Accolade, Inc. v. Distinctive Software, Inc.
1990 WL 180239 (N.D.Cal. 1990)

Accolade was seeking a preliminary injunction again Distinctive Software, which makes this case intriguing because Distinctive is a developer for whom Accolade sometimes acts as the publisher. It’s also intriguing because, unlike early video game copyright infringement cases, it primarily dealt not with the overall look and feel of video games, but rather with the underlying source code.

The Duel: Test Drive II

Distinctive developed the game The Duel—Test Drive II for Accolade, and Distinctive later developed the game Outrun (for publisher Sega) using some of the same underlying “computer codes” as were used in The Duel. There is no dispute as to whether the look and feel of the games were similar—they’re not. The issue was whether Distinctive’s re-use of computer code in Outrun was an infringement of the Accolade’s copyright in The Duel. As part of the contract between Accolade and Distinctive, Distinctive assigned certain copyrights to Accolade, as further discussed below.


There was no question that certain subroutines and computer code, originally used in The Duel, were reused in Outrun. Distinctive argued, however, that only standard libraries and routines were re-used to perform basic functions. Distinctive argued that similar codes are contained in many computer games, since they are necessary to perform functions such as “clearing the screen or operating the joystick.” Distinctive further asserted that these library codes are not game-specific, but were routinely transferred from one computer game to another so the program writer need not duplicate the task of developing them. Distinctive also asserted a fallback position that its licensing agreement with Accolade never contemplated the transfer of copyright in the library codes and, even if it did, the computer codes were mere mechanical devices rather than copyrightable expression, and thus not subject to copyright protection in the first place.

The court noted that, when seeking a preliminary injunction, a showing of a likelihood of success on the merits in a copyright case raises a presumption of irreparable harm. To succeed in showing copyright infringement, Accolade must show that it owned a valid copyright in The Duel, and that Distinctive infringed that copyright by copying protectable material into Outrun. The court cites back to Apple Computers Inc. v. Formula Int’l Inc. for the proposition that all portions of computer programs are the proper subject matter for copyright, even those that communicated only with the machine (computer) itself and not with human users. The underlying subroutines and functions are therefore proper statutory subject matter for copyrights, and are not merely mechanical devices.

Next the court analyzed what, if any, copyrights Distinctive transferred to Accolade. The court determined that the scope of copyright assigned to Accolade by Distinctive depended on the contract language. Specifically, the contract stated, at para. 5.5, that Accolade owns the copyright to the licensed product. “Licensed product” was defined, at para. 1.1, as “the concepts to be designed and implemented by the developer.” The final piece of the puzzle was para. 4.7 of the licensing agreement, which required Distinctive to deliver to Accolade the computer codes underlying the video game. Accolade argued that para. 4.7, in conjunction with paras. 5.5 and 1.1, operated to confer copyright to Accolade of all source code delivered by Distinctive to Accolade. The court disagreed, stating that “our reading of ¶ 4.7 at the present juncture, however, is that it requires [Distinctive] to deliver the underlying codes in addition to the licensed product. Thus, we believe that the licensing agreement transfers to Accolade the copyright to the concept and design of the video game but not the underlying source code.” (emphasis added).

In a last ditch effort, and with a little circular reasoning thrown in for good measure, Accolade argued that Outrun still infringed Accolade’s copyright in The Duel based on the theory that the two games were substantially similar because—yes, you guessed it—Distinctive used the same underlying subroutines and functions in Outrun as were used in The Duel (the same subroutines and functions for which the court just declined to find that Accolade owned the copyright). Needless to say, the court didn’t buy it, and denied Accolade’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

Nota Bene: This case came down to the contract language. While Distinctive won its day in court, had there been a more clearly written contract in the first place, Distinctive might have avoided this conflict altogether, or Accolade could have secured its rights up-front.