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Zynga v. EA defenses discussed.

Dan Rogers, Blogger

August 9, 2012

14 Min Read

  As the EA v. Zynga copyright lawsuit gets underway, undoubtedly one of Zynga’s strategies will be to employ the scènes à faire legal doctrine, which, along with its counterpart, merger, can form a powerful shield against what often appears to be a case of unabashed software copying. 

Litigation So Far

In an earlier post, I discussed two key elements EA must meet to prove copyright infringement: access and copying. EA began laying its foundational argument for the access element by suggesting that former high-ranking EA employees now working for Zynga could have the provided information necessary to copy EA’s work.[1] While this may look damaging, EA will have to prove more.

More challenging is that EA also must convince a jury that Zynga either copied parts of The Sims Social (“TSS”) verbatim, or, a more likely scenario, that the access discussed above allowed them to create something substantially similar.[2] 

If EA succeeds copyright law provides recovery of actual or statutory damages and attorney fees, which could total tens of millions of dollars. In addition, and perhaps more devastating, EA could also be granted an injunction, forcing Zynga to take The Ville off the market altogether.

Unfortunately, when it comes to intellectual property law, look and feel can be deceiving. 

EA's Legal Arguments

I n EA’s complaint, they allege several distinctive features and attributes in The Sims Social that are nearly identical in The Ville.[3] Keep in mind that the chart below provides only a generalized overview of EA’s claims:



Player View

Character Appearance

Character Personalities and Animations

Character's fluctuating needs

Character Communication


Furniture and Appliances

Character Needs

Character Socialization

House Activities

Sims Original Feature

Bird’s-eye (isometric) view

In TSS players can customize specific character features, including eight skin tones, hair options, five clothing categories, gender, etc.

TSS includes nine personality types, each with unique animations, e.g. the TSS villain folds and washes hands in an evil scheming gesture. Also, the Sim sleep pattern employs a bubble containing “zzz”. The need to use the bathroom is expressed by a pigeon toed stance.

Sims display certain needs that a player must meet: hunger, energy, comfort, hygiene, bladder, eating, resting, washing, relieving themselves.

Employing thought-bubbles and a non-descript language, characters communicate with each other and players.

Sims dwell in homes with a specific number of rooms, wall sizes, and values. Homes have specific appliances and furniture. The home can be displayed in a “walls down” mode.

TSS homes can be decorated with specific items, including furniture, appliances, rugs, etc.

TSS employs a unique means of communicating a character’s needs. For example, when a character needs a shower a shower-head icon appears in a bubble over their head and a green gas like cloud surrounds their torso.

TSS employs a leaderboard to allow players to invite and interact with friends. Further, romantic interaction is a separate function from other social activities and options. Notifications are received via a notice interface/message when another player desires to change social status.

To rid a home of wildlife, TSS allows players to snap pictures (called artifacts).

The Ville Purported Copying

The same isometric point of view.

The Ville copies six of the nine TSS character personalities, using only slightly different names. The Ville copies the same number of skin tones, using the exact same RGB values. The Ville also includes five clothing types, using the same categories (names changed slightly) as TSS.

As discussed above, The Ville copies six of TSS’s nine character types, and employs similar animations and devices, including, for example, a note pad (creative type), wine glass (partier), and moneybag (mogul). Animations for sleep, hunger, and the need to use the bathroom are nearly identical to TSS.

The Ville also contains these same basic character functions and needs, employed in a similar style and means.

Thought-bubbles are used to communicate with players, and a garbled language is used to show characters communicating with each other.

The Ville copies the look and feel of the TSS starter home, including the exact wall height proportion and viewing modes. The Ville also copied the home valuation system.

The Ville homes can be decorated with almost identical items. A refrigerator, for example, in The Ville is almost identical in size and shape as one in TSS. A yoga mat in TSS is repeated in The Ville with only a slight pattern change.

Similarly, in The Ville a green gas cloud forms around the character when they need a shower and a shower-head icon appears in a bubble over their head.

The Ville uses a similar leaderboard. Romance is a separate option from other social activities. Similarly, in The Ville a player will receive a notice from another player that they want to change social status.

The Ville also allows players to snap pictures around their home. 

  EA’s complaint mentions other similarities as well, including overall color scheme, style, and player interface, and they summarize their substantially similar argument as follows:

“The comparisons provided… are a representative list of these similarities. The expressive audio-visual game elements of The Sims Social that Zynga has copied are highly original and creative, are not “stock” or “standard” within the social gaming genre, and are not required by any concept or idea underlying the game. Zynga could have designed The Ville in innumerable different ways without copying EA ’ s original, protectable expression.” [4]

Of particular importance is the phrase “…highly original and creative, are not “stock” or “standard” within the social gaming genre…” because it speaks to a specific strategy they anticipate Zynga will employ, called scènes à faire.

Scènes à faire 

Scènes à faire is a legal doctrine that denies copyright protection to expressions that are standard, stock, or common to a particular topic or that come from a common theme or setting. [5]

Think of it this way: How many movies have you’ve seen that includes a scene where the good guy walks into a bar and a fight breaks out? Whiskey bottles break over cowboys’ heads. The expensive mirror behind the bar is broken. A bad guy coming down the stairs is shot and tumbles to the landing below. Another bad guy falls through the front window and into the horse trough outside. Etc.

Generally, you can’t sue someone for including a western styled barroom brawls in a creative work because its trade stock. You’ve seen it applied in everything from a John Wayne western to Star Wars. 

When it comes to software, it gets a bit more complicated, but the principle applies, especially where parts of a software program are dictated by practical realities and mechanical specifications. [6] The graphical user interface lawsuit between Apple and Microsoft in the 90s provides insight.

Applied to Microsoft WindowsPicture
In 1994, Apple sued Microsoft over the Windows user interface, 

which Apple claimed infringed on their GUI's original look and feel.[7] I was using a Mac at the time, and I was sure that Apple would win, even though I knew that Microsoft wasn’t the only copycat.[8] While the look and feel of Microsoft Windows was admittedly similar, the court excluded several of Apple’s claims based on scènes à faire and merger. Much to Apple's disappointment, the courtexamined each unique copied feature individually, separating the “expression” from the general “idea” behind it. As a result, Microsoft’s use a window and icons, for example, were deemed non-infringing based on this analysis.

The Apple court refused to recognize copyright infringement in almost every one of Apple’s claims, showing, as a practical matter, that the implementation of these items were indispensible or standard to all graphical user interface programs.[9]

Interestingly, the Apple v. Microsoft court also relied on a video game dispute to clarify their application of the scènes à faire and merger doctrines:

“When an idea and its expression are indistinguishable, or "merged," the expression will only be protected against nearly identical copying. The doctrine of scenes a faire is closely related. When similar features in a videogame are, as a practical matter, indispensable or at least standard in the treatment of a given idea, they are treated like ideas and are therefore not protected by copyright.”

And that brings us to PAC-MAN, which was the case the Apple court was citing.

PAC-MAN v. K.C. Munchkin

PAC-MAN was originally developed and sold by Namco, but Atari and Midway owned the exclusive rights within the United States. Midway handled the coin-op version and Atari the home video game version. 

Enter K.C. Munchkin.

Unfortunately, success breeds copying, and North American Phillips was desperately trying to penetrate the home video game market with a game system called Odyssey. They wanted to license PAC-MAN, but it wasn’t available, so they built their own PAC-MAN clone. Atari, of course, sued.[10] 

Atari alleged that Phillips' Munchkin game blatantly duplicated numerous key features in PAC-MAN, including the look of the main character (“gobbler”)andthe way he pursued and consumed his prey, (the “ghost monsters”), chasing them around a two dimensional dotted board. Atari pointed out that Munchkin’s main character looked surprisingly like PAC-MAN, including the opening-closing mouth animation. They further argued that like their game, the Munchkin maze was rectangular and included tunnel exits on the sides.

Ultimately, Atari prevailed, but the outcome wasn't based on what you’d expect.

Relying on the scènes à faire doctrine, the court refused to acknowledge copyright infringement of several important PAC-MAN features and items, including the look and way the maze operated. 

Here’s what the court said:

Certain expressive matter in the PAC-MAN work, however, should be treated as scènes à faire and receive protection only from virtually identical copying. The maze and scoring table are standard game devices, and the tunnel exists are nothing more than the commonly used “wrap around” concept adapted to a maze-chase game. Similarly, the use of dots provides a means which a player’s performance can be gauged and rewarded with the appropriate number of points, and by which to inform the player of his or her progress.”

Phillips lost not because they duplicated a maze game, even one with side exits and dots, but because they duplicated the PAC-MAN characters. Here's what the court said:

“…it is the substantial appropriation of the PAC-MAN characters that requires reversal of the district court. The expression of the central figure as a “gobbler” and the pursuit figures as “ghost monsters” distinguishes PAC-MAN from conceptually similar video games.”

Had Munchkin's character been, as an example, a triangular whirlwind or a mindless zombie, it’s doubtful that Atari would have prevailed.

Applied to EA v. Zynga

EA has made broad claims, but when applying scènes à faire and merger doctrine many will probably fail. 

For example, EA’s claim of uniquely creating an avatar game baPicturesed on human interactions and functions probably won’t be any more convincing than Atari’s claim that PAC-MAN was protectable as an original maze game. It will prove difficult to defend the idea that TSS is a unique human simulation just as it might prove difficult to defend Petz as an original simulation of animals. In fact, at thirty thousand feet, all of these "simulations" are Tamagotchi-like.

Taking another step back, how different is TSS from an online fantasy role playing game or MMOG, where players are required to meet the needs of their characters, including food, love, companionship, quests, etc.? Isn’t the idea of improving your character key to Linden Labs’ Second Life and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft?

How about the idea of communicating via thought bubbles? Whether the need is sleep, a bathroom break, or love, it's been repeated in comics and feature films for years. So no infringement there. Communicating via garbled language is something I enjoyed while watching Charlie Brown films as a child.[11] No infringement there either.

In creating a general simulation that deals with avatar people, which Zynga clearly has the right to do, human characters would naturally display certain attributes, including many of those described in EA’s complaint. Sleep sequences. Bathing sequences. Regardless of how close they might be, they are not identical, and in that, at least when you apply Apple v. Microsoft and Atari v. North American Phillips, copyright protection will probably fail. 

So what exactly does EA have on Zynga? 

Where EA Could Prevail

Despite EA’s overwhelming success, The Sims Social is not a unique game or simulation, nor will many its features be protected from scènes à faire or merger doctrine attacks. On the other hand, EA does make a few interesting claims.

If true, the use of eight skin tones (using the exact same RGB values) appears to be a direct infringement. But under an Atari v. North American Phillips analysis, it probably isn't not enough to show substantial similarity. Add to it the wall height proportion argument and you get further down the road. Add to it the employment of a yoga mat, and you might get a jury’s attention. 

But that leads to a whole new problem.

The Unpredictable Nature of a Jury

When a decision, any decision, is left in the hands of a jury, anything can happen. Just ask Silicon Knights. 

Silicon Knights’ five-year battle with Epic Games—which started out as a misrepresentation and breach of contract dispute over Epic’s purported failure to provide a working version of their Unreal Engine—ended in an unmitigated disaster for SK. After spending zillions of dollars in attorney and court fees, not only did SK lose on every one of their claims, but Epic (the defendant) was awarded $4.45 million dollars in damages for guess what? Copyright infringement.[12]

It goes to show you that when it comes to the law, columnist Dave Berry probably offers the most pratical wisdom of all: 

“We operate under a jury system in this country, and as much as we complain about it, we have to admit that we know of no better system, except possibly flipping a coin.”

Full post with images at: http://dlr-law.com/3/post/2012/08/zyngas-key-defense.html.

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Copyright, Dan Lee Rogers, 2012

[1] EA v. Zynga complaint, paragraphs 53-57.
[2] EA v. Zynga complaint at paragraph 60, which reads “As a result of Zynga’s extensive copying, The Ville and The Sims Socialare substantially similar (emphasis added) in their total concept and feel. Every key element that has made The Sims series, and The Sims Social, so original and unique has been replicated by Zynga in The Ville.”
[3] EA v. Zynga complaint at paragraphs 19, 20, 21, and 22.
[4] EA v. Zynga complaint at page 61.
[5] Gates Corp. v. Bando Chem. Indus., 246 F.3d 680 (10th Cir. Colo. 2001)
[6] Software and Scènes à faire, A modest proposal for application of the doctrine in computer software cases. Krista S Scheartz, Stacy A Baim, and Sasha Mayergoyz: http://www.jonesday.com/files/Publication/913ab9f5-4eaf-4ba7-a305-116b11e903b3/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/6809cb5e-fe96-4218-8486-202e7a45a25a/011-013-CW-May09-Feat.pdf
[7] Apple Computer v. Microsoft Corp., 35 F.3d 1435 (9th Cir. Cal. 1994)
[8] At the time, there were already several other graphical user interfaces being used on MS-D0S and other operating systems, including HP’s NewWave, and DRI’s GEM, among others.
[9] This is an admittedly overbroad interpretation of this case, but it serves to show how merger and scènes à faire was used. 
[10] Atari Inc. v. North American Phillips Consumer Electronics Corp. United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, 1982 672 F.2d 607
[11] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKxXAwBRuVo
[12] Silicon Knights v. Epic complaint found here: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/north-carolina/ncedce/5:2007cv00275/89570/692/; Epic awarded $4.45 million for their cross claim of copyright infringement:http://www.theverge.com/gaming/2012/5/30/3052869/court-finds-for-epic-games-on-all-counts-in-silicon-knights-suit



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