If we're reading what we think we're reading, victims of cloning might have a legal leg to stand on moving forward. According to Sunstein Law, The US District of New Jersey has decided that Mino, a popular Tetris-a-like, is infringing Tetris Holdings' copyright. If this holds up, it seems possible that other studios will use this ruling as ammo in the fight against cloning -- which is still common practice on the App Store.

Before we dive in, here's a heads up: we're not lawyers; we just write about video games on the Internet. Sunstein Law has a tremendously written, and we assume correct, take on the whole thing, and we'll block-quote its article heavily because this seems like a really easy thing to get entirely wrong.

To rewind: Mino developer XIO Interactive and Tetris Holding went to court, apparently over possible copyright infringement. Here's what went down, according to Sunstein Law:

In Tetris Holding, LLC v. XIO Interactive, LLC, the court rejected what has become a clone developer’s standard defense -- that it copied only non-expressive, functional elements of the original game. The judge found the developer liable for infringing the Tetris copyright and its trade dress. In so holding, the court may have provided an important weapon for game developers to fight back against clones.

The court broke down what Tetris was mechanically, and found that the way Tetris Holdings expressed its game ideas are apparently protectable:

While these basic game mechanics and rules are not protectable, the court determined that Tetris Holding is entitled to copyright protection for the way it chose to express those ideas, particularly with respect to their expression in the look and feel of the game as represented by its audiovisual display.

Xio argued:

In its defense, Xio relied heavily on the related doctrines of merger and scènes à faire. ...

Citing these doctrines, Xio argued that even if there were expression in Tetris separate from the underlying ideas of the game, that expression should not be protected because it relates directly to the game’s rules and is dictated by its functionality.

The court disagreed, holding that expression is left unprotected only when it is integral or inseparable from an idea or function. The court reasoned that Xio’s expansive interpretation of merger and scènes à faire would create an exception to copyright that would likely swallow any protection a game could possibly enjoy. After all, most expressive elements of a game are related in some way to game rules and function.

We reviewed Mino around the time it hit the App Store back in 2009. Considering the two are so alike, we asked if it was worried about the app getting pulled with its community along with it. XIO sent us this:

XIO Interactive is dedicated to protecting the online Mino community from any threats, legal or otherwise. We are prepared to use any and every resource at our disposal to ensure that Mino and Mino Lite remain on the app store, and that our game servers remain running at all times, including substantial monetary and personnel resources. Our customers can rest easy with the assurance that we are here to stay.

Interesting stuff, right? We can't shake the feeling that this might be a case we'll hear about again in the future, as it'll be used to push similar or future suits further. Feel free to visit Sunstein's write-up on this whole thing -- there's a lot more to the case.

[via Sunstein Law, via PCGamer]

  • http://twitter.com/VULTR3 Mike

    Looks like the deputies are slowly making their way through the wild west... I hope they get 'em.

  • http://twitter.com/thomasABoyt Thomas Boyt

    "While these basic game mechanics and rules are not protectable, the court determined that Tetris Holding is entitled to copyright protection for the way it chose to express those ideas, particularly with respect to their expression in the look and feel of the game as represented by its audiovisual display."

    I'm REALLY happy about this. Gameplay mechanics are not IP. If it was, almost every classic we hail today couldn't exist. Pong wouldn't exist because of Tennis for Two, Asteroids would not exist because it was based on SpaceWar, Marathon would not exist because of Doom (and Wolfenstein)...

    On the other hand, I think the "look and feel" of a game - which, I admit, is a bit of a nebulous term - should be protectable. I'm interested in the outcome of this case, mainly to see how the court defines where basic mechanics end and the "expression of those" mechanics begin.

  • Scott Lembcke

    Please don't make the mistake of thinking Tetris Holdings LLC is particularly different than a patent troll: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tetris_Company

    There is also no reason to believe this will help small developers that don't have a lot of money, and a lot of reason to believe it will only help large publishers with an expensive legal team. Large publishers that probably just cloned another game to begin with.

  • Brandon Jones

    Does this mean hasbro could have a case against the creators of words with friends and dice with buddies for ripping off scrabble and yahtzee?

  • db2

    "and we'll block-quote its article"

    Oh ho ho ho.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.schecter Jack C. Schecter

    I hear what you're saying, Scott, but that's not really what's happening here.

    There's nothing to legally stop today's game developers from adopting concepts and ideas from 30 year old games (or 30 day old games, for that matter). What they can't do is crib the look and feel of a pre-existing game to the point where they've stolen the original expression, rather than the idea behind that original expression.

    The Tetris case is at one end of the spectrum. The folks behind Mino basically copied Tetris cover to cover. Their argument was that there's just not much in the game that's legally protectable by copyright. The significance of this case is the extent to which the court did a Hulk-smash on that argument.

    This doesn't mean that original game developers will begin to start cracking down on clones overnight. And it doesn't mean that game developers seeking inspiration from older games should feel hamstrung for fear of litigation.

    But I do think it means clones need to pay attention and realize that there are limits to the extent to which they can rip off someone else's ideas. If they are going to engage in a campaign of mass producing knock-offs, there will be legal risks.

  • regkilla

    Don't copy Tetris!

  • regkilla

    Tetris FTW

  • Fabian Teo

    I bought Mino back in 2009 and loved it. It had great controls and finding an opponent never takes too long.

    Even until now, I'm still hoping for online battle tetris on my iOS devices.