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Capcom U.S.A., Inc. v. Data East Corp., 1994 WL 1751482 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 16, 1994).

Factual Background[]

Capcom introduced the videogame "Street Fighter II" in 1991, whereas Data East introduced the videogame "Fighter’s History" in 1993.

Trial Court Proceedings[]

Capcom sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Data East from producing, marketing or selling “Fighter's History” anywhere in the world, alleging that the game infringed Capcom's copyright in “Street Fighter II”.

Capcom alleged that Data East copied the distinctive fighting styles, appearances, special moves and combination attacks of many of "Street Fighter II"'s characters, as well as the control sequences to execute those moves. Data East argued in response that there was nothing unique about the "Street Fighter II" game, and to the extent that there were similarities between the two games, they resulted from the use of the same format, and drew upon the same public domain of stereotyped characters. Data East argued that Capcom's real goal was to insulate itself from competition in the lucrative videogame industry.

The trial court applied the legal test for establishing copyright infringement, namely, whether Capcom had a copyright in “Street Fighter II”, and whether Data East copied that work without authorization. The trial court held that Capcom had proven the first element of the test. To satisfy the second element of the test, the trial court held that Capcom had to demonstrate either direct copying, or circumstantial evidence of copying. Circumstantial evidence of copying is demonstrated by showing first that a person had access to the copyrighted work and, second, that there was substantial similarity between the copyrighted work and the offending work.

The trial court found that Data East had access to "Street Fighter II" and that Data East's development team deliberately sought to emulate the overall style of "Street Fighter II" in hopes of capturing its success. The trial court then turned to the question of whether there were substantial similarities, both objective and subjective, between the games.

Capcom argued that there were similarities between the characters, special moves and combination attacks, control sequences and general game play that infringed its copyright. With respect to the control sequences the court stated that under the law any intrinsic utilitarian function is ineligible for copyright protection, except to the extent that its artistic features can be identified separately and are capable of existing as a work of art. While the trial court stated that it was “concerned” by some of the similarities in the control sequences, it found that they were not protectable expression.

Furthermore, the general game play was not found to be so similar as to violate Capcom's copyright. The trial court did, however, find that three characters and five special moves in “Fighter's History” were objectively similar to characters and special moves in “Street Fighter II”. It then proceeded to consider whether these characters and moves were subjectively similar. The trial court stated that the standard to be applied was whether the similar elements were virtually identical, as they covered only a narrow range of the total moves and characters available in the "Street Fighter II" game.

Using this standard, the trial court decided that Data East had not copied the core, protectable expression of “Street Fighter II”. The court concluded that while three of the characters in “Fighter's History” were similar to three in “Street Fighter II” they were not so similar as to be virtually identical. Similarly, two special moves were found to be not virtually identical. The trial court ultimately ruled that Capcom had failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits or even serious questions concerning the merits. The trial court noted that large portions of "Street Fighter II" were based on stereotypical characters and fighting techniques which were part of the public domain and hence not copyrightable.