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One of the most important precedents in videogame intellectual property litigation is Atari, Inc. vs. Amusement World, Inc., a 1981 case that involved a game called Meteors by the defendant, which Atari claimed infringed on the copyright of its popular game Asteroids. Atari sought an injunction against Amusement World and its president, Stephen Holniker.

You can read the entire decision linked above, but the court decided that Asteroids and Meteors were not substantially similar due to the fact that the two games represent different interpretations of the idea of a game “in which the player combats space rocks and spaceships.”

While the decision acknowledges a number of similarities between the games, it also notes a number of differences. For example, Meteors was in color, had shading and a background, and had a ship that fired continuously. With respect to the similarities, the court notes that these “were inevitable, given the requirements of the idea of a game involving a spaceship combatting space rocks and given the technical demands of the medium of a video game.” Naturally, the technical demands of the medium were quite a bit different in 1980 than they are today.

From the perspective of video game history, Meteors may not offer very much interest. But from the perspective of IP litigation, it’s an important example, because it offers an early, concrete decision on the idea/expression dichotomy in games.

The problem is, Amusement World wasn’t really a going concern as a cabinet manufacturer even before the expense and trouble of Atari’s lawsuit, and Meteors was never widely released. It’s been very hard to find any documentation of the game, save for the 1981 decision, which just describes it.

One could speculate, of course, on why the court would have decided that the two games were not substantially similar: it’s always been clear that Asteroids was a vector game and couldn’t have been made in color with that technology. Based on the court records, it’s reasonable to conclude that Meteors was made with a raster display, and that the changes described in the decision would indeed likely have made it not substantially similar to Asteroids, at least in its audiovisual appearance.

But it seems we won’t have to speculate any longer. Just recently, Stephen Holniker’s son unearthed one of the game cabinets and installed it in an arcade/LAN center he runs. So, for the first time in a long time, ever maybe, we finally have some documentation of Meteors and what it looks like (skip to 2:00 for gameplay footage).

As you can see, the results confirm the relatively easy guesswork I laid out above: it’s a raster graphics game with bitmapped ship and rocks, overlaid upon a stellar backdrop. Visually, it looks a bit like Galaga or other space shooters of this era. And while the game certainly derives from the same concept as Asteroids, it doesn’t seem to look like it, which is the whole crux of audiovisual copyright cases. Now that visual documentation exists to exemplify the 1981 court decision, I suspect we’ll see this example come up far more often in such contexts.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

published December 20, 2012

Comments

  1. Greg Lastowka

    Thanks, Ian — this is great and does really help explain the decision. (The comparison between the way inertia is handled is an interesting difference, too.) I wonder how the court considered the two games — it seems like they must have brought the two cabinets to the courthouse… and then what happened?

    Also, re 6:36, I think his father was right about the idea of maximizing play time per quarter. I used to make the same arguments when I worked in an arcade.

  2. Ugur

    Its nice they set that precedent.

    As i just wrote on Kotaku:

    I don’t see something as useless clone as soon as it has enough own unique sides to not be confused with the thing(s) it was inspired by/ based on. Anyone who argues against that basically argues against logical positive evolution.

    I also find it stupid that when there’s one “original” thing “copied” (most people just not knowing all the references used in it in most cases) it is blamed badly as “cheap clone” while as soon as there are a few things of that kind it becomes a “genre” and is legit to make more stuff sorta in that vein.

    Come on people, wisen up.

    We’re suddenly in a time where logical evolution is held back by such nonsense.

    Its like Apple suing all and claiming to be the most original while having been one of the last big boys to the phone party and having copied enough concepts and implementations from enough others.

    (no matter if they get told they are right or not in court due to messed up patents regulation)

    It is due to a weird industry rehashing in not nice way often, taking and not sharing, redoing what’s sold instead of what’s good and often without improving upon it in noticable enough way, while others taking all the indie cred in the world for doing things in more limited abstract artstyle way often enough, and yeah, also companies claiming huge originality while copying others just like all do, and many other issues in that vein.

    Be honest with yourself and others, you build upon all that you know or don’t know came before you and so will others.

    Creativity is about creation which is the act of creating something new, which doesn’t have to be new in all of its parts to be new.

    You know what, i will go and work some more on my xxx kinda game now.

    See ya :D

    Hate replies go.
    :D

  3. Mark

    FindACase’s refusal to include the actual case citation is incredibly annoying: 547 F.Supp. 222 (1981)

    http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?q=atari+v.+amusement+world&hl=en&as_sdt=2,14&case=6441518363892064579&scilh=0

  4. Keith Smith

    I unearthed a litte more info on Meteors. Not much but what I found is at

    http://allincolorforaquarter.blogspot.com/2012/12/meteors.html

  5. RalphUp

    This is in MAME as the following!

    Space Force (c) 1980 Venture Line.

    Meteoroids (c) 1981 Venture Line.

    http://www.arcade-museum.com/…/

    http://www.arcade-museum.com/…/

    Previously Unseen? if it has a different attract screen etc. then maybe needs dumping?!?

  6. Steve Fulton

    Awesome find! While I don’t agree with Holniker’s son, that Meteors is “better” than Asteroids (it suffers from the same rotation frame-rate issues that Blasteroids had), I LOVE his enthusiasm. Watching him pridefully bask in the glow of his father’s game is a life-affirming sight to behold.

  7. nicolas

    Can not beliebe to find such a treasure so long time after. I was a fan of Asteroids, sure I would have loved this one Meteors.

    I had problem to see the video.