By statute, copyright protection does not apply to any process, system, or “method of operation” itself: protection applies only to the concrete expression of a system or method. Copyright protection for games such as card games and board games is therefore very limited and cannot be obtained in the system or manner of playing a game. The pattern or design of game boards and playing cards can be protected as pictorial or graphic works. The wording of instructions and rules is copyrightable so the game “inventor” can prevent literal copying or close paraphrasing of them as literary works. Copyright, however, does not protect the method of play itself.
Video games and computer games are subject to different rules in the copyright world. Video games are essentially computers programmed to create images on the screen subject to some control by the human player. The computer program is subject to copyright protection to the extent that it is original with the game developer. Also the game sounds and the appearance on the screen that are produced by the computer program when it runs are often held to be subject to a separate copyright as an audiovisual work.
Computer games are the result of running the game program on a computer. A program is essentially a set of written instructions and is subject to copyright protection (as a “literary work” for historical reason) just the way the wording or “expression” of a set of rules for a board game would be subject to protection. As a result, it was established by the courts that both operating system programs and applications are protected because they instruct the computer to perform an operation and are therefore expressions of rules.
The copyright dimension of games is very different from the potential trademark and patent dimensions. To take a classic example, MONOPOLY® has been registered as a U.S. trademark for a board game played with movable pieces since 1935. In the patent world, various aspects of air hockey and foosball, to take two examples, have been the subjects of patent applications filed throughout the existence of these widely played games.
IP rights in games exist in various ways and differ depending on the specifics of the game and the originality and innovation involved.