Lara Croft: Tomb Raiding and the Law

(If you’re a fan of both comic books and the law, you might already be aware of the fantastic law blog Law and the Multiverse. I wrote a guest post over there to answer a reader question that happened to fall within my wheelhouse: video games.)

Since the release of Tomb Raider in 1996, millions of people have been happily raiding tombs as intrepid archaeologist Lara Croft; however, back in April of last year, Mark asked: how legal is anything Lara Croft does? (Note: Since I am a U.S. attorney, this analysis will be based on prevailing U.S. law. Ms. Croft’s fate in the courts of her home country of England is best left to experts across the pond.)

The UNESCO 1970 Convention

The single most significant law affecting Ms. Croft’s globe-spanning archaeological pursuits is the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The UNESCO 1970 Convention was drafted to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by giving member nations the right to recover stolen or illegally exported antiquities from other member countries.

At the time of this writing, 124 nations are signatories to the treaty, including almost every nation that Lara Croft has visited during her various adventures (except for Tibet and Thailand). The United States ratified the UNESCO 1970 Convention and implemented it with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CIPA), codified in 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601-13.

Lara Croft World Map

Ms. Croft has certainly had an eventful career.

That being said, the UNESCO 1970 Convention and CIPA only come into play if the items in question were in fact 1) cultural artifacts, and 2) stolen or illegally exported. While UNESCO provides model provisions regarding state ownership of cultural objects, such model provisions are not themselves legally binding, and it is up to each member nation to implement laws concerning the ownership and exportation of cultural artifacts.

The Raiding of Foreign Tombs

Whether Lara Croft could face liability for the actual act of “raiding” would depend upon the local laws governing the tombs in question. The games are notably silent as to Lara having the proper permits to conduct her excavations, but it seems safe to assume that her tomb raiding is being done without the permission of the local governments and would almost certainly subject her to civil and/or criminal liability. (To be fair to the game developers, a cutscene or level wherein Lara visits a Peruvian government building to file for permits might not have made for the most exciting game.)

The question of whether or not Lara’s tomb raiding are illegal in the countries in which the tomb raiding is rather straightforward – the answer is almost certainly yes, as in each case she goes in without government sanction, guns blazing, often resulting in the complete destruction of the tomb in question.

Tomb Raider Lara Croft shooting


For example, in Egypt, Article 6 of Law 117 states that “[a]ll antiquities are considered to be public property . . . It is impermissible to own, possess or dispose of antiquities except pursuant to the conditions set forth in this law and its implementing regulations.” Furthermore, Article 41 states that anyone who “unlawfully smuggles an antiquity outside the Republic or participates in such an act shall be liable to a prison term with hard labor and a fine of not less than 5,000 and not more than 50,000 pounds.” There are prison terms and fines outlined for removing an antiquity from its place, for transporting it outside of Egypt without express government permission, and for defacing artifacts and monuments, all of which Lara does during her brief time in Egypt looking for the final piece of the Scion in the first Tomb Raider game.

Rather than list off the innumerable fines and jail terms Lara would no doubt face in the various nations from which she retrieves artifacts, instead I will examine the legal consequences Lara may face after her adventures are concluded and she brings these artifacts home to hang up on her wall. (Lara Croft’s official home is in England; however, as previously stated, I will be analyzing her situation in the context of U.S. law. I would welcome a British lawyer’s perspective on how Lara would fare over there.)

National Stolen Property Act

In the U.S., a person may be subject to both civil and criminal liability for the sale and transport of illegally exported cultural artifacts. While Lara doesn’t ever actually sell any of the artifacts she finds, the fact remains that she is transporting all of these artifacts across state/national borders all the time, with many of them winding up in her personal collection at home. (For example, she has the Ark of the Covenant just sitting in the main hall of her mansion.)

Tomb Raider: Ark of the Covenant

Is the Ark of the Covenant maybe the kind of thing that belongs in a museum, rather than someone’s foyer?

The National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) prohibits the transportation “in interstate or foreign commerce [of] any goods, . . . of the value of $5,000 or more,” with knowledge that such goods were “stolen, converted or taken by fraud.” 18 U.S.C. § 2314. Enacted in 1948, the NSPA was originally intended to aid states in their pursuit of thieves, as the states’ ability to prosecute thieves was often limited when the thieves (or the property) would cross state lines.

United States v. McClain

However, in addition to interstate commerce, the NSPA also specifically mentions foreign commerce, and as a result it has been applied to the illegal import of artifacts stolen from foreign nations. In United States v. McClain, the defendant was prosecuted under the NSPA for illegally importing several pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico.

On appeal, the defense argued that that the NSPA could only be applied if the artifacts were “stolen” as defined by the NSPA, and that the term “stolen” only covers “acts which result in the wrongful deprivation of rights of ‘ownership’ as that term is understood at common law. United States v. McClain, 545 F.2d 988, 994 (5th Cir. 1977). In other words, he couldn’t have stolen them if they weren’t officially owned by anyone.

The court reasoned that an explicit declaration of ownership by the government would be sufficient to consider the illegally exported artifacts “stolen” under the NSPA. (Without such an explicit declaration of ownership, prosecuting people in the U.S. for illegally exporting artifacts from foreign nations would simply amount to the United States enforcing the laws of other nations for them.)

While the respondents argued that Mexico had passed laws protecting their archaeological interests dating back to 1897, the court did not find a law specifically declaring ownership over the type of artifacts in question until 1972, when Mexico passed the Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Monuments and Zones. 312 Diario Oficial 16, 6 de mayo de 1972. Article 27 states that “[a]rchaeological monuments, movables and immovables, are the inalienable and imprescriptible property of the Nation.”

Because court could only establish that Mexico had officially declared its ownership interest over the artifacts in 1972, and it could not be established precisely when the defendant had exported the artifacts, the defendant was eventually acquitted of all but the conspiracy charges.

The McCain decision was cited 25 years later, in Unites States v. Schultz, 333 F.3d 393 (2003), in which the defendant was also prosecuted under the NSPA for the receipt of stolen Egyptian antiquities. In Schultz, the court looked to a law passed in Egypt (“Law 117”) that declared all antiquities found in Egypt after 1983 to be the property of the Egyptian government, and upheld the defendant’s conviction. Schultz was sentenced to 33 months in prison and a fine of $50,000, and nearly all of the artifacts he received were returned to Egypt.


On top of all the possible fines and jail time Lara Croft would likely face in each nation she visits in her tomb-raiding adventures, for each artifact she brings home she may also be prosecuted by the U.S. government for the transport of stolen goods under the National Stolen Property Act as long as the artifact’s nation of origin has enacted a law officially declaring state ownership of such artifacts. Furthermore, all of the various artifacts she retrieves will likely be returned to their nations of origin under the UNESCO 1970 Convention and CIPA.

Lara Croft Manor artifacts

Well, for her sake hopefully Lara didn’t bring home THAT many arti… oh.


This analysis was focused specifically on the legal ramifications of the act of retrieving and transporting the artifacts central to the Tomb Raider games. In the course of the first game alone, Lara Croft also breaks into the corporate headquarters of Natla Technologies, kills a number of endangered animals (like wolves and gorillas, not to mention the sasquatch and dinosaurs), and also straight up shoots a guy without (much) provocation.

How legal is anything Lara Croft does? The short answer is, “Not very.”

Trademarks 101: The Candy Apple Glass Saga

The issue of trademarks came into the spotlight recently when King, the company behind Candy Crush Saga, took action (to put it lightly) to protect their trademarks in the words “candy” and “saga.” (Likely in reaction to the tremendous industry backlash, King has since abandoned its trademark in the word “candy” and has “amicably” resolved its disputes with both Stoic and CandySwipe, and we consumers may once again swipe candies and enjoy banner-related sagas.)

This recent trademark hulabaloo had a lot of people asking how King was even able to register trademarks on common English words like “candy” and “saga.” Meanwhile, Google has filed an application for a trademark in the word “glass,” and people have been asking for years how Apple can possibly have an official trademark on a word as common as “apple.”

will-iphone-blendThis isn’t what I had in mind when I asked you to blend a small apple. Now I know why this juice didn’t turn out at all as I expected.

What’s In a (Trade)Name?

First, it’s important to establish what exactly a trademark is, and what the government’s purpose is in protecting them. Of the four broad swaths of intellectual property law (copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets), trademarks are unique in that their purpose is ostensibly to protect the consumer, not the holder of the trademark (at least, not directly).

Unlike copyrights (which are meant to protect the rights of authors of creative works) and patents (which are meant to protect the rights of inventors), trademarks are meant to protect those of us in the public who want to go out into the market and buy things. When we prospective consumers go out into the world, we make our purchasing decisions based on a number of criteria, some objective (price, specifications, features/capabilities) and some subjective (aesthetics, status/cachet). The criterion that often holds the most sway for buyers is finding out who exactly is selling a particular product, as it can often encapsulate a lot of information about a product: its design philosophy, its manufacturing quality, its approximate price point, and so on.

This is why the law has an interest in making sure that a buyer can adequately tell who is selling a product; otherwise, if we were to let anyone slap any old label/name (like, say, someone else’s name) on a product and put it on the open market, it could lead to all kinds of shenanigans. Consider the following example:

Company A has been selling widgets for many years and has an awesome reputation for the quality of its widgets. Company B wants to start selling widgets too, but it’s just starting out and has no marketing budget to speak of. Company B decides it would be a great “guerrilla marketing” idea to start selling their widgets as “Company A’s Widgets,” hoping to capitalize on Company A’s reputation for quality widgets. Obviously this is a bit shady of Company B, as the only reason Company B would do this is in the hopes that people will buy Company B widgets thinking that they were actually widgets from Company A.

If Company B is allowed to get away with this, both the consumer and Company A potentially have a lot to lose: 1) if Company B’s widgets are of inferior quality compared to Company A’s widgets, then customers who buy these craptastic Company B widgets thinking they’re Company A widgets will be disappointed because they have a certain expectation of what they’ll get when they buy a Company A widget, and 2) Company A’s reputation for its kickass widgets will suffer the longer these Company B widgets are out there purporting to be Company A widgets.

Trademarks exist to prevent this kind of situation. Company A should have a trademark in “Company A,” and this trademark would allow Company A to prevent any other company from selling widgets with their name on it. Company A’s reputation remains the bee’s knees, consumers get what they expect when they buy a widget that has the Company A name on it, and everyone is happy (except for Company B I guess, but they kinda seemed like douchebags anyway).

Apples and Apple-Branded Apples

That’s the basic rationale behind why trademarks are a thing. And this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, when it comes to the more esoteric, made-up names for things (like Xerox, Kleenex, or Oreo) – if someone else started using those names on their own products, it would be pretty obvious what they were trying to accomplish, and it makes sense that there should be a way to prevent people from using those labels to market their own products.

The next question people usually have is how companies are able to file trademarks on seemingly common English words like Apple, Candy, or Glass. Well, it’s important to note that the reality of those kinds of trademarks is a little more complicated than simply saying “they can stop any of us from (or charge us money for) using these regular English words!”

First, as explained above, the intent isn’t to completely prevent you from using these trademarked words – rather, a registered trademark simply allows the trademark holder to prevent you from using the trademarked words to sell a competing product. So you won’t be sued for trademark infringement just for using trademarked words in everyday speech or anything like that, but where you start to get into trouble is if you’re trying to use those trademarks to sell your own product, and your use of those trademarks might make someone think your products are actually someone else’s.

Second, trademarks are limited in scope. Apple’s trademark on the word “Apple” doesn’t prevent everyone else from selling any products at all with an “Apple” name – otherwise the apple orchard industry probably would’ve collapsed by now. No, Apple’s trademark only prevents everyone else from selling Apple-branded products that would potentially compete with Apple’s products, which at the moment consists primarily of computers, smartphones, tablets, and the software associated with those products. (The USPTO has an extensive list of classifications of products/services.) So, while Apple might have a reputation as being fairly litigious, they’re not going to be winning any trademark infringement lawsuits against products that are completely out of the scope of personal electronic devices just for being branded “Apple” products (like Apple Brand Rain & Stain Repellent).

manpickingapple“Tree, you are hereby ordered to cease and desist this blatant infringement of the trademark rightfully held by Apple Inc.”

Googling, Xeroxing, and Kleenexes

King was getting quite a bit of flak from the media for their actions against CandySwipe and others in their quest to defend their trademark on “Candy” from any who might misuse it. And while their methods certainly weren’t optimal from a PR standpoint, on some level, as a trademark holder King had a duty to take some action towards defending their trademarks from things that could potentially infringe or weaken that trademark. If they didn’t, down the line King would’ve run the risk of encountering the argument that “well, these people were using ‘Candy’ like crazy and you didn’t do anything, so you can’t assert your trademark against us to get us to stop using ‘Candy’ either.”

One of the ways that a trademark can lose its power is by becoming genericised. In one sense, having a trademark that becomes genericised is a rather good problem to have – it only happens when the product/service attached to the trademark has become so incredibly popular that people now generally associate that trademark with the product/service as a whole. There are a bunch of common examples of this that many people are probably already aware of: Band-Aid, Kleenex, and Xerox are all frequently used to describe the product generally (adhesive bandage, facial tissue, and photocopiers, respectively).

One sign of impending genericization is when a trademark starts to be used as a verb: “Google” is now commonly used as a verb for web searching (nobody is “altavista’ing” or “binging” anything these days), “Xerox” for making a photocopy, “Photoshop” for editing a digital image, etc.

Companies often work very hard to fight this kind of dilution of their trademarks. Google actively discourages the use of “googling” as a synonym for web searching, and Xerox went on an extensive advertising campaign just to let people know that “xeroxing” shouldn’t be used as a stand-in for “photocopying.” In these two instances, the companies’ efforts were somewhat successful in that their trademarks still retain some level of protection; however, in a more general sense it is hard to say that they were wholly successful, as people still commonly use both words as verbs. Other times, companies can yell and scream all they want about the proper use of their trademarks, and they still end up becoming genericised terms: everyone knows the (previously trademarked) word “trampoline,” but you’re likely to get nothing but blank stares if you ever tried to use the term “rebound tumbler” instead.

Nintendo came close to losing its trademark on “Nintendo” when the NES dominated the market in the 1980s and the term “Nintendo” began to be used to refer to game consoles generally. If your parents are anything like mine, they probably called every game console since the mid-80s “a Nintendo.” (It’s a useful thing to keep in mind, just in case.) Just as Xerox did with photocopiers, Nintendo made a great effort to promote use of the more generic term “game console,” and when it came to people of my parents’ generation, Nintendo’s efforts had about as much success as Xerox’s had.


Pictured above: Three Nintendos. Source: My mother.

In this way, trademark protection is much less “solid” than patents or copyrights. When a patent on an invention is issued, it lasts 20 years. A copyright on a creative work lasts for the author’s life plus 70 years. While patents and copyrights generally are only invalidated by a court, trademarks can lose their protection gradually, just by becoming a term used in popular culture. That’s why companies will sometimes make a big deal out of protecting their trademarks – because if they don’t, there’s a good chance they might eventually lose the trademark completely.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go google how to photoshop a band-aid onto this trampoline.

When Game Clones Aren’t Okay (Game Clones 2: Tetris Boogaloo)

As I wrote last week, Candy Crush Saga doesn’t get King into trouble with Popcap because King didn’t copy Popcap’s particular expression of the “match-three” game idea – Popcap and King both made their own separate expressions of a “match-three” game. Obviously, straight up lifting sprites, songs, characters, etc. from another game and putting them verbatim into your game is definitely copyright infringement.

But sometimes, one person’s expression can get awfully close to another person’s expression without necessarily copying it pixel-for-pixel. In those situations, we still might have some copyright infringement on our hands (and IP lawyers may sense a great disturbance in the Law).

“Quiet! Somewhere… a copyright is in trouble. I have to go!”

Tetris by any other name

Tetris was released way back in 1984, and its been immensely popular pretty much ever since. Much of the appeal of Tetris is in its simplicity (e.g., the seven pieces – or “tetrominoes” – represent the seven possible combinations of four squares connected orthogonally, the pieces fall down a 10×20 grid, etc.), but this simplicity also makes cloning Tetris a fairly simple task. They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and over the years, Tetris has been flattered over and over again. As such, The Tetris Company, the company that holds the rights to Tetris, has been pretty busy doing its best to stomp out all these Tetris clones like a game of cease-and-desist whack-a-mole. (Someone should make a game called “cease-and-desist whack-a-mole.”)

One recent attempt at Tetris flattery was so flattering that it actually went all the way to a courtroom. In 2009, a company called Xio Interactive released a Tetris clone called Mino on Apple’s App Store. To Xio’s credit, while developing Mino, Xio did contact the Tetris Company in an attempt to get an official license for Tetris. Of course, Mino would be competing with the official Tetris iOS app, so the Tetris Company refused to give Xio a license. Xio’s response was essentially, “Meh, we’re doing it anyway,” and Xio went on to release its own Tetris-esque game for iOS.

“I’ll make my own Tetris! With blackjack! And hookers!” -Xio Interactive

Not surprisingly, Xio was subsequently sued by The Tetris Company. (Tetris Holding, LLC v. Xio Interactive, Inc., 863 F.Supp.2d 394 (D.N.J. 2012), if you’re into that sort of thing.) Now, when someone is being sued for copyright infringement, you might expect the defendant to deny copying the plaintiff’s game, or that the plaintiff’s game merely served as inspiration (e.g., Fighter’s History), or something else of that sort.

Not Xio. During the case, Xio openly admitted that its game wasn’t just “inspired” by Tetris, but that “its game was copied from Tetris and was intended to be its version of Tetris.” Yep, that is a direct quote from the record. (Have to give them points for directness, at least.)

Xio’s defense was that while they did copy Tetris, they did it “in such a way so as to not copy any protected elements after diligently researching intellectual property law.” So Xio’s defense wasn’t that they weren’t really copying Tetris, but that they consulted with an IP lawyer to make sure they were copying it in a way that wouldn’t get them into trouble. More specifically, they argued that they only copied the rules of Tetris – essentially, the “idea” behind Tetris – and that their game was merely their own expression of those rules.

Merger Doctrine

Copyright protects expressions of creative ideas (art, literature, music, etc.). Copyright doesn’t protect functional elements (like game rules), because that’s what patents are for.

Copyright protects expressions of creative ideas (art, literature, music, etc.). Copyright doesn’t protect functional elements (like game rules), because that’s what patents are for. To illustrate this difference, consider the 1990 NES game Dr. Mario.  Nintendo actually has a patent on the game mechanics of Dr. Mario, but the expressive elements of Dr. Mario would be protected by copyright (like the particular colors and shape of the pills, the design of the germs, Mario up top hurling the pills into the bottle, etc.). Xio argued that if the Tetris Company wanted to protect the rules of Tetris, they should have gotten a patent.

Most of the time, there’s a fairly distinct difference between a game’s functional elements (game mechanics) and creative elements (artwork, music, story). But sometimes, an idea is so simple that there are only a very limited number of ways it could possibly be expressed. In these instances, the expression and the idea are said to “merge” into each other (hence, the merger doctrine). When that happens, the expression can’t be protected by copyright because it would basically mean protecting the underlying idea with copyright too, and we really don’t want that to happen.

One example of the merger doctrine came up during one of the many fistfights between Microsoft and Apple in the ‘90s. (The citation for this particular fistfight is Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 35 F.3d 1435 (9th Cir. 1994).) Apple accused Microsoft of infringing on Apple’s copyright of the “trash can” icon in their GUI, but the court found that the trash can icon was virtually the only practical way of expressing the idea of deleting (or “throwing away”) files. The merger doctrine meant that the idea of deleting files in a GUI and the expression of that idea as a trash can icon “merged,” such that a trash can icon was an unprotectable element of the GUI. Therefore, Apple couldn’t stop Microsoft from using a trash can (if anything, Apple could only stop Microsoft from using an exact copy of Apple’s trash can).

Xio tried to argue that the rules of Tetris were so simple that there were only a limited number of ways they could be expressed, so the merger doctrine should apply. Granted, there were a number of elements that Xio copied where the merger doctrine might have been applied if evaluated individually: showing the next piece to fall, “garbage” lines of random junk at the start of some games, “ghost” pieces that show where a piece will land, etc. (For example, how many different ways can you think of to show the next piece to fall, other than showing the next piece to fall.)

However, the judge concluded that Xio’s copying of all of those elements in the aggregate constituted “wholesale copying,” the only purpose of which was “to avoid the difficult task of developing its own take on a known idea.” The judge also concluded that Xio copied the overall look-and-feel of Tetris (i.e., the visual expression of Tetris). I mean, hell, many of the pieces in Mino were even the exact same color as those in Tetris.

tetrisminocompareThe fact that I can’t even tell right away which one of these is Tetris and which one is Mino is probably a bad sign for Xio.

Trade Dress

Though most of this case was about copyright, it also briefly touched upon trademark law. Unlike copyrights and patents (which exist to protect creators), trademark law exists to protect the public – specifically, to protect consumers from confusion in the marketplace.

A trademark is “any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof” used in commerce to identify a specific product or manufacturer. The purpose of trademark law is to protect the fragile minds of consumers like us: if anyone could use anyone else’s company name or logo on their own products, unscrupulous manufacturers could try to trick consumers into thinking a product was made by someone else. For example, a new company could try design or market their product to look like it was manufactured by a more reputable or established company, so as to benefit from the other company’s reputation.

Trade dress is a subset of trademark law that protects a product’s design or packaging that identifies its source: where trademarks refer to a name, logo, or slogan, trade dress refers to a particular “look.”. To qualify for trade dress protection, the design must have acquired a “secondary meaning” in the public: that means it has to be so pervasive in the market that a significant number of consumers would recognize the design and associate it with a particular manufacturer.

happy-mealNobody reading this would look at this cardboard box of food and think, “Hey, can you tell me where you got that? Because I have absolutely no idea.”

Tetris has been around for so long and has achieved such a level of brand-awareness that many people can recognize the distinctive visual indications of Tetris (e.g., the specific colors used, the styling of words and game screens, etc.). Xio designed Mino to look so much like Tetris that a consumer browsing the App Store could easily have mistaken Mino for an officially licensed version of Tetris. (A more cynical person might think that was Xio’s intent.) If a consumer bought Mino from the App Store thinking it was a “real” version of Tetris, then Xio would be riding on (and profiting off of) the coattails of the Tetris Company. As such, court concluded that Xio infringed on the Tetris Company’s trade dress.

tl;dr: If you copy pretty much everything about a super popular game, and you make your copy look so much like the original game that people will confuse the two, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled, and Why Game Clones Are a Thing

“Why don’t the developers of Bejeweled sue the developers of Candy Crush. Isn’t there an IP issue here?” -Bernard M.

Of the four broad swaths of intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets), the one that applies to this issue is copyright. Copyright protects expressions of creative ideas. Traditionally, copyright has been used to protect literature, music, art, that sort of thing.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and video games are now a thing. Video games are expressions of creative ideas (and yes, they are art), so video games are protected by copyright. When one looks at Candy Crush Saga on one hand and Bejeweled on the other, it would be reasonable for the average person to think, “uh, yeah, that’s the same thing, they copied it.” So why didn’t King violate Popcap’s copyright on Bejeweled?

The Idea-Expression Dichotomy

Here’s where it gets a little unintuitive. Copyright protects the expressions of ideas, but it doesn’t protect the ideas themselves. This concept is called the idea-expression dichotomy, and it makes a distinction between an expression or manifestation of an idea and the underlying idea itself.

Popcap released Bejeweled back in 2001, when the earth was young and life was simple. King releases Candy Crush Saga in 2012, and it looks and plays an awful lot like Bejeweled. But both Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga are simply two different expressions of the idea of a “match three things” game. In fact, Bejeweled is itself a new expression of the “match-three” idea behind Shariki, a DOS game released in 1994. So in this situation, unless King actually copied the particular expressions that Popcap used in their game (e.g., the artwork, background music, or sound effects), King is free to make their own expression of the idea of a “match three things” game. (Note: There are some instances where a court may find infringement beyond this kind of literal copying, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll reserve discussion of that topic for next time.)

Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled, and Shariki: Three manifestations of the Platonic ideal of the match-three game.

Scènes à faire

Another concept that limits what copyright can and cannot protect is scènes à faire, which is French for a “scene that must be done.”  Scènes à faire refers to scenes, characters, or other elements that are pretty much necessary to tell a story of that genre. For example, a Western will have cowboys, a saloon, revolver duels at high noon, etc.; a science fiction story will have starships and space travel, aliens, energy weapons, etc.; a medieval fantasy story will have knights, kings and queens, wizards, dragons and other mystical creatures, etc.

One of the most famous instances of scènes à faire being applied to video games occurred in 1994 when Capcom sued Data East for allegedly copying Street Fighter II. (The case citation is Capcom U.S.A. Inc. v. Data East Corp., 1994 WL 1751482 (N.D. Cal. 1994) for all you law nerds out there.) Data East’s 1993 game, Fighter’s History, was a 2D one-on-one fighting game like the Street Fighter series. Capcom took issue with the many similarities between the two games: several characters had very similar appearances (e.g., Fighter’s History’s Matlok, Feilin, and Ray looked a lot like Street Fighter II’s Guile, Chun Li, and Ken), many special moves (and the controls to perform them) were nearly identical, and the overall presentation of many parts of the game were the same (e.g., the VS. screen, character selection, vitality bars, etc.).

Two different expressions of the idea of “Blonde American man travels to China, attempts to punch Chinese woman in front of her countrymen”

The similarities between the two are glaringly obvious. In fact, the initial proposal for Fighter’s History was a nine page document with twenty-two separate references to Street Fighter II, so Data East all but admitted to getting “inspiration” from Capcom. However, as with the match-three games previously discussed, the question the court had to answer wasn’t just whether there were similarities between the two games, but whether those similarities crossed the line of infringing Capcom’s copyright on the protectible elements of Street Fighter II.

First, as far as the controls and button sequences for special moves, the court found that those weren’t protectible by copyright. When you have an eight-direction joystick and six attack buttons, there’s a fairly finite number of combinations you can assign to your special moves, especially when you’re trying to make those inputs somewhat intuitive (e.g., down-forward + punch makes a certain amount of sense, control-wise, when you’re trying to get your guy to shoot a fireball forward, out of his hands).

Regarding the characters, while there’s certainly parallels to be drawn between several of them, Data East’s argument was that Capcom’s characters were all just stereotypical representations of fighters. As such, for the genre of fighting games, character archetypes like “Japanese karate guy,” “Chinese kung-fu lady,” and “Angry blonde American martial arts master” are scènes à faire, and Capcom can’t lay claim to all representations of those types of characters. Therefore, Data East would have infringed on Capcom’s copyright on Street Fighter II if they had included a female Chinese martial artist named Chun Li with a blue dress and hair buns in their fighting game, but they weren’t infringing by including another female Chinese martial artist named Liu Feilin.

The UI elements, like the life-bar at the top of the screen, fall under the category of non-protectible scènes à faire as well. There are only so many different ways to visually convey the concept of “a finite amount of vitality that gets reduced when the character is hit,” so we can’t expect Capcom to be able to stop other companies from using the concept of a “life bar” in any other fighting game. And even if they tried, Nintendo might like to have a word with them regarding Punch Out!!, which came out in 1984.

Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!: Pioneering the use of life bars and blatant racial stereotypes in fighting games.

This sort of thing happens in other forms of media all the time. Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached were arguably damn near the same movie. But unless one movie straight up used the script of the other, they’re both allowed to express the idea of “guy and girl agree to casual sex without emotional attachment but then of course they fall in love by the end of the story.” An argument could be (and has been) made for other things, like Antz and A Bug’s Life, or Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. They’re different enough, but people have compared them for starting off with roughly the same idea (reluctant crew of a space station working towards peace between hostile races, a self-aware talking ant struggles with the concept of individuality, etc.).

Recycling Game Mechanics

For what it’s worth, at least Candy Crush Saga added some new elements to the traditional “match-three” game. For example, the unique effects of the bonus candy that appear for matching 4 or 5 things, the interactions between those bonus effects when combined, and environmental hazards like the goddamn chocolate that won’t stop getting in my damn way. None of those mechanics were in the original Bejeweled.

Fighter’s History introduced a “weak point” mechanic to the fighting game genre, wherein each character had a specific weak spot (i.e., head, chest, etc.), and if the opponent scored a series of hits on that particular spot, the character could be stunned once a round.

It certainly sucks when a company pretty much copies all of the game mechanics of another game verbatim and adds nothing new. But that’s an unfortunate consequence of not allowing game mechanics to be protected, and in order for video games to continue to evolve, we definitely don’t want companies to be able to protect every new game mechanic. Otherwise, the first time any new idea showed up in a game, no other game could use it, and the medium as a whole would stagnate.

Game developers “recycle” each others’ ideas all the time, and it’s a fairly integral part of the continued growth and evolution of the video game medium for game devs to use existing ideas and improve upon them.