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Robin Antonick, the man who created the first version of the mega-successful Madden NFL Football video game, has scored a big $11 million win in a California federal court.
In March of 2011, Antonick sued video game publisher Electronic Arts for allegedly breaching a development contract he signed in 1986 that entitled him to royalties on derivative versions of the Madden game. In the years since the title, featuring legendary NFL head coach and broadcaster John Madden, first premiered, the game has sold more than 100 million copies and earned more than $4 billion in revenue.
But Antonick believed that the new iterations of the game were still basically the same as his original. And after a trial these past few weeks tested the theory, a jury agreed, ordering Electronic Arts to pay him damages. His win so far is $11 million (being estimated with interest factored), but according to Antonick’s legal team, the figure might rise as the dispute now heads into a new phase regarding games published after 1996. With significantly higher revenues for these later games, Antonick is hoping for damages that could stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
From the beginning, the case was rather cutting edge. It’s not uncommon for Hollywood studios to be sued for idea theft, nor video game companies for that matter, but this dispute tested how to judge the similarity of a game that seemingly has come a long way since it was first conceived for Commodore 64, MS Dos and Apple II platforms.
But to even have the chance to argue before a jury that he was unfairly robbed of compensation, Antonick had to first show that he brought his claims soon enough.
It was only after Antonick started paying attention to press reports about the franchise that he said he realized that he might have a case.
According to his original complaint, “Only recently, as a result of publicity surrounding the 20th Anniversary of the Madden video game did Antonick become aware that Electronic Arts did not independently develop subsequent versions of its Madden NFL software. Instead, according to recent statements by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, the current generation of software apparently derived from software developed by Antonick.”
During the first phase of the trial, Antonick survived EA’s statute of limitations defense by demonstrating that he had filed a lawsuit in a timely fashion. His attorneys argued that EA fraudulently concealed and misrepresented the situation to Antonick and that the game creator had no reason to suspect wrongdoing before 2005.
Still, that didn’t end Antonick’s chore of navigating around EA’s defenders looking to sack the case. One of the big issues in the dispute — and something that is likely to go up on appeal if there’s no settlement — was how to determine a standard by which to analyze protected elements in a video game. Antonick wanted credit for introducing, among other things, the simulation of player behavior, a three-dimensional projection of the field, instant replay and a positional camera — elements that EA argued were not expression and thus not protected by the U.S. Copyright Act.
In April, the judge came to a decision here, narrowing the potential derivative elements that could be considered by the jury, but moving the case forward. According to that ruling, the judge ruled that “of the similarities identified by Plaintiff’s expert, only two — ‘field width’ and ‘plays and formations’ — are potentially protectable under copyright law.”
Getting to trial was a huge step for Antonick and being able to show that football plays are potentially protectable was even a greater feat, but after Antonick survived phase one of the trial, which dealt with the statute of limitations, the judge made it slightly tougher for the plaintiff by saying he’d have to show something more than just substantial similarity.
At trial, Antonick had to show that “an ordinary reasonable observer would consider Antonick’s work and the later Madden versions virtually identical when viewed as a whole.”
That’s what Antonick proved in the second phase of this trial. The jury concluded that for games published between 1990 and 1996, the games were virtually identical and rejected EA’s contention that later Madden games were independently created by another game developer who never saw Antonick’s source code.
“This is a tremendous victory,” said Rob Carey, a partner at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro representing Antonick. “In many ways, this trial was a test of each party’s version of events. The jury uniformly rejected the idea that this game was developed without Robin’s work. It is, if nothing, a good omen for the next phase of the litigation.”
Besides entering a third trial phase where games sold after 1996, with billions of dollars of sale, will be examined, Antonick’s attorneys say that they plan to appeal previous rulings that excluded Super Nintendo games and fraud claims from the jury deliberations. They also add that the judge has reserved for himself Antonick’s demand that EA be disgorged of profits on one of its most successful games.
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