Chances are that at some point in the past year, you’ve played a video game. It might have been a massively multiplayer online game like the popular Fortnite or League of Legends, or maybe it was a game created for PlayStation or Xbox gaming consoles, like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. The popularity of this entertainment form has given rise to a whole new field of law, which incorporates aspects of other areas of law.
Perhaps most obviously, video game law deals with issues of free expression. In 2011, the US Supreme Court entertained a challenge to a California law that restricted the sale and rental of violent video games to minors. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Court held that video games were entitled to First Amendment protection as instances of free speech, and that California lacked sufficient interest to curtail that protection. The Court also characterized video games as an art form on par with other types of art like books, music, and film. Video games receive ratings much like movies do, but otherwise, content is not (or should not be) restricted. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (“ESRB”) categorizes games according to age; games may be rated E (for “everyone”), EC (for “early childhood”), E10+ (for “everyone ages 10 and up”), T (for “teen”), M (for “mature”), or AO (for “adults only”). Stores check their customers’ ages to ensure that children are not buying games with inappropriate ratings.
Video games also involve intellectual property law, especially copyright and trademark law. This means that video game developers must ensure that any material they use in their game is properly licensed by its originator – and that their original work is properly protected. In the case of using work by others (such as pop songs or characters or images used in a preexisting work, as in games based on the Lord of the Rings films), video game developers must obtain clear permission. Developers must also file for trademarks and copyright so that their original ideas are not appropriated by others.
Video game law may also encompass other, traditional areas of law, especially corporate law and employment law. Start-up companies need to consider their structure. They also have to contemplate the sorts of agreements they will enter into with artists and voiceover actors, and whether they will be employees or independent contractors.
Video game law represents a new frontier in the entertainment industry: it raises new possibilities for creativity and connection. However, it also involves a cross-section of traditional legal fields, albeit combined in innovative ways. Knowing how these fields intersect and impact one another can help to secure a developer’s stability and success.