Were we to say the word “Breakout” you’d probably get a pretty clear image in your head — the image of Atari’s 1976 block-breaking game (which both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak played significant roles in designing!) It may be totally distinctive, but it was once not seen as copyrightable.
In 1989, Atari brought legal action against Register of Copyrights Ralph Oman over the fact that he wouldn’t give Atari a copyright on the game. The register, Patent Arcade reports, said that the elements of the game were “simple geometric shapes and coloring” and not enough “authorship” went into their production to be copyrightable. ” “The idea . . . could have been expressed in expressive ways,” a Register lawyer said during oral arguments for the case. “They could have added graphics to it. They could have had a brick wall that looked like a brick wall. They could have added ivy that was expressive.”
It was future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who threw out that argument, citing the ball’s variable, non-realistic-physics-based trajectory as a creative element of the game. And with that in mind, it was sent back to the Register for reconsideration. And thus Atari got the copyright that it could then use against other block-breaking games.