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Miller v. Facebook Inc. et. al.
N.D.Cal., Case no. 10-cv-00264

Facebook’s attempts to end a lawsuit with Daniel Miller before trial has again apparently failed. On July 23, 2010, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied Facebook’s second motion to dismiss and vacating hearing proceedings. Nearly two months ago Facebook alleged that Miller’s complaint did not meet “the minimum pleading requirements set forth in Iqbal” for allegations of direct and indirect copyright infringement.

In 2007, Plaintiff Daniel Miller authored Boomshine, a video game where players click on a floating circle which then expands and causes other contacted floating circles to expand. The game has twelve levels. Each level sets a minimum number of circles that must be contacted in order to advance the game. Every time a circle is contacted it expands for a limited period until it disappears. Thus, players must time their contacts just right before all the circles disappear. Mr. Miller owns a registered copyright for the Boomshine video game source code (i.e., as a literary work).

Sometime in 2009 defendant Yao Wei Yeo authored his own, allegedly similar, game ChainRxn. ChainRxn, like Boomshine, is played over the internet and also involves expanding circles that cause other circles to expand. The Defendant’s game is a Facebook software application written using the Facebook Developer Platform. The game appeared in Facebook’s “Application Directory” which allowed members of Facebook to download and enjoy the game.

According to the Plaintiff, ChainRxn shares the same “look and feel” of Boomshine and incorporates almost every visual element of the game. Miller filed a suit alleging direct copyright infringement based upon these allegations, but has since amended the complaint to allege only contributory infringement. Facebook countered that Miller could not state a plausible claim under Iqbal for direct copyright infringement because Boomshine is not registered with the Copyright Office as an “audiovisual” work, but as a literary work. Thus, Facebook alleges that only the source code for Boomshine is registered, not the game itself. According to Facebook, the non-literal audiovisual elements of Boomshine are not protected by Miller’s copyright, and any unlawful copying of the source code cannot be plausibly inferred from the allegedly identical look and feel of the two software programs.

In a recent decision, William Alsup, United States district judge for the Northern District of California, rejected Facebook’s allegations that the lawsuit could not proceed for two reasons:

First, because it would be “unreasonable, if not impossible” for the plaintiff to know in detail, “how defendant Yeo copied his computer code” at the pleading stage. Judge Alsup went one to state that all Miller could know at this stage of the proceedings is that sometime after he published his copyrighted work a copycat version appeared on Facebook bearing all readily observable similarities. The Judge continued by arguing that the plaintiff could make a reasonable inference that the underlying source code (which he holds a copyright to) was copied. The discovery stage will reveal whether or not this inference is false, and Judge Alsup intends to move the lawsuit toward that stage.

Second, the prior order did not hold that copyright protection for source code was limited to the literal elements of the work. Rather, it stated that “plaintiff’s copyright appears to be limited to the source code rather than the audiovisual aspects of Boomshine” to set the proper starting point for the analysis. Judge Alsup stresses that the prior order did not make any determination either way as to whether the various audiovisual aspects of the Boomshine software program were unprotected.

Its worth noting that, according to the United States Copyright Office, a copyright registration in the computer program also protects the resulting output generated by the program:

[A] single registration is sufficient to protect the copyright in a computer program and related screen displays, including videogames, without a separate registration for the screen displays or a specific reference to them on the application for the computer program. An application may give a general description in the “Author Created” space, such as “computer program.” This description will cover any copyrightable authorship contained in the computer program and screen displays, regardless of whether identifying material for the screens is deposited. (From Circular 61, emphasis added)

So, we will continue to monitor this case as it is likely heading to the latter stages of litigation. If you are interested, you can read the full order here. Also, for anyone looking to waste a little time, be sure and check out Mr. Miller’s game Boomshine [Author’s warning: The game is very addictive!].

Lastly, a big thanks to Josh Mosley, from the University of Miami Law School, for all his help, research, and assistance with the blog this summer (including this post). The posts by "Patent Arcade Staff" this summer were principally researched and written by him, and he also did 99% of the legwork for a new forthcoming section of the blog on issued video game patents. Thanks Josh, and best of luck in your last two years of law school!
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