Williams Electronics Inc. v. Artic International is a key case which established that copyright exists in video games.

Williams Electronics manufactured and sold a coin-operated electronic video game called “Defender,” whose “phenomenal popularity” the court attributed to its “use of unrealistic fantasy creatures.” Artic International sold a memory device that produced audiovisual effects and a game called “Defense Command” that were almost identical to “Defender.”

Williams sued Artic for copyright infringement and won a permanent injunction in the district court. Artic appealed and lost.

The first issue the court had to consider was fixation. Artic argued that no copyright could exist in audiovisual effects because they failed to meet the statutory requirement of fixation found in s. 102 of the 1976 Copyright Act. Artic argued that the audiovisual effects displayed on screen were transient and that new images were generated each time the “attract” or “play” mode of the program was displayed, even if the images were essentially identical to earlier images. Further, Artic argued that no copyright could exist in the computer program as player participation meant each player become a co-author of what was displayed on screen; there was no set or fixed performance of the program and therefore no eligibility for copyright.
The court disagreed with Artic on both points. Fixation was met in the memory devices of the game. On the issue of player co-authorship as a grounds for invalidity, the court found that while player interaction during “play” mode resulted in some changes in the audiovisual presentation and game, there was always some repetitive sequence of a substantial portion of sights and sounds, and many aspects of the display remained constant despite a player's operation of the controls. Further, in “attract” mode there was no player interaction whatsoever that might raise a question of co-authorship in a new work.

The court also had to consider whether the ROM as a memory device component for the game was copyrightable. Artic argued that Williams was claiming copyright in what was essentially a utilitarian object or machine part in which copyright is not permitted. The court dismissed Artic's argument as Williams wasn't claiming any protection for the ROM itself but was using the ROM to meet the statutory fixation requirement for their copyrightable material.

The court also rejected Artic's argument that what it had copied was object code as opposed to source code (i.e., it wasn't intelligible to human beings or intended as a medium of communication to human beings, and therefore not copyrightable). The court rejected this argument in favor of a more expansive interpretation of the Copyright Act that contemplated technological advances, where a copy might need the aid of a machine or device to be reproduced, perceived or otherwise communicated. The court dismissed Artic's interpretation as creating an “unlimited loophole” where copying the text of a program (which is directly intelligible to human beings) is prohibited but the copying of a silicon chip containing that program (which is not directly intelligible) is permitted.

Williams Electronic Inc. v. Artic International, Inc.
1982 US Ct. of Appeals, 3rd Circuit
685 F. 2d 870
KEYWORDS: copyright - fixation
SUMMARY BY: Dani Lemon