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Bruce E. Boyden, Games and Other Uncopyrightable Systems, 18 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 439 (2011)

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18 George Mason Law Review 439 (2011)


This article solves two puzzles in copyright law. First, it has long been blackletter law that games are not copyrightable. But the origins of this rule are lost to history, and the reasons for it are not obvious. Second, it has never been adequately explained what makes something a “system” excluded from copyright protection under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act. Modern courts interpret “system” as merely a synonym for “idea” or “process,” two other categories of exclusions. Others have interpreted it using the broadest definition in the dictionary, which would sweep in large amounts of copyrightable material as well. Neither definition gives the term any meaningful content.

Like solving a crossword puzzle, this Article uses each of these questions to shed light on the other. Games are uncopyrightable because they are systems. The case law that led to the adoption of Section 102(b) demonstrates that systems are schemes for transforming user inputs into a correlated set of outputs. Games do exactly that. A game is a scheme for transforming player activities into moves within the game. The reason why games and other systems are uncopyrightable then becomes clear: the purpose of a system is to serve as a forum for user activity; it is users, not authors, who provide the primary informational value to the outputs of a system. Games and other systems are excluded in order to fence in copyright protection before it reaches user creation.

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