Could ‘Overwatch’ Win a Suit Against ‘Paladins’ Over the Many, Many Similarities?

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By William Hicks | 4:04 pm, September 21, 2016

Paladins: Champions of the Realm is a free to play game many are calling an Overwatch clone.

Both are multiplayer hero shooters developed around a cast of personality-driven, colorful characters. To name just a few similarities, both have a bearded dwarf-like character who builds turrets and shoots molten lava, a flying character w/ a rocket launcher, a knight dude with a blue energy shield, a woman who turns into an icicle and loot boxes containing unlockables. But, uh, Paladins has horses.

So what would happen if Blizzard Activision (Overwatch’s developer) got salty about Hi-Rez’s (Paladins) stepping on their turf? Do they have grounds to sue? Can you even copyright stuff like burly, turret-building, lava shooters and annoying icicle women?

Video game copyright law is a bit muddled and thankfully lax. If one game was able to copyright core gameplay elements, you could have games like Call of Duty forming monopolies on entire genres. Most video games are highly derivative, thus the industry couldn’t grow if one powerhouse was able to hold ownership on certain elements.

But on the flip side, what is a developer to do if they feel like their game is being blatantly copied?

According to Banner & Witcoff attorney — and editor of the American Bar Association’s legal guide to video game development — Ross Dannenberg, developers can’t copyright functionality, but can copyright artwork and character design.

“In the world of art, all art was built on art that came before it,” he said. “It’s always difficult to see when you crossed the line between inspiration and illegal appropriation”

Blizzard can’t copyright functions like teleporting or hook shots, but does hold copyright on the look of their characters.

So they could not win a lawsuit based on the fact that Paladins has a character that has the “functionality” to shoot lava and build turrets, but would have a better chance if they said that Paladin’s Barik looked too much like their Torbjorn.

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Overwatch’s Torbjorn
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Paladin’s Barik

Another avenue for Activision Blizzard is style. A 1987 court case between  artist Saul Steinberg and Columbia Pictures set a precedent allowing for copyright lawsuits to be based on the copying of certain stylistic elements. The poster for the film Moscow on the Hudson apparently copied too much of the style of Steinberg’s New Yorker cover, and therefore infringed on the latter’s copyright.

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What exactly it means to take something else’s style is not entirely clear, however, watching videos of Overwatch compared to Paladins, it certainly feels like the same game.

“If I were Blizzard, I would be investigating this,” Dannenberg said, having played Overwatch and watched videos of Paladin. 

Yesterday Hi-Rez’s COO Todd Harris took to Reddit to make his case on why Paladins is not an Overwatch clone, citing videos from early development.

“While Overwatch is a fine game, we want people to understand that game development is an iterative process with many ideas coming from past projects,” he wrote. “This is true for Hi-Rez and almost every other game studio. For a hero shooter, the game that deserves the most credit for the genre is [Team Fortress 2].”

While it is true even Overwatch has much to credit to Team Fortress 2, the overwhelming number of similarities between Overwatch and Paladins is beyond coincidence. But as to whether it was “inspiration” or something more, the jury is still out.

Follow me on Twitter @William__Hicks.

 

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