An Early “Breakout” for Video Games in Law

It’s hard to keep these posts short sometimes: it means I can’t cover everything, and there is always so much more to the story. But here’s an interesting tidbit: Atari tried to copyright Breakout in the 80’s, but they were initially denied by the copyright office. The office cited a lack of creativity and the trivial nature of the game as reasons to deny the copyright (in general abstract, these are legitimate causes for rejection of a copyright claim). Atari fought for it, and in 1992 the D.C. Circuit Court (opinion written by not-yet-Supreme-Court-Justice Ginsberg) the court found that the videogame was original, creative, and (as a bonus) non-obvious. The court sent it back to the copyright office to take another look at granting copyright. I don’t know if they ever got it; Breakout has been copied pretty extensively these days. Maybe the copyright was pretty narrow and thin, or maybe it was too widely copied by the time it got back to the copyright office. In any event, the significance of Ginsberg’s opinion is an early statement on the legitimacy of videogames as on-par with other media.

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