Have you ever wondered why some mechanics get repeated in video games? How can one company make a clone of a popular game, and nothing happens? It is an interesting story that includes several lawsuits.
Like many things in the history of video games, it starts with Atari but gets more interesting in the late 80s and 90s. Genres and mechanics common to those genres were created throughout the 80s, and we started to see those mechanics refined in the 90s. This is where Street Fighter II and Fighter’s History come in.
The similarities between these two games would lead to a lawsuit between Capcom and Data East. Let’s look at both games closer before we get into the lawsuit.
Street Fighter II and Fighter’s History
Street Fighter II was released in the arcades in 1991. It significantly improved on 1987’s Street Fighter. Here are a few of the improvements:
- More Special Moves
- Combo System
- A Wider selection of playable characters with unique fighting styles
Street Fighter II became the best-selling arcade game since the arcade boom of the early 80s. It sold over six million units when it was ported to the SNES. This caused other companies to try and replicate Capcom’s success.
This brings us to Fighter’s History from Data East.
Fighter’s History was released in the arcades in 1993, with home ports following a year later. The game used a weak point system to try and stand out from a crowded field.
- Each character had a weak point represented by an article of clothing.
- By repeatably hitting the weak point, you could stun your opponent.
- This could only be done once per round.
Now that you know a little about each game, let’s look at the facts of the case.
Facts of the Case
Street Fighter II’s success led other companies to try and cash in on its success.
- SNK would release Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Showdown
- Midway would release Mortal Kombat
- Data East would make Fighter’s History.
SNK and Midway tried to make the games stand out, while Data East overtly copied Street Fighter II. There were numerous similarities between Capcom and Data East’s games. Here is a short list of them:
- Character Design
- Character Artwork
- Similar controls for special moves
It was later revealed that Data East’s design documents for Fighter’s History referred to Street Fighter II several times. The similarities between the two games eventually reached Capcom, who sued Data East for copyright infringement in Japan and the United States. I couldn’t find the result of the Japanese lawsuit, so I’ll focus on the US suit.
This all depended on what parts of Street Fighter II were protected by copyright.
- Could you copyright a punch or kick?
- Could you copyright a specific set of button presses?
- Could you copyright cultural stereotypes?
There were a few other lawsuits that were similar to this one. This meant that there was some legal precedent concerning clones. Those lawsuits were Atari v. Phillips and Data East v. Epyx. The second case would be more important here, but let’s look at Atari v. Phillips first.
In Atari v. Phillips, the court found that the game K.C. Munchkin infringed on the Pac-Man copyright that Atari had. However, some aspects of video games were standard or common and couldn’t be protected by copyright. It would be like trying to copyright parallax scrolling.
Data East’s arguments would use the Data East v. Epyx case. In this case, the court found that Epyx’s game World Karate Championship did not infringe on Data East’s Karate Champ. These were both early fighting games. This ruling said that:
- You can’t copyright standard karate moves
- The idea of background scenes
- A timer
- Computer graphics and bonus points
- Result from constraints inherent in the sport
Data East lost this case against Epyx. Data East would then use the same defense when Capcom sued them. It is funny that Data East would use the same arguments that Epyx had once used against them.
Capcom lost this case. The court did find that Data East had copied some characters and special moves but didn’t significantly copy, and what was copied was generic and unprotectable.
Capcom couldn’t copyright an idea. Video games consist of abstract rules and play ideas. Audiovisual work, like video games, are largely unprotected. Two companies can make similar video games, like Fighting games because you can’t have a copyright on the idea of a fighting game.
Capcom v. Data East expanded on the previous rulings regarding what could and couldn’t have copyright protection in a video game. This answered a few questions I had about why clones of popular video games were allowed. You can’t copyright a gameplay mechanic that is an essential part of a genre of video games. For example, you can’t have a copyright on turn-based combat or side-scrolling.
This case wasn’t the end of disputes over copyright in video games. In 2012, Tetris Holdings took Xio Interactive to court over copyright infringement. This case found that specific elements of gameplay can be protected.
The difference between Capcom v. Data East and Tetris v. Xio was glaring. Xio had outright copied Tetris and tried to obtain a license. The two cases are very different, but they have both had a significant impact on what can and cannot have copyright protection in video games.
I find these fascinating, especially when they’re from a time when I was a little kid and had better things to do than worry about random legal cases. At least more important for a 6-10 year-old kid whose biggest concern was getting to use the swing set at recess.
I find the strange parts of video game history more interesting than the more well-known ones. Capcom v. Data East is one of those stories that I found interesting. If I come across other stories like this, I’ll write about them.