Fan Creativity in Gaming and IP Infringement

By: Yixin Bao

Gaming is known to be a big and rapidly growing industry. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a surge in gaming activity and revenue. Many people turn to gaming as a form of entertainment during their time at home. According to The NPD Group, the average time people spent on gaming rose from 12.7 hours per week in 2019 to 14.8 hours per week in 2020 and to 16.5 hours per week in 2021. Statista data further shows that the estimated global gaming market will increase to $268.8 billion annually in 2025 from $155.89 billion in 2020. 

There are many different types of gaming. The most commonly recognized ones include mobile gaming, console gaming, and PC gaming. In addition, new categories have emerged, such as esports and virtual reality gaming. With the increasing popularity of gaming and the increasing number of players, the gaming industry is expected to continue to grow in the future. 

As popularity of the gaming industry is on the rise, so are related intellectual property infringement issues. Intellectual property can include inventions, artistic works, designs, and names that are used in commerce. Normally, IP infringement includes patent infringement, copyright infringement, or trademark infringement. IP infringement can result in legal action taken by the owner against the infringing party, including but not limited to injunctions and monitary damages. 

A “fan” or “fanatic” is defined as someone who exhibits intense admiration and enthusiasm for something or somebody. Without a doubt, the gaming industry has its own fans. In fact, this number can be huge. For example, League of Legends (“LoL”) is known to be one of the most popular online games in the whole world. It is said that there are currently 180 million League of Legends players right now in 2023. Esports also heavily influenced the growth of the game’s popularity. Each year, the World Championship is organized so that teams from all different countries gather together and compete for the best team. In 2018, 99.6 million unique viewers watched the World Championship. Although it can be difficult to accuralty measure how many fans a game has, as some will not identify themselves as fans, it is reasonable to assume LoL’s fanbase is enormous. 

Many fans of the gaming industry make their own content. This includes, for example, creating new characters or inventing new storylines based on the original characters and artworks. On one hand, this benefits the gaming industry because fans give free promotion for the games. On the other hand, however, this is when the fan creativity ends, and IP infringement occurs. Kostya Lobov, a partner at a United Kingdom (“UK”) law firm, discussed the balance between fan creativity and IP infringement. Lobov admitted that companies didn’t want to alienate genuine fans, but some bad actors tried to profit from making use of the others’ IP rights. This might lead to trademark and copyright infringement. This also happens in the United States. 

Gaming companies often issue take-down requests in response to content created using their intellectual property. While some companies have a zero-tolerance policy and remove most potentially infringing content, others are more lenient and only take action when the content is being used for commercial purposes. Although fair use may allow for some creative use of copyrighted material without permission, it is important for fans to be cautious. Non-commercial use may support a fair use argument, but it is not definitive. Other factors, such as the nature of the copyrighted material, may also play a significant role. Overall, as long as one creates something that uses the gaming company’s IP rights, he or she bears a degree of risk of infringement. 

In conclusion, the companies in the gaming industry should consider carefully how to set up their line between fan creativity and IP infringement. There can be thousands of potential content that can technically infringe on the gaming companies’ IP rights. Enforcement can be infinite and difficult if the line is too blurry. The legal actions might also “promote” their games in a negative way. In the end, the gaming industry should learn how to coexist with fan creativity and learn to profit from the efforts of fans while at the same time protecting its own rights.

Is Code Killing Copyright?

By: Katherine Czubakowski

Early last month, the Supreme Court released its long-awaited decision in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc.  The Court found that Google’s unauthorized copying of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE API was fair use because Google took only as much code as it needed to create a new and transformative program. While some argue that this outcome protects fundamental aspects of how code is created and the technology industry, others see this decision as a significant blow to copyright protections. This disagreement comes down to a fundamental question the Supreme Court seems to have side-stepped in this case: whether code should be protected under copyright at all.

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a list of actions one can take regarding specific software and how one would take those actions. For example, if gardening were a software, you could choose the action you want to perform (dig, e.g.) and how you want to perform that action (with a shovel, a hoe, a pickaxe, your hands, etc.). The Java API in question contains a basic list of common actions (sorting a list, for example) and how those actions are accomplished (alphabetically, numerically, etc.). When Google began developing the Android software used in their smartphones, they wrote their own code to tell the program what to do and how to do it, but copied the declaring code—the part of the program which matches the name assigned to each task with the program necessary to perform the task—from 37 of Java’s listed tasks. By doing so, the programmers working on the Android software were able to continue using the commands with which they were familiar, such as PrintLn() (which tells the program to print the specified text on the user’s screen) and (which tells the computer to display the user’s current date and time), in their own code, but these commands relied on Google’s newly written code to perform the task.

In determining that Google was legally allowed to copy this code, the Court relied on the doctrine of fair use.  Although copyright owners generally hold exclusive rights to create derivative works, which are new works based on their own pre-existing work, fair use is a legal exemption which allows someone to use copyright protected work without the author’s permission in certain circumstances. Courts consider fair use on a case-by-case basis and analyze four different aspects of the otherwise-infringing use: its purpose and character, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect on the potential market for the copyrighted work.  In its recent cases regarding fair use, the Court has created a sub-factor that it considers under the purpose and character of the use: transformativeness. A work is considered transformative when it uses the original copyrighted work in an unexpected way or in a way which alters the original meaning or message.  Transformativeness weighs strongly in favor of fair use because it encourages creativity and furthering of the arts.  This sub-factor frequently affects all four factors in the fair use analysis and can sometimes even outweigh the importance of the other three factors. It can often be difficult to tell if a work used in a transformative way is a derivative work or if it falls under the fair use exception.

In Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc. the Court’s decision hinged on its finding that Google’s use was transformative. The Court first analyzed the nature of the work and found that APIs were fundamentally different than other types of code. Because the declaring code fuses together the uncopyrightable idea of how the code is organized with the copyrightable code which tells the computer how to perform a function, the Court saw the copied code as valuable only as a result of the programmer’s investment in learning it. Since the copied code did not hold independent value, the Court felt that applying fair use in this circumstance would not undermine general copyright protection for other programs. The Court then turned to the purpose and character of the use, which is where they discussed the work’s transformative nature. It found that Google’s purpose in using the copied code was “to create a different task-related system for a different computing environment” than the creators of Java had originally intended.  Google’s use of the code was part of the “creative progress” which the Court saw as copyright law’s objective, so they found that the use was transformative. The Court further found that, although Google copied “virtually all of the declaring code needed to call up hundreds of different tasks,” they copied a relatively small amount of the total API in question. Because this relatively small portion of the API was tied to a valid and transformative purpose, the Court felt that the third factor weighed in favor of fair use as well. Finally, the Court found that Android was not a market substitute for Java SE because the two products were substantially different. Weighing all these factors together, the Court found that because they only took as much as was necessary to allow their programmers to use “accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program,” Google’s “reimplementation of a user interface” was protected by the fair use doctrine.

The Court’s analysis and reliance on transformation in this case presents a danger to those seeking to copyright their code. This is because code is fundamentally different than many other works protected by copyright; it combines functionality with creative expression. Unlike traditionally copyrightable works, programs are usually created in a way which relies on previously created code to function. When writing new code, very few programmers actually write code which can interact directly with the computer. Instead, they use one of a number of programs which translate a more readable code, such as Java, into code which the computer can understand. Without being able to copy some fundamental aspects of the language, programmers would have to create a new language anytime they wanted to write new code. In practice, this means that many different programs with different purposes all rely on the same underlying program(s) to translate their code into a form the computer can understand. 

Although the Court likely reached the correct outcome in this case, the repercussions of its decision in other fields damages traditional copyright holder’s rights. The Court’s transformative analysis fails when applied in the context of programming because a program’s reliance on other code is a necessary aspect of its creation. Thousands of substantially different programs rely on the same underlying code in order to function. However, purely creative expression does not have this same reliance on preexisting works—as evidenced by Congress’s grant of derivative works rights to copyright holders. By trying to fit both pure creative expression and functional creative expression under the same body of law, the Court has blurred the lines between what is transformative and what is derivative and has put at risk the exclusive rights guaranteed to copyright owners of traditionally copyrightable works.