The Clones Wars: Zynga Uses Copyright to Protect its Games

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On December 6, 2011 Zynga settled its copyright suits against Vostu USA Inc. and others.  The first suit, case number 5:11-cv-02959,
filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California back in June, alleged that several of Vostu’s games infringed Zynga’s copyrights. 
Specifically, Zynga had alleged, that Vostu’s MegaCity, Cafe Mania, Pet Mania, Vostu Poker and MiniRazenda games are merely clones of Zynga’s popular titles. 
Zynga followed this suit with another one in Brazil claiming copyright infringement and unfair competition.  Vostu initially responded to the suits asserting that its games were non-infringing but has ultimately agreed to settle the US and Brazilian matters by compensating Zynga and altering some of its games.

The parties have issued a joint statement that “Zynga and Vostu have settled the copyright lawsuits and counterclaims against each other in the United States and Brazil”. 
Additionally, “[a]s part of the settlement, Vostu made a monetary payment to Zynga and made some changes to four of its games” but the parties did not elaborate on the amount of the payment or the nature of the changes.

This settlement followed (and may have been prompted by) some early success in the cases by Zynga.  Zynga was able to obtain a preliminary injunction from the Brazilian court ordering Vostu to cease making the challenged games available.  In response Vostu initially convinced a U.S. District Judge to grant a temporary restraining order prohibiting Zynga from enforcing the Brazilian court’s order; however this TRO was quickly dissolved.  The Brazilian order was stayed by the appeals court pending Vostu’s appeal.

This settlement is a good example of how IP rights can be used to protect a video game from being cloned.  There is a history of successful games being the subject of imitation which goes back to the earliest days of the industry.  Many companies have come to believe that cloning is just part of business and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.  However, this is not entirety true.  Copyright, trademark,
trade secrets and patent rights can all provide differing levels of protection for games.  Copyright can protect a game from literal duplication or use of its protected images, code, literary elements, music, etc.  Trademark can protect the actual name, logo or certain other identifying elements from a competitor’s potentially confusing use in a game (or elsewhere).  Additionally, trade secrets can be used to protect a company or game’s “secret sauce” from being co-opted. 
Finally, patents may be used to protect features and functions of a game, including game mechanics, business methods and other functionality and processes. 

Game companies should consult with IP attorneys who understand the IP strategies and patentable aspects for games. For an overview of some of the IP protection available for games, see here.