Atari Games Corp. v. Oman, 888 F.2d 878 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
The U.S. Copyright Office refused to register a claim to copyright in the video game BREAKOUT created by Atari, Inc., reasoning that the game did not include sufficient original visual or musical authorship to warrant copyright registration. BREAKOUT is a coin-operated, ball and paddle video game with an audiovisual display featuring a wall formed by multiple colors layers of rectangles representing bricks.
The Copyright Office explained that for registration as an audiovisual work a videogame had to contain "related pictorial or graphic images, and at least one of those images must be copyrightable." Neither the common geographic shapes nor the coloring of those shapes constituted copyrightable subject matter. The Office stated that there was no copyrightable authorship in the screen display because very few items appear on the screen and "the arrangement is basically dictated by the functional requirements of this or similar backboard type of games." Further, the Office held that the there was not enough original authorship to register a claim in the sounds.
Atari sought court review of the final decision. Atari challenged the decision as arbitrary and capricious and alleged abuse of discretion. The district court found that the agency was reasonable in its decision and found no abuse of discretion. Atari appealed.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The court held that to determine if a work of authorship is copyrightable, the Register's focus should be the audiovisual work as a whole, "the total sequence of images displayed as the game is played," even if initially considering the discrete parts of it. It explained that the component parts even if not copyrightable, as a whole, i.e., a group of images, may constitute an audiovisual work entitled to protection under the Copyright Act.
Further, the court held that the level of creativity required for copyrightability is minimal, modest, and that the Register's evaluation of the discrete components was not sufficient to judge the level of creativity of the whole work. Moreover, the court held that the simple shapes or familiar symbols or designs though not copyrightable individually, when combined in a distinctive manner may constitute sufficient originality protected under the Copyright Act.
The court held that a videogame is a copyrightable audiovisual work when there is a repetitive sequence of a substantial portion of sights and sounds, and many aspects of the display remain constant from game to game regardless how a player controls the sequence of images.
The Register further alleged that the BREAKOUT had no separate expression from the game and thus does not qualify for copyright protection. The court noted from the precedent that "when the subject matter allows for only a very limited manner of expression, the idea and expression remain unit" and, hence, gets no copyright protection. The court disagreed with the Register's assessment of the BREAKOUT describing its arrangement as dictated by "functional requirements," and found that many of the designs or objects in the videogame could have been replaced by a large variety of arrangements available. Further, it held that the audiovisual display and computer program were not amply linked making it sufficient for Atari to register a claim in the computer program only.
The Register's lastly contended that the symbols displayed were ordinary and commonplace thus failing under scenes a faire doctrine to be considered a copyrightable subject matter. However, the court rejected this argument as well as all others raised above, holding that, based on the evidence in the case, there is no indication why the BREAKOUT had no copyright protection under the applicable law.