Is Copying a Game Idea Wrong?

Supreme CourtZynga iPhone App Dream Heights is the subject of much debate recently. (It’s currently only available in Apple’s Canadian App Store.) It’s very similar to the iPhone App Tiny Towers (iPhone Game of the Year 2011 award from Apple). The developers of the App thought so and thanked Zynga publicly for copying their game.

Despite what many people think, you can’t copyright an idea. The best way, indeed about the only way, to protect it is to keep it secret until you can turn it into a working product, service or game.  There’s an attitude that ideas aren’t really that important and only the execution matters. Generally, that’s true. But for some ideas, if you spill the beans on something original then you risk being beaten to market.

What you can protect are the images and sounds and sometimes the look and feel through copyright law. But not the game mechanics unless they are absolutely identical. Dream Heights has Zynga’s own graphics, sound and game mechanics that aren’t exactly like Tiny Towers.

However the financial muscle to engage expensive lawyers can make a difference. Most indie and small developers do not have the financial resources to fight against a big lawsuit. So if Atari decides that a game in which you maneuver a wire-frame graphic tank on the moon is too much like BattleZone, and they reckon it’s infringing their copyright, then they can get Apple to have the App thrown out of the App store. It’s very difficult to fight back. Apple clearly doesn’t want to get involved, so they take the easy way out and remove the App.

Copyright law is not the only way to protect your creation. For really serious action, you need to get into trademark law or even patent law. Penalties for infringement can be pretty substantial ranging from thousands of dollars to millions.

So when a firm like Zynga tries to trademark the word Ville in Europe, it has ramifications for a lot of people. This includes me, who is developing a Ville game (with a domain ending in Ville.com!) and who lives in the UK. I’ve nothing against Zynga by the way. They have had an amazing growth and are well on the way to becoming a billion dollar firm. EasyGroup, the holding company that launched EasyJet, tried to do something similar with the word Easy and bullied a lot of Internet companies at the turn of the century. That is, until one said “See you in court,” and EasyGroup came away worse off.

That trademark application of Zynga’s was opposed by the Commune de Deauville. Whether that is an end to it is uncertain. If Zynga gets the trademark, it’s not hard imagining them going after everyone in the categories they applied for (basically games, merchandise and education) even if the name starts or ends in Ville. Most small game developers would not want to risk that. So my own domain (registered six years before Zynga came into being) would be lost.  To see how many non-Zynga games use the word Ville, look in the comments on this GamaSutra post about this case.

Really it’s quite a stretch from having a bunch of words that end in Ville to being allowed to trademark Ville. You are not supposed to trademark generic terms. Even if they get that trademark allowed, it’s quite a further stretch to apply it to words that end in Ville. But I’m not a trademark lawyer.

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