ATARI, INC. v. AMUSEMENT WORLD, INC., 547 F.Supp. 222 (D. Md. Nov. 27, 1981).

In one of the earliest video game cases, Atari, the holder of copyright in the arcade game “Asteroids,” sued Amusement World for copyright infringement based on Amusement World’s video game “Meteors.” This early case reaffirms that while video games are protectable as audiovisual works (incidentally, the court also indicates the video game is protectable as a motion picture), copyright protection does not extend to the underlying idea behind the video game, but rather protects only the specific expression of that idea.

At the outset, the court noted a variety of similaries between the games:
(1) There are three sizes of rocks.
(2) The rocks appear in waves, each wave being composed initially of larger rocks.
(3) Larger rocks move more slowly than smaller ones.
(4) When hit, a large rock splits into two medium rocks, a medium rock splits into two small ones, and a small rock disappears.
(5) When a rock hits the player’s spaceship, the ship is destroyed.
(6) There are two sizes of enemy spaceships.
(7) The larger enemy spaceship is an easier target than the smaller one.
(8) The player’s ship and enemy ships shoot projectiles.
(9) When a spaceship’s projectiles hit a rock or another ship, the latter is destroyed immediately.
(10) The destruction of any rock or spaceship is accompanied by a symbol of an explosion.
(11) When an enemy spaceship is on the screen, the player hears a beeping tone.
(12) There is a two-tone beeping noise in the background throughout the game, and the tempo of this noise increases as the game progresses.
(13) The player gets several spaceships for his quarter. The number of ships remaining is displayed with the player’s score.
(14) The score is displayed in the upper left corner for one player and the upper right and left corners for two players.
(15) The control panels are painted in red, white, and blue.
(16) Four control buttons from left to right, rotate the player’s spaceship counter-clockwise, rotate it clockwise, move it forward, and fire the weapon.
(17) When a player presses the “thrust” button, his spaceship moves forward and when he releases the button the ship begins to slow down gradually (although it stops more quickly in “Meteors”).
(18) The player gets an extra spaceship if he scores 10,000 points.
(19) Points are awarded on an increasing scale for shooting (a) large rock, (b) medium rock, (c) small rock, (d) large alien craft, (e) small alien craft.
(20) When all rocks are destroyed a new wave of large rocks appears.
(21) Each new wave of rocks has progressively more large rocks than the previous waves to increase the challenge of the game.
(22) A general overhead view of the battle field is presented.

The court also noted several differences between the games:
(1) “Meteors” is in color, while “Asteroids” is in black and white.
(2) The symbols for rocks and spaceships in “Meteors” are shaded to appear three-dimensional, unlike the flat, schematic figures in “Asteroids.”
(3) The rocks in “Meteors” appear to tumble as they move across the screen.
(4) “Meteors” has a background that looks like distant stars.
(5) At the beginning of “Meteors,” the player’s spaceship is shown blasting off the earth, whereas “Asteroids” begins with the player’s spaceship in outer space.
(6) The player’s spaceship in “Meteors” rotates faster.
(7) The player’s spaceship in “Meteors” fires faster and can fire continuously, unlike the player’s spaceship in “Asteroids,” which can fire only bursts of projectiles.
(8) The pace of the “Meteors” game is faster at all stages.
(9) In “Meteors,” after the player’s spaceship is destroyed, when the new spaceship appears on the screen, the game resumes at the same pace as immediately before the last ship was destroyed; in “Asteroids” the game resumes at a slower pace.

To prove copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove the existence of a valid copyright, and copying of protectable expression by the defendant. Amusement World first challenged the validity of Atari’s copyright on the grounds that “Asteroids” was not the proper subject matter of copyright, as well as based on Atari’s alleged noncompliance with applicable statuory formalities.

Atari registered a copyright in “Asteroids” as an audiovisual work, not in the computer program as a literary work, by submitting a video tape of one game sequence out of an infinite number of possible game sequences. Amusement World argued that the computer program would have been the proper subject matter of copyright, not the audiovisual portion. In rejecting Amusement World’s arguments on this point, the court stated “Plaintiff’s “work,” the thing that plaintiff has created and desires to protect, is the visual presentation of the “Asteroids” game. That work is copyrightable as an audiovisual work…” The court went on to state that the audiovisual work is sufficiently fixed in the ROM chips under which the video game operates.

Amusement World next argued that Atari was attempting to monopolize the use of the idea of a video game in which the player fights his way through asteroids and spaceships, which is an uncopyrightable idea. The court again sided with Atari, stating “when [Atari] copyrighted his particular expression of the game, he did not prevent others from using the idea of a game with asteroids. He prevented only the copying of the arbitrary design features that makes plaintiff’s expression of this idea unique. These design features consist of the symbols that appear on the display screen, the ways in which those symbols move around the screen, and the sounds emanating from the game cabinet.”

Regarding compliance with statutory formalities, the court indicated that submission of a videotape of a single game out of an infinite number of possible games, is sufficient “alternative identifying material” as required by the Copyright Office.

Atari attempted to demonstrate copying by showing access to its work “Asteroids” by Amusement World, plus substantial similarity of the two works (i.e., “Asteroids” and “Meteors”). The court provided the usual analysis of protectable material, and indicated that the court “must be careful not to interpret plaintiff’s copyright as granting plaintiff a monopoly over those forms of expression that are inextricably associated with the idea of such a video game. Therefore, it is not enough to observe that there are a great number of similarities in expression between the two games. It is necessary to determine whether the similar forms of expression are forms of expressiongrhat simply cannot be avoided in any version of the basic idea of a video game involving space rocks.” Based on the lists of similarities and differences, the court concluded that Meteors was not substantially similar to Asteroids, stating that most of the similarities “were inevitable, given the requirements of the idea of a game involving a spaceship combatting space rocks and given the technical demands of the medium of a video game…. All these requirements of a video game in which the player combats space rocks and spaceships combine to dictate certain forms of expression that must appear in any version of such a game. In fact, these requirements account for most of the similarities between ‘Meteors’ and ‘Asteroids.’ Similarities so accounted for do not constitute copyright infringement, because they are part of plaintiff’s idea and are not protected by plaintiff’s copyright.” Without substantial similarity of protectable expression, there can be no copyright infringement. While Amusement World based their game on Atari’s Asteroids, Amusement World only copied the idea, and not the protectable aspects of the game.