having the player lose a life. Pac-Man has the capability to fight back, however, through the consumption of bigger pellets, enabling him to eat the ghosts and thus collect more points and avoid losing lives for a brief period of time. K.C. Munchkin is incredibly similar in its design, with a maze-like playing area, four ghost-type pursuers and the collection of pellets, bigger pellets and fruit. Its board design is slightly different, with the maze being slightly taller, and containing hazard elements such as dead-ends, with a slightly different shaped corral area for the ghosts than in Pac-Man. Finally, K.C. Munchkin contains far less pellets in the playing area, and uses a different style to the look of its main protagonist.
After initial discussion relating to the facts of the case the court turned its attention to the meat of the question; whether a game can be a subject matter protected under copyright, and whether the defendant's work infringed upon that work. The former is a much more straight-forward application of copyright law, yet the test for infringement of that work, if found to be copyrightable, is, as stated by Justice Wood: "...whether the accused work is so similar to the plaintiff's work that an ordinary reasonable person would conclude that the defendant unlawfully appropriated the plaintiff's protectible expression by taking material of substance and value". This test only applies to the parts of that work, which are deemed protected, and not any other included parts, even if infringed.
|Even game characters have their issues (Source: The Rut)|
Could you therefore protect the 'idea' of Pac-Man as a game? The court did not see much difficulty in answering this question, quickly determining that the work is mostly not protectable; however its components could very well provide "...new or additional [things] over the idea". How the game is displayed, in graphics and music for example, allows for those particular elements to be protectable, yet the 'idea' of a game where the protagonist is chased in a maze cannot be by itself.
An important point raised by the court in the case are certain elements in the game (or games in general), which can be viewed as scenes a faire, or as explained in Alexander v Haley "...incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic". The maze and the score boards can be said to be indispensable to games such as Pac-Man, and arguably others, and thus not protectable. K. C. Munchkin was viewed by the court to have no infringed those designs, and to have been sufficiently different in its expression. What the court saw infringing Pac-Man's copyright was the character design within K. C. Munchkin. They had copied both the protagonist and the antagonist ghosts nearly identically, infringing on Atari's copyright in the expression of those ideas. Even if slight differences still existed, they will not by themselves preclude the finding of infringement. The court ultimately saw that "[a]lthough not "virtually identical" to PAC-MAN, K. C. Munchkin captures the "total concept and feel" of and is substantially similar to PAC-MAN". The court therefore reversed the previous decision and agreed to grant an injunction against K C. Munchkin.
Similar thoughts have been echoed in the UK, illustrated by cases such as Nova Productions Ltd v Mazooma Games Ltd, where the protected subject matter in a game was deemed to be the expression of the idea of a game, and how a game plays was seen as something which can be copied, as long as the visual and audio of that game was not.
What the above case illustrates is the initial considerations of video games as a protectable subject matter under copyright. As technology advances more and more, and games have surely come a long way since Pac-Man, the differentiation of what is copyrightable in a game and what isn't could be said to become more difficult. Even so, this case remains an important landmark in the development of the area, and shows that even dot eating circle creatures can be an expression worth protecting.