We have been seeing a number of online gaming companies squaring up to their competitors alleging intellectual property infringement in game formats and characters. The dispute between Electronic Arts (EA) and Zynga is one example. In August, EA issued proceedings against Zynga in the US alleging that Zynga's new game, The Ville, infringed copyright in EA's game, The Sims Social. EA alleged that the games were "unmistakably similar" and "largely indistinguishable" to the casual observer. It said that Zynga's "design choices, animations, visual arrangements and character motions had been directly lifted from The Sims Social". The claim is still ongoing. Similar allegations were made by Nova, producer of the Pocket Money arcade-style computer game against Mazooma in respect of its games, Jackpot Pool and Trick Shot. In addition, allegations were made that the characters in Gamesey's Bingo Friendzy, available on Facebook, bore a striking resemblance to the popular Angry Birds.

It is well established that copyright protects only the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. However, in practice, the line between idea and expression can be difficult to draw. Although the concept of ideas versus expression has been analysed by the courts in the context of films and books, there is very little guidance on the position for games. The result is that there remain questions as to the extent to which copyright will protect game formats and specific game graphics.

In view of this uncertainty, games developers should not rely solely on copyright to protect their game formats.We are advising a number of clients in this field to use registered designs to protect the visual appearance and graphics of their games. Registered designs are relatively quick and cheap to obtain. In addition, existing use does not necessarily prevent a registration being obtained and protection can be obtained both within and outside the EU.