Confused Judge Says Video Game Play Has No Copyright, Because The Work Is Not 'Fixed'

from the that's-not-what-fixed-means dept

Just last month we joked about how confused the creator of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Brendan Greene, was when he claimed that there was no intellectual property for video games. That's completely wrong, and there are many, many cases to show that it's wrong. Yet... now there's a case that bizarrely, argues that video games don't get copyright (hat tip to Rick Sanders and Owen Barcala for flagging this one). The case is one that's been dragging through the courts for years, bouncing around, concerning publicity rights of former professional football players when used in EA games like Madden NFL.

The latest issue involves EA asking for the latest iteration of the case to be dismissed based on another ruling concerning NCAA basketball players and their publicity rights. In that ruling from April of this year, the 9th Circuit ruled (among other things) that federal copyright preempted state-based publicity rights claims. I don't want to dig too deeply into what all of that means, but suffice it to say that under the 1976 Copyright Act, the law says that federal copyright law now trumps all state copyright or copyright-like laws, and you can't hide behind some state law when federal law should apply. Here, the court said that the state-based publicity rights claims were blocked because of that, as the only issue should be covered under federal copyright law, where they would fail.

So, EA asked for this other case, filed by Michael Davis, to be dismissed, citing that ruling about preemption of publicity rights claims. But the district court judge, Richard Seeborg, has denied the motion, claiming that the ruling in that earlier case does not apply here. And he does so for... the most bizarre of reasons. Basically, he claims that large parts of video games don't get copyright... because they're interactive.

Here, game play in the Madden games is dynamic, interactive, variable, and in the hands of the consumer. Plaintiffs contend the avatars allegedly representing their likenesses even have performance characteristics representing plaintiffs’ own capabilities in their time as active NFL players. While recordings of actual football games are subject to copyright notwithstanding the independent actions of players during the course of the games, such recordings satisfy the requirement of copyright that the work be “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression. See Dryer v. Nat’l Football League, 814 F.3d 938, 942 (8th Cir. 2016) (“Although courts have recognized that the initial performance of a game is an ‘athletic event’ outside the subject matter of copyright . . . the Copyright Act specifically includes within its purview fixed recordings of such live performances.”); 17 U.S.C. § 101. The Madden games, in contrast, allow game play that is not fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and part of plaintiffs’ claims is that their identities are reflected in that game play.

So... while there's something compelling about this particular reasoning for those of us who believe copyright has been stretched way too far, I'm pretty sure this is simply... wrong. The term "fixed in a tangible medium" generally just means that the work is somehow "recorded" on some form of media. It's basically saying that ephemeral things do not get copyright, but something that is recorded on paper, film, tape or a digital hard drive or whatever is "fixed." And thus, I'm pretty sure that Judge Seeborg... is just wrong here.

There is, potentially, a different argument that might be interesting if the works are created by artificial intelligence -- at which point we'd have to remember Naruto and the fact that non-humans don't get copyright. However, assuming that the actual artistic elements in the game were created by people working for EA, and are "fixed" within the game, it's difficult to see how the judge's ruling would hold up.

The fact that the game is dynamic when playing doesn't change the fact that the elements of the game itself are fixed in a tangible medium. I wouldn't necessarily mind it if copyright did, in fact, determine that individual game play elements were not fixed, but I can't see how under the law today that's actually the case. I would imagine that EA will appeal this particular ruling, and lots of copyright holders may weigh in on problems with the ruling itself.

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Filed Under: copyright, fixed, michael davis, publicity rights, richard seeborg, video games
Companies: ea


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 3 Jan 2018 @ 7:21pm

    Re: The Honorable Mistake should check out twitch

    Who owns the rights to gameplay recordings is still a legal issue that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been settled in any way. Game developers/publishers can argue that footage of the gameplay constitutes a display of copyrighted content that only the legal end user(s) of the game should have a right to view. Streamers can argue that their recording of gameplay, presumably with some kind of commentary attached, constitutes a transformative use of the footage and qualifies for Fair Use protections. This issue will not be easily settled if it ever goes to court. Then again, I doubt any game company is itching to settle the matter with a lawsuit.


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