United States copyright law has not been favorable to protecting game mechanics up to this point, and a recent summary judgment from a Texas judge in DaVinci Editrice S.R.L. vs. Ziko Games, LLC means this likely will continue be the case going forward.
The judgment was submitted on April 27th, 2016, and discovered by attorney and blogger Zachary Strebeck last night, who posted an analysis of the ruling and what it means for game developers who discover their work has been cloned. (Strebeck previously blogged about this case when DaVinci filed its first lawsuit in 2014).
DaVinci had sued Ziko games over the game Legend of the Three Kingdoms, which both companies acknowledge is mechanically identical to DaVinici's board game Bang! The art and aesthetics of the two games differ, with Bang! taking on the iconography of the wild west and Legend of the Three Kingdoms borrowing from Chinese history.
The court's ruling, which Strebeck has hosted on his own site, states that nothing about the mechanics of Bang! can not be considered "expressive," as they are rooted in widely familiar game concepts like health bars, punches, and kicks, while that the expressive elements of the game (its art and aesthetics) aren't substantially similar to Legend of the Three Kingdoms.
This isn't the first ruling on game copyright law, and according to the court mechanics can't be protected in general based on statuatory limitation. "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."
However, a previous ruling on a case involving developers who cloned Spry Fox's Triple Town is cited, along with protections for certain attacks in Street Fighter II. What seems to have felled DaVinci's argument is the fact that despite the unique arrangements of characters, the lack of a fixed progression of events prevents the gameplay from being protected under copyright. This makes the game more similar to Basketball then The Legend of Zelda in the court's eyes.
"Making certain roles aligned and others opposed is part of the game’s winning conditions, but these determine little about how players will progress through the game," the ruling states.
The court's ruling will no doubt frustrate game developers who are creating more mechanically-driven games with less defineable art and aesthetics, as struggle the most with other developers swooping in, copying and pasting the basic mechanics, reskinning the game and selling it under another name.
On the other hand, mechanics being protected by patent law and not copyright means basic, commonly used mechanics remain legally available to all developers. The recent expiration of Namco's loading-screen minigame patent highlights how patents meant to protect a developer's work can freeze some opportunities for other developers for over a decade.