Superbowl Smackdown: Court Reverses Judgment for Video Game Developer
In 1986 Robin Antonick developed a prototype for what would become one of the most successful sports videogames of all-time, Madden NFL. Antonick had been hired to write the source code, which would later be influential in determining items such as the width of the field of play and various offensive and defensive formations that could be adjusted by users during the course of game-play. The first Madden NFL, and its subsequent derivative editions, has sold more than 100 million copies and amassed in excess of $4 billion dollars in revenue since its first release.
In 2011, Antonick sued Electronic Arts, the game’s producer, for breach of contract and copyright infringement. Antonick claimed that his original contract entitled him to receive royalties on any future editions of the game that Electronic Arts would produce. The lawsuit also put forward issues of copyright protection that would entitle Antonick to protections for the football plays he had designed. Antonick suggested that these plays were copyrightable, and as such he should be receiving royalties on the future derivate use of his intellectual property. During trial the judge allowed for the jury to be instructed that computer codes which would be expressed visually, such as “plays and formations” should be afforded some protection, though not an overarching broad protection given to other copyrightable works. The jury found in favor of Antonick and determined that the Electronic Arts had copied his work, and awarded Antonick $11 million dollars in damages for games released before 1996. Antonick believed that his winning streak was going to continue when a second suit trial was scheduled for later this year to determine liability for games which had been released since 1996.
However, on January 22nd, after reviewing the trial record Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California reversed the award, and held that Electronic Arts was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Judge Breyer determined that while Antonick had proved that there were “substantial” similarities between the ways in which Antonick’s original source code was used and the source code found in later iterations of the game, not all copying of protected source code amounts to copyright infringement. Judge Breyer noted that it is important to view the work as a whole and to decide if there is anything sufficiently similar to support acts of illicit copyright infringement.
In the most telling line of the decision Judge Breyer wrote that there was no evidence presented for a reasonable juror to conclude that Antonick’s original “Madden and any of the seven Sega Madden games are virtually identical when compared as a whole. Consequently, Antonick did not prove any of the Sega Madden games are infringing works.” Judge Breyer was forced to determine what “virtually identical” would constitute. In his opinion Judge Breyer hinted to the fact that perhaps Antonick’s attorneys should have provided the jury with the opportunity to play each of the games to better decide for themselves what “virtually identical” would amount to with regard to the source code’s use.
Though the possibility of a new trial remains, Antonick’s might chose to appeal directly to the 9th Circuit.
To read the full decision click the following link: here