Electronic Arts’ recent lawsuit against Zynga, the social media gaming company, should come with a warning label – “Rated R for Risky – Winning this lawsuit could hurt your very own business practices.” EA accuses Zynga of copying major elements from its popular “The Sims” game for Zynga’s online virtual reality game called “The Ville.” They have filed a Copyright Infringement lawsuit in the Northern District of California seeking monetary damages and other relief. Here’s the thing – you can’t copyright an idea. The law allows someone to see your version of an idea (a game where you replicate daily living instead of actually living) and then say “I can do a better version of that!” Think of the old adage “Want to get right? Build a better mousetrap.” The idea of a mousetrap is just a concept, not copyrightable at all. Your specific version of it can be protected but that’s about it.
But what’s especially dangerous about this case for EA is that if they win, then gamemakers all over the world (including EA) will have to stop making games based on other games’ ideas. That would end the gaming industry as we know it. There are only so many platforms to build a game upon -shooters, cars, fighting, virtual reality, war, etc. So if the law is so clear and the case is so risky why would EA do it? Well the complaint alleges that Zynga took various style elements from the game as well. Those certainly can be protected if they are original enough. But it is also likely that EA filed the suit knowing that both sides knew EA had just lit the fuse on a potential nuclear explosion and are playing a game of chicken. Certainly, a successful suit by EA would almost end Zynga’s business model, which is to develop games for Facebook and other sites based on popular video games. So I think EA is betting that a settlement will be reached to make Zynga’s game sufficiently different from EA’s and which will allow both sides to proclaim victory. The obligatory motions for dismissal have been filed and are due for argument in April, 2013. As the parties get ready to put their positions in writing for the court, we may see this go away rather quickly.