On April 28, 2010, a social game developer Crowdstar sued Wonderhill for copyright infringement based on similarities between Wonderhill’s “Aquarium Life” and Crowdstar’s “Happy Aquarium”. While copyright does not protect ideas (such as the idea for a fish-based game) it does protect expression of the idea. If this case should make it to court, it will provide an interesting test case for game developers that have developed social games that have been “cloned,” which tends to be quite common in the space.
Happy Aquarium is generally acknowledged as one of the first, if not the original, fish care-based social games. Happy Aquarium and Aquarium Life are not the only aquarium games. But in its complaint, Crowdstar alleges an especially high level of correspondence in the user interface, game play and other features between Happy Aquarium and Aquarium Life as being the impetus for the suit.
Starting with a relatively obscure game from 1 year old Wonderhill may increase the potential for a quick settlement. But is this a one off lawsuit or is Crowdstar chasing a minnow while it waits for a bigger fish to fry? Check back and we will keep you updated.
One interesting aspect of the complaint relates to the relief sought – or more accurately what is not sought. In the U.S., statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, the potential for recovery of legal costs and attorneys’ fees, and certain legal presumptions regarding ownership and validity are available to a copyright holder for works that were timely registered with the Copyright Office. These benefits are typically available for works that were registered prior to infringement or within three months of first publication. It is notable that the Crowdstar copyright registration at issue was only recently registered (registration no. TX 7-117-794, registered March 25, 2010), while Happy Aquarium itself was published in September, 2009. Perhaps as a result of this, the relief sought by Crowdstar does not include statutory damages or recovery of legal costs and attorneys’ fees.
But, regardless of the result here, there can be no doubt that a game developer’s leverage over a clone can be increased significantly with a timely copyright registration For more on this topic see our advisory on the benefits of timely filing copyright registrations.