In this Comment, I argue that obtaining and sustaining optimal video game innovation and creativity requires two complementary advancements by the two main actors in the video game copyright space—the U.S. courts and the video game developers themselves. U.S. courts should maintain and build upon recent precedent in the Tetris Holding, Spry Fox, and DaVinci cases and recognize a greater sphere of protectability for game mechanics that is sensitive to copied elements. As I will show, the approaches in Tetris Holding, Spry Fox, and DaVinci strike a functional balance between the competing needs of protecting copyrighted expression and enabling further innovation. The cases also send a signal to clone developers that “cloning” may no longer be shielded from liability. Following these cases, U.S. courts can “rebalance” copyright for video games by revising how the idea–expression dichotomy, the merger doctrine, and the scènes à faire doctrine apply to video games and by expanding the sphere of protectable expression in video games. To that end, independent game developers who create new premises and mechanics should take conscious steps to infuse their software with unique expression to make their works more protectable and fend off clones. Otherwise, they must adopt marketing practices that enable them to more quickly monetize games that will inevitably be cloned. Together, these two sets of changes can foster greater protection for innovative game software and a richer marketplace for consumers, while not overextending the reach of copyright to threaten the iterative innovation that underpins video game development.
In Part I, I present an overview of the video game industry as a whole, with a focus on the increasingly important role mobile gaming plays. In Part II, I discuss the basic elements of copyright doctrine and how case law as applied to video games has evolved over time and shaped the industry. In Part III, I address the potential shifts in case law indicated by the Tetris Holding, Spry Fox, and DaVinci cases. In Part IV, I discuss a recent example of cloning in mobile gaming, and how a modified copyright regime could have led to a more preferable outcome. Finally, in Part V, I suggest steps for video game developers to take in game development to better protect themselves.