Electronic Arts Moves to Sack Massive Lawsuit From Madden Football Creator

Video game giant Electronic Arts on Tuesday asked a California federal court to dismiss a lawsuit that could be worth billions of dollars if the company loses. In dispute is whether EA owes the original creator of Madden NFL Football royalties and a percentage of profits from the many versions of the game that have come out in the last 20 years.

Robin Antonick sued EA in April, saying that he created the ground-breaking football video game that gives players the chance to simulate a football game. Antonick originally created the game for the Commodore 64, MS Dos, and Apple II platforms in 1988 and signed a development contract with EA that entitled him to royalties on derivative versions of that game.

Now, EA is throwing out a flag for a late hit.

Antonick's complaint "comes at least fifteen years too late," says EA in its motion to dismiss. The company claims that the statute of limitations on Antonick's contract claims have long since passed.

In his complaint, Antonick points to a CNBC interview in 2009 with EA's co-founder, Trip Hawkins. In that interview, Hawkins allegedly said the current generation of Madden software derived from software developed by Antonick. The interview prompted Antonick to pursue further compensation for his work.

One of the reasons why it will be interesting to watch this case will be to see how a court addresses derivatives in the video game space.

EA says that Antonick's contributions didn't amount to copyright-protected expression. Specifically, Antonick is taking credit for several elements within the Madden NFL Football game, including the simulation of player behavior, a three-dimensional projection of the field, instant replay and a positional camera.

Both parties say each of these elements represent "methods," "processes" and "algorithms."

"Since copyright protects only expression, not ideas, methods of operation, or algorithms of a computer program, the Complaint's own allegations defeat the contract claim," says EA.

Things might not be so simple. Of course, U.S. copyright code doesn't protect computer algorithms, but the code itself can be read as an embodiment of an expression. The copyrightability of computer software has been an issue that courts have fussed around with over the years and often engage in "analytic dissection" to determine protected expression vs. non-protected ideas and methods. 

Antonick may need to convince the court that his coding amounted to original expression. That might take some work, but it's surely not impossible. Then again, this isn't a copyright infringement lawsuit per se, but rather claims built on the idea that EA might owe the original creator royalties for derivatives of the original work. A judge might view Antonick's claims in the light of copyright law (if the statute of limitations bars his more direct ones.) A judge might not. Game on.

Here's a copy of EA's motion to dismiss:


E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner