Sony Computer Entertainment America v. Bleem, LLC

214 F.3d 1022 (9th Cir. 2000)


Bleem marketed a software emulator that allowed users to play Sony Playstation games on their personal computers. Bleem’s emulator appealed both to gamers who did not want to buy a Playstation console and to those who sought the enhanced graphics and higher resolution offered by PC graphics cards. The program was written and marketed by two men who reverse-engineered the code in the Playstation’s components in order to mimic its functions on a PC.

While Sony would undoubtedly have liked to strike down Bleem’s software itself, the legality of emulation was not an issue before the court. See Sony v. Connectix Corp., 203 F.3d 596, 607 (9th Cir. 2000) (ruling that emulators are not a violation of the copyright laws). The court noted that the availability of emulators such as Bleem may actually increase the sales of games though it hurts the sale of consoles. With most consoles being sold at a loss, one has to wonder if Sony would have been better off with the competition.

The issue before the court was whether the use of screen shots showing scenes from Playstation games in Bleem’s advertising amounted to copyright infringement. Screen shots are often included in video game advertisements in order to convey to a purchaser what the game will look like on-screen. Bleem included screen shots in its advertising and packaging comparing games played on the Playstation console and games played using the Bleem emulator on a PC. The comparison was intended to show that the games looked better when played on a PC.

The district court in the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Sony and entered an injunction against Bleem’s use of the screen shots. Bleem appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Fair Use

Sony alleged that Bleem’s use of screen shots violated Sony’s copyrighted material. Bleem admitted that its screen shots fell under Sony’s copyright but argued that their use fell under the fair use exception.

Under 17 U.S.C. § 107, the “fair use” of a copyrighted work is not an infringement. The statute provides four factors to be considered in determining fair use:

(a) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature…;

(b) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(c) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(d) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

17 U.S.C. § 107. The purpose of the fair use doctrine is to permit “courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.” Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 577 (1994). Although the fourth factor is sometimes thought to be the most important, each factor must be considered, and no single factor is dispositive. See id.

1. Character of the Use

In analyzing the first factor, the court determined that Bleem’s use of the screen shots represented comparative advertising. Bleem’s emulator directly competed with Sony’s Playstation console and the screen shots compared the user experience on the two platforms. Noting that the Ninth Circuit had not dealt with comparative advertising, the court referenced a Fifth Circuit opinion finding fair use where a newspaper displayed a cover of TV Guide for the purpose of comparing it to an analogous publication. Triangle Publications, Inc. v. Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., 626 F.2d 1171 (5th Cir. 1980). The court also cited the FTC’s stance that comparative advertising is an important source of information to consumers. According to the court, Bleem’s use here helped consumers make rational purchasing decisions and could inspire Sony to improve their product.

Due to the nature of Bleem’s use as comparative advertising, the court found that the first factor favored Bleem. Bleem’s use provided great benefits to the public without a substantial impact on the integrity of Sony’s copyrighted work.

2. Nature of the Copyrighted Work

The second factor is often less important than the others; indeed, the Supreme Court has stated that the second factor is often “not much help.” Campbell, 510 U.S. at 586. The Ninth Circuit found that the copyrighted work here was generally creative in nature, but that screen shots were merely inanimate slivers of the game. Without much discussion, the court decided that this factor neither supported nor detracted from Bleem’s claim of fair use.

3. Degree of Copying Involved

The third factor recognizes that the closer the copied portion gets to the whole of the copyrighted work, the less likely it is to be fair use. The court analogized video games to motion pictures and characterized a screen shot as representing 1/30th of a second’s worth of the video game. The court determined that a screen shot was of little substance to the overall copyrighted work.

The court stated that “the third factor will almost always weigh against the video game manufacturer because a screen shot is such an insignificant portion of the complex copyrighted work as a whole.” Op. at 1028. Here, the third factor supported Bleem’s fair use claims.

4. Effect Upon the Potential Market for the Copyrighted Work

The fourth factor, often the most important factor, looks to the impact of the use upon the market for the copyrighted work. Beyond just the defendant’s use, the fourth factor considers the impact of unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by the defendant. Campbell, 510 U.S. at 590. The court questioned the existence of a market for screen shots but found that, even if such a market existed, any harm to the market would be the result of critique or have a de minimis effect in light of the comparative nature of Bleem’s advertising. Any losses suffered by Sony would not be in the market for its copyrighted material but in its console business.

Finding that Bleem’s use would have no effect on Sony’s ability to do with its screen shots as it pleased, the court ruled that the fourth factor favored Bleem.

Holding and Conclusion

The court, seeing that on balance the four factors favored Bleem, held that Bleem’s use was a fair use and vacated the preliminary injunction imposed by the district court, remanding for further proceedings. The holding was qualified by a caveat that the finding of fair use only applied insofar as the screen shots accurately represented how games looked on the Playstation console. The court made clear that they were persuaded by “the need for Bleem to impose minimally upon Sony’s copyright with respect to these screen shots because there is no other way to create a truly accurate comparison for the user.” Op. at 1030.

This case is a good example and good precedent for the use of comparative advertising with respect to audiovisual works, and video games in particular.

Thanks to Scott Kelly for his assistance with the preparation of this case summary