EA says its lawsuit over Zynga's The Ville is a "case of principle."
Zynga has been no stranger to accusations of copyright infringement - its games often bear a striking resemblance to games by smaller studios, with titles like Dream Heights earning angry letters from the studios that felt ripped off. Most aggrieved studios are too small to afford the expense of litigation, which has thus far kept the company safe from lawsuits. But what happens when Zynga makes a game like The Ville that resembles The Sims Social, made by EA? Well, as it turns out, EA has answered that question definitively, by filing a lawsuit against Zynga for copyright infringement.
Make no mistake - this is not EA threatening to sue Zynga, or simply claiming that Zynga ripped off its game. EA has, according to Maxis Label General Manager Lucy Bradshaw, officially filed a lawsuit against Zynga today. Bradshaw summed up the legal argument of the suit by stating, "in legal terms, our claim is that Zynga copied the original and distinctive expressive elements of The Sims Social in a clear violation of the U.S. copyright laws." The complaint specifically points out that the similarities between Zynga's and EA's games were noticed immediately upon The Ville's release.
But, according to Bradshaw, it goes beyond superficial similarities. "Zynga's design choices, animations, visual arrangements and character motions and actions have been directly lifted from The Sims Social," she stated. "The copying was so comprehensive that the two games are, to an uninitiated observer, largely indistinguishable."
This isn't just an effort to protect EA's profits, though - Bradshaw said that this "is a case of principle." Bradshaw pointed out that, while EA isn't the first to accuse Zynga of copyright infringement, it is "the studio that has the financial and corporate resources to stand up and do something about it." She condemned copyright infringement as both unacceptable and illegal, and wrote that, by suing Zynga, EA hopes to "have a secondary effect of protecting the rights of other creative studios who don't have the resources to protect themselves." Bradshaw ended her statement by saying that "today, we hope to be taking a stand that helps the industry protect the value of original creative works and those that work tirelessly to create them."
Zynga fired back in short order, releasing a brief statement about the upcoming lawsuit. After taking a couple sentences to plug Zynga's own games, including The Ville, YoVille, and CastleVille, General Counsel Reggie Davis flatly stated, "it's unfortunate that EA thought that this was an appropriate response to [The Ville], and clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of basic copyright principles." Davis also made sure to mention the resemblance between Zynga's long-running CityVille and EA's recently-released SimCity Social, which went so far as to not-so-subtly mock CityVille in a trailer for the game.
Although accusations of copyright infringement are as common as cheap copycat games, particularly in the mobile and social spaces, this is the first time a company with the legal and financial weight of EA is officially suing a studio on copyright-infringement grounds. Other high-profile lawsuits, while often related to copyright infringement, have legally been based on patent infringements, name trademarks, and even NDA violations instead. This has partly been due to the difficulty of proving copyright infringement over design alone - a game can use one mechanic that's similar to another game without a problem, but the line between "inspired by" and "clone of" gets hard to define as the design similarities increase.
Thus, the common counter-argument is that the game accused of infringement merely iterates on its predecessor - a claim Bradshaw recognized when she wrote that "some will say The Ville simply iterates [on The Sims Social]." But if EA sticks to its principles and refuses a settlement, then successfully proves that ripping off design alone can constitute copyright infringement, that could make a lot of developers think twice about how much "inspiration" they take from successful games.
Source & Image: Inside Social Games