Copyright Laws and Video Games

By River Braun, J.D.

Copyright Laws and Video Games

By River Braun, J.D.

Video games represent one of the most lucrative aspects of the entertainment industry. Consumers spend over $25 billion a year to enjoy the experiences created by teams of writers, designers, and coders. With that much at stake, it's natural for companies behind these video games to want to protect their products to the extent possible under the law. Copyright laws provide video game creators with the exclusive rights to reproduce, sell, and create spinoff products based on their video game code, characters, images, and dialogue.

Gamer in headset looking at game on desktop computer in dark room

What parts of video games do copyright laws protect?

Copyright laws do not protect ideas alone. These ideas must be expressed in some sort of tangible form, such as the code that makes up the game. Other aspects of video games that copyright law can protect include:

  • Character images
  • Scene images
  • Setting
  • Dialogue
  • Music

Copyright laws can even protect the way a character or essential image appears and moves. For example, the movement and function of the bricks in the video game Tetris are protected from would-be copyright infringers.

The creator may hold the copyright to their video game, but usually, the company that employs the creator and other creative contributors to the game holds the rights. These rights ensure that no one but the copyright owner may sell or reproduce the video game or create derivative products or other games based on their characters without express permission from the copyright holder.

What parts of video games do copyright laws not protect?

Copyright laws do not protect video game elements such as rules and plot. While the tangible expression of character actions and dialogue are protected, the underlying concepts and rules for winning are not. If this were not the case, first-person shooters games would have stopped at Maze War in 1973 and only Pac Man could benefit from the concept of "power ups."

So long as the characters, setting, and dialogue are distinctly different from another game, film, TV show, book, or play, game designers are free to create video games using similar plot and rules that we've all seen before.

What rights do gamers have?

When gamers purchase a video game, they are essentially purchasing a license to use the game under the guidelines specified by the company. Whether stated in the licensing agreement or not, copyright laws allow valid game purchasers to make a copy of the video game but only for purposes of reloading the game if their computer crashes. Licensing terms may vary from game to game, so it is important for gamers to carefully read the license for each game. While one video game may allow for the capture and sharing of game screenshots, another might not. If a gamer runs afoul of particular licensing rules, they may find themselves in court for copyright violation or have their online game access terminated.

Can a creator register a copyright for video games created under open source and Creative Commons schemes?

Some video game creators opt to license their games under a Creative Commons license or as open source. These creators maintain copyright protection and can register their copyright for their game, but they confer upon end users certain rights to copy, change, or create other products based on the video game. Creators are free to determine what types of authorized activity they wish to allow under Creative Commons licenses, while those choosing open source licensing allow the general public to use and change the game code as they see fit.

Ready to protect your video game? You can register a copyright yourself or with the assistance of an online service provider or an attorney.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.