Copyright Law Levels the Sims' PlumbBob
Copyright Law may be the key to who owns the design of a video game promotional item. In the popular video game, the Sims, a green icon called a “PlumbBob” identifies the character in play. The game’s manufacturer, Electronic Arts, Inc. decided it would be a great idea to include a USB drive that looked like the PlumbBob as a promotional item to be sold with the games. EA hired Lithomania who hired Direct Tech to make up a prototype and eventually manufacture the item. Lithomania then sent the prototype to a Chinese company to manufacture the USB for less than what Direct Tech was going to charge. Lithomania didn’t tell Direct Tech. Instead, it strung Direct Tech along with a series of agreements including an agreement to assign the IP in the USB. Direct Tech didn’t realize it lost the sale when the PlumbBobs appeared in stores. Direct Tech sued Lithomania for breach of contract and they settled. Then Direct Tech sued EA for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation. The district court granted summary judgment to EA. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment on the trade secrets claim. But the Court reversed and remanded on the copyright claims. There were two issues of fact, namely: (1) whether the USB design was copyrightable because it was conceptually different from the utilitarian aspects of a USB; and (2) whether the USB design is a sufficiently original and non-trivial version of the original to be considered a derivative work.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. The answers to the two questions remain to be seen. But let’s do a post-mortem on the actions of the parties. When EA retained Lithomania, their agreement should have been clear about ownership of the Intellectual Property rights to the promotional item. To further protect EA, it should have required Lithomania to get its approval on any agreements with subcontractors and agents. As to Lithomania, what can one say about its opportunism at the expense of everyone else? For Direct Tech, it’s more a matter of 20/20 hindsight. How was Direct Tech to know that Lithomania was not being candid with it? At least Direct Tech has an opportunity to recoup its lost profits using its copyright claims.