Stephen S. Wu-- SL: Legal Writer, swu@ckwlaw.com, (650) 917-8045, 166 Main Street, Los Altos, CA 94022

Electronic Arts Sues Zynga for Copyright Infringement

Earlier this month, Electronic Arts sued Zynga for copyright infringement in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The case concerns EA’s online game called “The Sims Social,” which is offered on the Facebook platform. Zynga has a competing Facebook game called “The Ville.” EA alleges that the The Ville is a clone of The Sims Social. EA’s complaint alleges only a single claim -- copyright infringement. For a copy of the complaint, click here.
This case is about EA’s The Sims Social Game, an extension of its boxed software program “The Sims” and its various expansion packs. The Sims games permit users to create a virtual person, called a “Sim,” that a user can control, live a virtual life, place in a virtual furnished home, and have it interact with other users’ Sims. Sims can have virtual jobs, interact socially with other Sims, create virtual friendships and romances, and encounter disagreements and back-stabbing. Users must meet their social needs to keep them happy, but must also meet their physical needs for food, rest, and hygiene. EA alleges that Zynga copied The Sims Social in creating a substantially similar program allowing virtual people to live and interact.

As a general matter, EA says that the two games are “substantially similar in their total concept and feel.” More specifically, EA identifies a number of elements of the game that Zynga copied. In particular, EA claims that:
  • The two games have substantially similar screens to create personalities of the virtual people.
  • The two games have similar character animations, such as a character rubbing his hands together as a stereotypical villain might.
  • The programs’ skin tone colors and screens to choose them are substantially similar.
  • The clothing choice screens are substantially similar, including copying of the same words to describe clothing types (e.g., casual, formal, and sleepwear).
  • The programs depict virtual people’s homes in a similar fashion, including the way you can view a home without its walls.
  • Both games have the virtual people talking to each other with garbled language, allowing users to use their imaginations to fill in the content of their communications.
  • The two games share substantially similar animations and screen displays for showing that a virtual person needs to meet various physical and hygiene functions, as well as showing various social interactions.
  • Both games have similar mechanisms for inviting social interaction with other users.

Also, EA attempts to tar Zynga by contending that Zynga has a long history of copying the games of others as a business model. For example, it says that Zynga’s Cafe World closely resembles Playfish’s Restaurant City. EA claims that Zynga did the same by copying The Sims Social and publishing The Ville.

One key to this case is whether EA can identify portions of its game that are protectable under copyright law. Zynga is likely going to contend that the elements of the game EA points to are methods, labels, and ideas that copyright law cannot protect. EA will need to show that copyright protection extends to the elements of similarity that it identifies in its complaint.

EA will also have to prove that Zynga had access to The Sims Social and that The Ville is “substantially similar” to The Sims Social. EA claims that Zynga got access to details about The Sims Social by hiring away from EA a number of key executives. And then it points to the above similarities to claim that the two games are substantially similar.

I will continue to monitor the case to see what happens. Commentators are split as to whether EA is seeking a quick settlement to get whatever changes it can from Zynga to make the games less similar, or whether EA is likely to push the case to trial if necessary to stop what it sees as an existential threat to The Sims Social. My take on it as that the truth is somewhere in between these polar opposites, and EA may take a wait-and-see attitude about the case to determine if its position is strong enough to be worth pushing further towards a trial.
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