General ideas behind a computer game are not copyrighted
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The UK Court of Appeal has ruled that general ideas in a computer game can be copied, in the appeal Nova Productions, producer of Pocket Money computer game, made against two rival companies, Mazooma Games and Bell Fruit Games.
Nova Productions had lost its case in first instance to the UK High Court by which it was accusing Mazooma Games and Bell Fruit Games for having used elements of its pool based game Pocket Money in creating their Jackpot Pool and Trick Shot games respectively, therefore infringing its copyright.
The High Court ruled against Nova in July 2006 when Nova argued that the EU's Software Directive of 1991 provided protection for programs as literary works claiming that the preparatory design material had been copied by its competitors. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal that considered that what had been copied was an underlying idea, and not a preparatory design. General ideas and principles are not protected by the law provided the source code and graphics are not copied.
Nova did not claim the source code or graphics of its game had been copied but claimed there was extra right in the game images related to a power bar used to measure the pool shot strength and a cue control mechanism.
Lord Justice Jacobs, who gave the ruling, said that while the claimant tried to show the court that there was in its game there was an effect of artistic work by a series of graphic frames showing "in-time" movement of cue and meter, the Court found that for copyright purposes the moving images must be considered only as a series of still images, each of them with its own copyright protection. "A series of drawings is a series of graphic works, not a single graphic work in itself," said Jacob.
Another reason at the basis of the court decision was that copying of another person's work is allowed provided the copying is not substantial. "The appeal on literary copyright fails on the simple ground that what was found to have inspired some aspects of the defendants' game is just too general to amount to a substantial part of the claimants' game," said Jacobs.
Jacobs also said that the law gave protection to very specific things and therefore some parts of the creative process are not protected by copyright law. "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 found that protecting such general ideas as those brought into discussion by Nova does not make the object of the copyright law or the relevant European directives and moreover it might even lead to damaging businesses.
"If protection for such general ideas as are relied on here were conferred by the law, copyright would become an instrument of oppression rather than the incentive for creation which it is intended to be," said Jacobs. "Protection would have moved to cover works merely inspired by others, to ideas themselves."
England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Decisions - Nova
Productions vs. Mazooma Game and Bell Fruit Games (14.03.2007)
Ideas behind computer games can be copied, says Court of Appeal (22.03.2007)
Games firm denied European court hearing (27.07.2006)