03 November, 2013

Video Games and Copyright - 21st Century Art

Video games have surged to become the new pass-time of choice for millions of people, with sales of new titles like Grand Theft Auto V reaching a billion dollars in sales in its first three days alone. This clearly demonstrates just how important video games are in the sphere of commerce, and therefore the sphere of intellectual property. Even with its immense popularity video games have still been largely left out, at least in terms of specific protection, in most jurisdictions. In addition to this the sheer complexity of video games as copyrighted works presents some issues.

A recent study prepared for the World Intellectual Property Organization attempted to shed some more light on this matter by looking at a variety of jurisdictions and the protection they offer for video games. The study clearly is weighted towards civil law countries (included were for example Denmark, Germany, China and Russia), but common law countries such as Canada and the United States were included in the study.

Super Mario - a modern literary hero?
Copyright protected subject matter in video games shows exactly just broad the category itself is when dealt with under copyright. Three distinct elements can be found in video games, along with their sub-categories respectively; audio elements (e.g. speech, music, sound effects), video elements (e.g. images, animation, text), and computer code (e.g. game engines, ancillary code, plug-ins). In addition to the above any  literary works would be covered as well, including scripts, maps and characters. However the study does point out that "...the real issue, and one of the objects of this study, involves analyzing the legal protection of video games as single, unique works of authorship, since it is irrefutable that the individual elements included in video games can deserve independent copyright protection". The objective of the study is not to introduce possible legal reform or frameworks to protect video games, but to increase awareness to all possible stakeholders, through which potentially exact change or better protection for video games.

In Canada video games are not protected by themselves under the Canadian Copyright Act, but predominantly as a computer program. This would still include all the other copyrighted parts individually, and potentially as a literary work as well. In addition video games could be protected as a 'collective work' as a sum of several distinct parts by different authors. In the US video games would fall under 17 USC § 102, although not expressly mentioned, should it fulfill its specific requirements. Video games have shown some problems to the American judiciary, as is pointed out by the study, but can be said to fall under the protection of copyright.

Always pointing fingers
So this begs the question: why should there be specific protection for video games? Arguably the protection offered to them as it stands can be said to cause some uncertainty. If a video game is not protected as a whole, if individual elements are not deemed protectable the entire game's integrity as an artistic work would clearly be undermined, as the pieces making the game arguably constitute that very artistic expression as a part of a whole. Even in the case of Brown v EMA, the US Supreme Court saw that "[l]ike the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas-and even social messages-through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world)..."; clearly demonstrating this very point. Video games as a whole are a work which should be protected, not merely a collection of pieces which only merit protection by themselves.

The study is an intriguing and wide-scoped view of the sphere where video games currently reside, and do highlight some issues in a variety of jurisdictions, not to mention their protection in the world as a whole through inconsistencies in approaches. As the medium has become very prevalent, this matter should be addressed further and provided with explicit protection not as a mere collection of different forms of expression, but as a viable form in itself.

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