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How do video game copyrights work?
5 mins

How do video game copyrights work?

Table of Contents:


    Video game development has become increasingly popular in recent years. Although video games have already been around for decades, video game creation has evolved tremendously in the past few years. Now, with all the technological advancements and the industry’s marketability brought about by the times, it’s reached a point where blockbuster new games come out on a near-weekly basis. 

    Needless to say, as technology continues to develop and evolve, so too will the video game creation process.

    Given the rise in the number of video game developers, it is vital that they are well apprised of their rights to the use, production, and distribution of their original creations. While it is certainly great that game developers are able to showcase their talent and be able to profit as their works gain popularity, this empowers bad actors who want to take advantage of the easy access use of these supposedly protected works for their personal gain.

    Thus, in today’s article, we will understand

    • What a video game copyright is.
    • What components of a video game does copyright protect?
    • What video game copyright infringement is.
    • How to protect your creation and your brand or business against video game copyright infringement.

    In addition to addressing the above topics, we will also answer some of the most frequently asked questions with respect to video game copyrights.

    What is a video game copyright?

    In order to clearly and fully understand the concept of what a video game copyright is, it is essential to do a recap as to what copyright is in general. As previously discussed, a copyright is a legal protection extended to the author of an original work. There is no exclusive list of what creations copyright covers, but in general, these are literary, artistic, or scientific works, such as software, computer programs, or mobile applications.

    From this definition, it is unmistakable that video games are works covered and protected by copyright laws. Certainly, video games are original creations from the minds of engineers and software developers, as well as the artists behind the audiovisual elements of the program or application. Thus, in broad terms, a video game copyright is the overall concept of protection afforded to a video game as an original intellectual creation. 

    What parts of video game development are protected by copyright?

    As earlier mentioned, there is more than one way to view video games as original works. For one, video games are predominantly regarded as computer programs, given their nature and the manner by which consumers use the product. Video games can also be viewed as a creative work due to the different audiovisual elements involved in their creation, particularly in modern ones. 

    Given that video games incorporate several different elements, including both technical and artistic, it is important to understand which of these components that make up a video game are covered and protected by game copyright. 

    Once the video game has been published, that is, expressed in a fixed and tangible (albeit, digital) form, a video game copyright, generally, starts to protect the following aspects:

    • Specific source coding.
    • Artwork and graphics.
    • Films, text, and particular dialogue.
    • Musical scoring and sounds.
    • Story and character specifics.
    • The finished game.

    To emphasize, the basic rule in video game copyrights, and all other kinds of copyrights for that matter, is that the work will only enjoy protection once the idea is expressed in a fixed form. If the game idea remains only as an idea and is not materialized into a fixed and tangible (or digital) form that is ready for utilization or distribution, then there is no protection. Ideas, in themselves, are not copyrightable.

    Another basic rule is that the copyrights do not protect components that are not considered “unique game elements.” Following the concept of scène à faire, general elements that are necessary to realize a specific idea cannot be copyrighted. For instance, if the video game is a racing game, the elements of race cars, speed tracks, drivers, and such are not covered by copyright protection, as these components are necessary to the particular genre; any racing game would not be considered one without them. To note, this doctrine has been consistently followed by the courts in deciding copyright law cases, including disputes involving video game developers, such as the case of Atari vs. Amusement World.

    What is video game copyright infringement?

    Taking all that has been said so far into consideration, video game copyright infringement can be understood to mean the unauthorized use, sale, distribution, and reproduction of a video game and/or its protected components without the permission of the copyright owner. 

    As copyright protection starts from the moment of creation of the work, video game copyright infringement occurs, whether or not the video game or unique game component is registered with the US Copyright Office. This is because, again, exclusive rights granted by law to the copyright owner exist from the time the work is created. However, it is only when the work is registered that the author or creator would be able to enforce his rights through legal action, such as a copyright infringement lawsuit. 

    How do I protect my video game against copyright infringement?

    The first step in protecting your video game against copyright infringers is registering your work with the US Copyright Office. While registration is technically not necessary because, as mentioned, copyright protection starts from the moment of creation of the work, copyright registration strengthens the protection of your copyrighted material. Specifically, copyright registration allows you to establish a claim with the Copyright Office or to file an infringement action with the courts, should there be an individual or entity that uses your video game or any of its copyrighted components without your knowledge and permission.

    Note that because a video game is composed of multiple elements as discussed above, you would have to register these separately, such as the game’s source codes, visual elements, music, and others. 

    Another step in safeguarding your work against copyright infringement is actively monitoring the market and being on the lookout for possible cases of video game copyright violations. When you believe someone is illegally using, distributing, or reproducing your game or any of its copyrighted components, you can send a copyright infringement notice to the bad actor, if known. This course of action is another effective measure, aside from and even before resorting to judicial means.

    However, to be able to set up and execute these defenses, ultimately, you must first be able to effectively track any incident of infringement of your copyrighted work. Tracking video game copyright infringement may be done manually, or it can be done through copyright infringement software that can efficiently and expertly track down copyright abuses, specifically video games and other related material.

    Common questions about video game copyright

    How long do video game copyrights last?

    Similar to other kinds of copyrights, the duration of a video game copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years after his death. If the copyrighted material is created by more than one author, the copyright lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. If the work is by an anonymous or pseudonymous author, the duration of the copyright is 95 years from the material’s publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is shorter.

    Is video game music covered by copyright?

    Yes, video game music is protected by copyright. To emphasize, copyright is the legal protection extended to the author of an original literary, artistic, or scientific work. As music is an artistic expression by a composer, melodist, or another musical artist, it may well be argued that video game music is and must be given copyright protection.

    What elements of a video game are not copyrightable?

    First, elements that are covered by trademark protection are not copyrightable. Specifically, a video game’s logo, name or title, and other visual elements that help establish and strengthen brand identity are not covered by copyright. These items are not original literary, artistic, or scientific work that copyrights seek to protect. Rather, these are elements that have to do with brand distinguishability, which is thus encompassed by trademark protection.

    The mechanics of a game are also generally not copyrightable. In particular, the rules and the method of playing the game are not covered by copyright because these elements refer to the idea behind the game, and ideas, as stated earlier, cannot be copyrighted. Further, it has always been a recognized practice in the video game industry to borrow game mechanics or pattern game mechanics from previously created ones, so these components are, almost always, not eligible for legal copyright protection.

    Lastly, elements covered by the scène à faire doctrine as discussed above also cannot be the subject of copyright protection.

    What’s next?

    Copyright infringement cases have become even more prevalent today, and the video game industry is not an exception. Video game developers must understand how they can safeguard their work, protect their exclusive rights to it, and maximize the economic benefit from their video game creation. This includes taking measures to take down copyright violations and any forms of piracy and preventing others from making illegal revenue by infringing intellectual property protection.

    Video game copyright, without a doubt, helps in the matter.

    For a cost-effective and hassle-free copyright protection approach, Red Points is here to assist. Automatically track and take down copyright infringement through our copyright protection software. We also offer a comprehensive brand protection software tool to help in processing intellectual property infringements. 

    Click on the links to know more about our different brand protection tools or to request a demo today!


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