Robin Antonick sued Electronic Arts over unpaid royalties stemming from his 1988 work on the Madden NFL series. Antonick was responsible for programming the first iteration of the original Madden Football game for the Apple II computer, which was released by EA. EA later released Madden games for both the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. Antonick received no royalties from these releases under a 1986 contract. EA agreed to pay Antonick royalties on any works that were either derivative of the original 1988 game or any other works stemming from those derivative works.
Antonick alleged that EA owed him royalties from the allegedly derivate works. Whereas Antonick’s version of the game took four years to make, multiple EA employees involved with the franchise reminisced how the Sega version only took six months to make, even though none of the lead developers had ever created a videogame. Antonick alleged he then began to realize there was no way the game could have been developed without relying on his source code. Antonick’s attorney alleged that the Sega version of the game used a football field 80 yards wide, whereas a typical field is 53 yards wide. This is significant because in Antonick’s original game the field was 80 yards wide, and there is “no reason to have it that size unless you take it from the previous game; [because] if you put [the original game’s] plays on a 53-yard field half the team would be off the field.” In June 2013, the Court held a jury trial in two phases. In Phase I, the jury was asked to decide whether the statute of limitations barred Antonick’s claims. While EA alleged Antonick could have discovered the alleged breach of contract in 2004 when the publisher was celebrating the franchise’s 15th anniversary, the jury found Antonick did not become aware of EA’s alleged breach until 2009 at EA’s 20th anniversary of the franchise. In Phase II, the jury was asked to determine whether Antonick proved that there were substantial similarities between Sega Madden and Apple II Madden with respect to the source code. The jury was asked to determine whether Antonick proved the Sega Madden game was virtually identical to Apple II Madden when considering the games as a whole. The jury found Antonick did not prove there were substantial similarities in the expression of field width in the source code, but did prove there were substantial similarities between the expression of the source code for plays and formations. The jury found the Sega Madden games are derivative works under the 1986 Contract, and that EA breached the contract by failing to pay Antonick royalties.
In January 2014, however, the District Court held that EA was entitled to Judgment as a Matter of Law (JMOL), despite the jury’s findings. The court held that the claim failed because the contents of the copyrighted work and the allegedly infringing works were never introduced into evidence. Antonick appealed.
On November 22, 2016, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment in favor of EA. Concerning Antonick’s Sega claims, the 9th Circuit held that Antonick did not provide enough evidence to prove copyright infringement. Neither the source code used for the original game nor the source code for the Sega game was in evidence. Concerning Antonick’s Super Nintendo claims, the 9th Circuit held the district court did not err in dismissing the derivative work claims because the Apple II and Super Nintendo processors were not in the same microprocessor family. The 9th Circuit also held the jury could not have determined Antonick’s damages from the alleged contract breach to a reasonable certainty. The 9th Circuit further held that there was no harm to Antonick stemming from the allegedly infringing Super Nintendo version of Madden. This was because Antonick’s failure to introduce any source code precluded a finding that Super Nintendo version was a derivative of the original 1988 game.
This case demonstrates the importance of comparing an original work directly to an alleged infringing work when determining infringement. Had Antonick been able to show evidence of source code similarities between the various versions, the outcome might have been different.