The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : INTELLECTUAL PROPERTIES : Game Firms Battle in Court


Street Fighter, the martial arts hero who has propelled Capcom USA to the front ranks of the video game industry, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would need to seek protection in a courthouse.

But that's where he'll be Dec. 5, when Capcom squares off against rival Data East USA in an unusual copyright infringement case that could establish legal precedents on the use of cultural and racial stereotypes.

Capcom, a subsidiary of Capcom Co. of Japan, sued Data East last year, contending that Data East's game Fighter's History was a rip-off of Street Fighter II, one of the best-selling video games ever.

Capcom said Fighter's History not only used strikingly similar characters and the same kind of hand, feet and projectile movements, but also employed the same joystick and button sequences to control the digital killers. Data East countered that the control sequences--and, more important, stereotypes about martial arts fighters--can't be copyrighted.

"Capcom is seeking a monopoly on one-on-one fight games," said William Fenwick, a Palo Alto attorney who is representing Data East. U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, in refusing to grant an injunction against Data East last March, largely agreed.

Both games use moves common to martial arts, and they star stereotypical ruffians of the type who have battled each other since storytelling began.

Orrick said Capcom cannot claim such public ideas and expressions as its own.

"To do so would be commensurate to awarding Capcom a monopoly over a range of characters and moves that it did not create," Orrick wrote in an order last March.

"It would also allow Capcom to lay proprietary claim to all reality-based fight games featuring human characters," he wrote. Data East quickly sought dismissal.

But Orrick ruled in August that there were enough copyright-able "expressions" in the Street Fighter II characters to send the case to a jury.

Both sides agree that a jury is a dramatically different creature than a judge, and Capcom's effort to gain copyright protection on the entire look and feel of its game now stands a fighting chance.

If Capcom wins, other game and entertainment companies will be likely to seek copyright protection for stereotypical characters of one sort or another.

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