“Stolen Game”?!?! Upper Deck Sues Ravensburger and Miller #UpperDeck #Ravensburger #TCG #game #gaming #law #iplaw #lawsuit @UpperDeckEnt @RavensburgerNA

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Upper Deck (“UD”) sued a former employee, Ryan Miller (“Miller”) and a competitor, Ravensburger North America, Inc. (“Ravensburger”) over a “stolen game.” If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that game rules can’t be copyrighted. They can be patented, so UD’s claim that their game was “stolen” may prove correct. I’m going to try to answer the questions that people have addressed to me.


Briefly, UD employs Miller to design a trading card game (“TCG”). Miller sings an employment contract that contains a nondisclosure provision. Miller leaves UD, joins Ravensburger, and designs a similar game there. UD’s game hasn’t been released, but Ravensburger has publicly shared their ruleset for playtesting at conventions and has sold packs of cards for it (or so the complaint alleges).

I’m just going to deal with the intellectual property law issues because the question that everyone seems to be asking (me) is one related to IP: Is this a valid basis complaint in the first place? That’s a question I can answer without knowing both sides of the story. That is, I can’t say who’s right and wrong, but I can opine as to whether or not the philosophical basis of the suit is valid.

Trade Secrets: The Forgotten IP

Part of this case falls under trade secret law, which I address in this post covering all forms of IP. The defendant’s employment contract had a non-disclosure/secrecy provision, and that’s the basis of the suit. Game mechanics can be protected under trade secret law, which basically says, “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing,” or “Don’t tell anyone how we do what we do.” This is very much unlike copyrights because copyrights often have little to no value unless they’re made publicly available. Trade secrets are valuable because they’re kept secret. One of the most valuable trade secrets in the world is the formula for Coca-Cola. If it were patented, it would be published, and thus have at most 17 years of protection. Instead, they keep it secret, so it has value for as long as it remains so. That’s an important point: Once a trade secret is made public, it can no longer be a trade secret. You can sue someone for publishing it, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Once it’s out there, it’s no longer protectable. Ever.

So, the defendant in this case was (allegedly) bound by contract not to share the mechanics until after they were released by UD. It’s reasonable to infer that Miller must have shared those trade secrets when designing a game that was remarkably similar to what he did with UD. Miller and Ravensburger could argue that the similarities are ones shared by all card games, and so none of them are trade secrets. The complaint details the game mechanics, but I haven’t really read through them, so I can’t evaluate that defense.

Of course, even if those mechanics are identical to other games, this may not get the defendants off the hook. Games have several elements, so the difference between most games is essentially which specific combination of known elements you’ve chosen for your game. That combination may be unique. Even if not patentable, it may be marketable, and thus have value. If, for the reasons stated above, the sharing of that combination hurt UD’s market for the game, there’s still a lawsuit to be had.

You might ask, “How would it hurt the market?” Well, think about it. Games have limited shelf lives. Their first push in the market is often where they make their most money. If someone learns of your game system and publishes a quick-and-dirty version of it first, they’ll grab most, if not all, the market before your more well-designed version even gets there. Maybe you’ll enjoy a secondary push in a few years, but you’ll still have lost that first market. Also, the first game company to get their game to market can always accuse the other company of plagiarism. As for patent infringement, depending on the timing, a game company could actually lose their ability to patent a mechanic because the mechanic was published long before the application was filed. There are time limits on these things, so it’s best to keep your designs secret.


Of course, as I mentioned above, UD filed for a patent in April, 2023. I have no opinion as to whether that will be granted. Even after I eventually read through the game mechanics, there’s a lot of “prior art” (i.e., existing games) I’d have to analyze to form an opinion, and I’m not going to do that. I don’t play TCGs. Even if I did form an opinion, patent law is a tricky thing. There are very few obviously good or bad patents. My opinion wouldn’t mean squat; we’d have to wait for a judge’s decision, and then an appellate court’s opinion before we get a real answer. Either way, claiming that the game was stolen is at best premature. That’s not to say I don’t understand why UD is saying it. I’m simply acknowledging the basis for your confusion by that claim.

There’s far more to consider here than I could possibly address. I lack information and the desire to dig any deeper at the moment. The takeaway here, though, is that game mechanics can absolutely be protected by trade secret until they’re published. If the trade secrets are deemed valid, their publication by Miller and Ravensburger would constitute a legitimate cause of action for UD. We’ll just have to wait and see whether it sticks.

I’ll continue to go through the complaint and provide more information as I learn it (if it’s interesting). For now, back to work I go.

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“Limited Times” for Copyrights #iplaw #law #copyright

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Blog posts cannot substitute for legal advice. If the topics discussed in this post are relevant to a real case you have, please consult an attorney.

I tweeted yesterday!

Okay, it was a retweet. Whatever. Don’t be a pedant. That’s my thing.

To what am I referring when I invoke Methuselah? I’ve discussed the term of a copyright before on another blog, linking to a handy flowchart, but none of that is required reading. All you need to know is that the “term” of the copyright is how long it lasts, and I’m here to argue that it lasts far too long.

Constitutional Authority

Congress’s authority to grant copyrights comes from the Arts and Sciences Clause.

[The Congress shall have Power t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8

The Sciences and Discoveries are the subject of patents, and the Arts and Writings are the subject matter of copyright, though these terms are being used more broadly than you’d ordinarily use them. For example, a sculpture is a “writing” in this context because sculptures can be copyrighted. I’m not going to get into that. You’ll fall asleep before I get to my point.

Limited Times

My focus is on “limited Times.” What does that even mean? From who’s perspective must the term of the copyright be limited? The artist? The general public at the time of creation? Humanity in general? An ant? Depending on your choice of perspective, “limited” could be a few minutes or a few centuries, and who’s to say that one interpretation of that vague phrase is better than another? (Spoiler alert: Me; that’s who.) Unfortunately, a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003) seems to think it’s effectively unlimited. (Methuselah; remember?) I’m here to tell you why they’ we’re dead wrong.

By the way, you don’t get to blame this on Republicans or Democrats. Justice Ginsberg wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Scalia joined her. Though the two dissenters, Justice Stevens and Breyer, would be considered “liberal” by a layman’s standard, some conservatives would have joined their dissent. Fortunately, I’m smarter than all of them.

Call me smart, right now!

First, lets dive into some Constitutional text. The clause secures rights to “author[s],” not owners, for a limited time, and that’s an important distinction. Even if you sell your copyright, you’re always its author. Look up “copyright termination” for an example as to how this distinction can play out. So, if we’ve secured rights to authors for a “limited time,” then the perspective should be that of the author, not an ant or humanity in general, and not even a purchaser of the copyright (i.e., the owner). Thus, the term of a copyright shouldn’t be designed to outlive the author itself, even if he or she has sold their copyright. Otherwise, it’s not limited from the author’s perspective.

But that’s a bit philosophical, gets complicated when dealing with corporate authors (i.e., works made for hire), and subject to (barely) reasonable disagreement, so let’s further ground ourselves with history.

The first Copyright Act was passed in 1790, one year after the Constitution was deemed to be in effect. Therefore, the same people that debated and approved of the Arts & Sciences Clause did the same for that Copyright Act, and they granted authors copyrights with a term of 14 years eligible for renewal for another fourteen only “if, at the expiration of the said term, the author or authors, or any of them, be living” (emphasis added). The 1790 legislature was trying to keep copyrights from outliving their authors, and they’re the legislature that wrote the Arts & Sciences Clause. Who better to know what they meant? Of course, you can’t provide a guarantee in this regard, because unless you murder someone, etc., you don’t know when they’ll die. The mechanism that was used was the best way possible to minimize copyrights outliving their authors in a way that could be reasonably expressed in a statute, while recognizing that people’s dependence on a copyright might also outlive the author by a bit.

By 1831, members of Congress had lost sight of the original intent of the Founders. The Copyright Act was amended to grant a term of 28 years extendable for another 14, and in 1909, the term became 28 years extendable for another 28 years. For both of those acts, Congress had dropped the requirement that the renewal couldn’t outlive the author, as their heirs could still renew the copyright. While both of these laws should have been declared unconstitutional, even they show a clear intent to keep the term short enough that most people living during the time of a copyright grant would see the work pass into the public domain. That is, even with the 1909 statute’s possible 56-year term, a copyright born during my father’s lifetime would not have outlived him, and certainly would not have outlived the majority of the general public alive at that time. If someone grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, they should have been able to write fan fiction as adults without fear of getting sued.

Mickey Mouse is a Dick

Then Disney started lobbying Congress for longer copyright terms, and all hell broke loose. The current copyright term for a human author (as opposed to a corporate author) is life of the author plus 70 years, or 70 years beyond the life of the last living author for a joint work. Based on my interpretation, life plus anything is unconstitutional, but now the term is life of the author plus another person’s lifetime. This is insane. Note well that the purpose of intellectual property law isn’t to reward authors and inventors for a job well done. That reward is just a mechanism. It’s the means by which we encourage creation and invention. The purpose, however, is to make sure that the public has access to such subject matter. We employ the mechanism to limit affordability for a while so that creators and inventors have an incentive to create and invent in the first place, but the public must eventually gain full access to it. That’s the entire point of encouraging creation and invention in the first place. However, if I write a song today, no member of the current public, or even their children’s public, will ever see it in the public domain. Again, that’s an insane interpretation of the Arts & Sciences Clause cutting against its very purpose, so it simply cannot be the correct one.

Patent Law

We also see support for my interpretation in patent law. While the term of the patent has changed, it’s still only 17 years and not extendable. Thus, my interpretation is consistent with how patents were, and still are, treated. The fact that patent term is stricter is not because their legal foundations are different — they’re both grounded in the Arts & Science Clause — but rather the fact that patents represent a stronger intellectual property monopoly than copyrights. Still, the copyright monopoly is strong enough to warrant similar treatment.

But, But, But . . . .

What about trademarks? Trademarks are probably the weakest of intellectual property monopolies, so that alone justifies their indefinite term (only as long as you’re using them in commerce). Similarly, trade secrets are indefinite, but only as long as they remain secrets. However, there’s an additional consideration as to why these two forms of IP are treated differently: They originate in state law, and the federal government can regulate them only indirectly through the application of the Commerce Clause. I’m sure you’re dozing off, so I have no intention of digressing into that discussion. Just understand that these two forms of IP aren’t subject to the “limited Times” qualifier because they don’t arise from the Arts & Sciences Clause. If you’re still awake and would like to understand this a bit better, you can read my post on how state and federal law intersect on trademarks.

So that’s it. We have a problem, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Nevertheless, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Copyright needs reform.

Remember me after I’ve been put in a looney bin.

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Rob Bodine is a Virginia attorney focusing his practice on real estate and intellectual property law. He’s currently Virginia counsel with Cardinal Title Group, a Virginia title insurance and settlement company. Rob is also a licensed title insurance agent in Maryland and Virginia.

In case the tweets are ever deleted, here’s an image of them.