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Judge makes landmark ruling in videogame copyright case that could result in more work for those law

Posted by: Laurence Simons 04/10/12

What's more scary: bears or yetis? WRONG. If you think about it, bears and yetis are basically the same thing. They both have claws and warm pelts. They will both flay you like a chicken kiev if you trespass into their zone. They are both about the size of bears. Same thing.

Which is sort of the crux of a legal battle between two games companies that could open some metaphorical floodgates in the world of both videogame design and copyright law. In the past, it's been notoriously difficult for games companies to prove that clones of their products are eerily similar enough to mount a case for copyright infringement: many have attempted, few have been successful. But as Ars Technica reports, Spry Fox - makers of Triple Town - could be due to change all that, thanks to a crucial ruling made in their case against 6Waves Lolapps.

Triple Town is a fun little web game that sees players match three symbols to instigate various game mechanics and build villages, buy goods and services, and occasionally fend off attacks from bears. Yes, yes: this is what kids do these days instead of going outside. Yeti Town is the same, but with yetis.
It all started when Spry Fox approached 6Waves about porting the web game to handheld iOS and Android devices. At some point, 6Waves backed out and promptly released Yeti Town. Spry Fox were not cool with this. "The games are practically identical from a basic gameplay and progression perspective, right down to the prices of analogous items in the in-game stores and similar language in explanatory dialogue boxes," says Ars' Kyle Orland. In court, the 'but the art is different! But we used yetis instead of bears!' plea usually stands up. Not this week.

6Waves asked Western District Court judge Richard Jones to dismiss the case, arguing the Triple Town game mechanics were not copyrighted and cosmetic differences (bears, yetis) were enough to make Yeti Town legally distinct. But Judge Jones was having none of that.
"A writer who appropriates the plot of Gone with the Wind cannot avoid copyright infringement by naming its male protagonist 'Brett Cutler' and making him an Alaskan gold miner instead of a southern gentleman," said Judge Jones, who clearly has been watching Gone with the Wind lately. "The differences between Triple Town and Yeti Town are more meaningful, but it is at least plausible that they are insufficient to overcome the similarities."

What does this mean? Well, it's a landmark: nobody has really made the legal comparison between film scripts and videogames before. In this instance, it just means the case will continue, and 6Waves will most probably settle. In the future, decisions such as this will help define the legal parameters of a burgeoning (and highly lucrative - apps are set to be worth £43 billion by 2017) industry.

Earlier this year a similar case saw The Tetris Company - responsible for protecting falling block posterboy Tetris from clones - file suit successfully against App Store wannabe Mino. But this and the bear/yeti incident are just two little cases. As more high-profile slugfests go on - such as the one ongoing between EA, maker of Sims, and Facebook gaming giant Zynga, maker of The 'Ville - there's set to be demand from game companies for both private practice lawyers and in-house experts who know their legal copyright laws.