Fortnite, copyright and the legal precedent that could still mean trouble for Epic Games

A new U.S. Supreme Court decision is pitting entertainers and video game developers against one another in a high-stakes battle royale.

The decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC raises interesting questions about several lawsuits brought against Epic Games, the publisher of popular multiplayer game Fortnite.

In Fortnite, players may make in-game purchases, allowing player avatars to perform popular dance moves (called emotes), such as the Carlton, the Floss, and the Milly Rock.

Five performers, all represented by the same law firm, recently filed separate lawsuits against Epic Games in the Central District of California, each alleging: (i) the performer created a dance; (ii) the dance is uniquely identified with the performer; (iii) an Epic emote is a copy of the dance; and (iv) Epic’s use of the dance infringes the plaintiff’s copyright in the dance move and the dancer’s right to publicity under California statutory and common law.

In short, the dance creators argue that Epic Games used their copyrightable dance moves in violation of existing law.

The building battle
What do these Fortnite lawsuits in California have to do with the US Supreme Court? US copyright law says that a copyright owner can’t sue for copyright infringement until “registration of the copyright claim has been made” with the US Copyright Office. Prior to the recent Supreme Court decision in Fourth Estate, lower federal courts split over what this language means.

Some (including the federal courts in California) concluded that a copyright claimant could sue an alleged infringer upon delivering a completed copyright application to the Copyright Office. Other lower federal courts held that the suit could not be brought until the Copyright Office issued a registration, meaning that the Office viewed the work to be copyrightable.

Because the Copyright Office now takes over seven months to process a copyright application and issue a registration, claimants often chose to sue in California federal courts, which had adopted the quicker “application approach.” This was the route chosen by the plaintiffs in all five Fortnite cases.

Down (but not out)
On March 4, 2019, in Fourth Estate, the Supreme Court ruled that California federal courts and others following the application approach were wrong, and that a plaintiff cannot sue for copyright infringement unless the Copyright Office has issued a copyright registration.

This had an immediate impact on the Fortnite lawsuits because the Copyright Office had not yet registered any of the dances and, indeed, had found two of the plaintiffs’ dances uncopyrightable. Recognizing their vulnerability, plaintiffs preemptively withdrew these lawsuits, announcing they would refile the complaints once the Copyright Office issued registrations.

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