Protecting the intellectual property in games

First published in Cambridge Catalyst, Simon Ambroz explores the surprising number of things that can be protected by intellectual property in the world of gaming.

Game development requires a substantial investment of time and money, as it often takes creators several years to design and launch a new game. Mobile games can be developed more quickly, but still require several months of investment. Given the investment, and given that popular games are at risk of being copied, it is critical that the intellectual property (IP) associated with a game – the inherent technology, the design, the branding – is properly protected, to ensure that games companies reap maximum commercial reward when the game is launched.

If a computer program provides a technical solution to a technical problem, and has a technical effect inside or outside of the computer, the program may be patented.

Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of the Warcraft universe, have several patents. For example, granted patent number US10086279 relates to a method of hosting a cross-realm zone that manages interaction among characters from different instances of a virtual world, in a massive, multiplayer online game. You enjoy this invention when you enter a battleground or a dungeon whilst playing World of Warcraft.

Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, also have multiple patents. Some of the patents combine social and technical aspects of their games. For example, granted patent number US9072974 relates to methods of making gameplay changes based on a social networking poll. My personal favourite Fortnite patent is US9744461, which relates to methods that make resource gathering more fun and engaging. All Fortnite players are aware of the need to farm materials; if you don’t farm, you are a ‘noob’. Striking a tree to farm wood creates a weak point in the tree. This patent explains why and how the weak point appears.

Riot Games, the developers of League of Legends, also own several patents. In my opinion, one of the more interesting patents is US10016675, which relates to the technology that facilitates in-game reporting of other players for inappropriate behaviour.

Trade marks are signs which indicate the origin of goods, such as games. Epic Games, Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment all own a significant number of trade marks around the world related to their games. For example, they have trade marks for the logos and names of their games, giving them the exclusive rights to use, and prohibit competitors from using, these titles.

Riot Games also trade mark the names of the champions in their games, such as Teemo and Ahri, as well as the names of official game leagues. Epic Games have obtained trade marks for nearly all the names of locations in Fortnite, for instance, Retail Row.

Many games companies also have “fan content policies”, which are usually part of the terms and conditions of the game. These policies relate to IP created by fans based on the IP of the company, such as artwork, videos and other materials. This may be more important than you think.

Take Warcraft III, developed by Blizzard, for example. The game includes an in-game, free, world editor which allows players to create customized maps, objectives, items, etc. This is how Dota, one of the most popular games ever created, was born. Unfortunately for Blizzard, they do not own any rights to Dota because their fan content policy at the time assigned the rights to the player who created Dota. This was a very costly mistake. Unsurprisingly, Blizzard recently updated their fan content policy, to ensure that Blizzard owns all custom games created by players on their platforms!

Most people probably don’t realise how much IP exists in games. However, as you can see, protecting IP is a critical consideration for game developers.

Related posts

IRONBURG V. VALVE: Protecting innovation in the USA

In a case of British “David” v. US “Goliath”, Ironburg v. Valve demonstrates the value for UK based companies to pursue a global patent strategy to protect their innovation overseas, particularly those in the gaming industry for which the US is a major market.

Read More »