05 June, 2018

A Fortine at the PUBG - Can You Protect a Video Game Format?

Video games have effectively become mainstream entertainment during this writer's lifetime, and with that increased popularity their value to companies has also gone up. If one video game becomes popular, other developers often jump at the chance of taking advantage of the popularity with their own spin. An example of a recent explosion in video game types are battle royale games, where several players fight for survival with limited resources, with the last person standing winning that particular session. The two most popular ones are PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds) and Fortnite, developed by PUBG Corporation and Epic Games respectively. As the two battle royale titans battle it out for popularity, there is a risk of lawsuits going either way to protect their interests.

According to the Korean Times, PUBG have filed a lawsuit against Epic Games for copyright infringement in Korea, alleging that "…Fortnite was copied from… PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds", including replicating the 'experience' for which PUBG is known, including the game's 'core elements' and user interface. PUBG have raised concerns over replication as early as September 2017, when Fortnite's battle royal mode was announced, including over Fortnite's "…User Interface, gameplay and structural replication in the battle royale mode". PUBG are, however, licensees of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4, which adds yet another layer of complications into the mix, and a potential pitfall for PUBG in their claim.

While it is unclear, at least to this writer, how the Korean courts will deal with a claim concerning the claims on video game formats (any readers with further knowledge should let me know!), how do other jurisdictions deal with these questions?

PUBG's lawyers had a dream
about the wording of the court ruling
There has been very little video game related litigation in the UK. The most recent one, Nova Productions Ltd v Mazooma Games Ltd, dates back to 2006. In the case the UK Court of Appeal saw that "…Not all of the skill which goes into a copyright work is protected... An idea consisting of a combination of ideas is still just an idea. That is as true for ideas in a computer program as for any other copyright work". The court's emphasis was on the lack of protection for the ideas surrounding a game, which could, at least in this writer's view, preclude the protection of video game formats like battle royale.

In the US the situation is slightly different. In Tetris Holding LLC v Xio Interactive the New York District Court found that a Tetris clone had infringed the copyright in the work, although protection was largely extended only due to the similarities in aesthetics between the games. The underlying rules of the game (i.e. format, one could argue) can be protected only if the expression of those rules is somehow limited, or isn't part of scènes à faire. Similarly, in DaVinci Editrice SRL v Ziko Games LLC, the District Court of Texas decided that "…the rules, procedures, and limits that make up the game play are not protectable expression". To add more fuel to this fire, the US Copyright Office has set out that "…Copyright does not protect the idea for a game… or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game". One can appreciate that the American system protects the aesthetic expression of a video game (and arguably rightfully so), rather than the rules under which it operates.

Clearly the protection of a video game format, i.e. the rules that underpin the game itself, are very difficult to protect, particularly under copyright. While this writer does not know what the Korean regime is for copyright in this area, it seems very doubtful that it would be very different from the above. As both PUBG and Fortnite differ dramatically in their aesthetics (although a more detailed analysis of all elements of each game could yield some infringing elements), it would seem that PUBG have more to lose than just a copyright lawsuit should things go badly.

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