As video game technology has advanced, the industry has boomed. There are numerous game platforms and software companies that invest millions of dollars a year in the development and publishing of games. Like any other creative work, these games and their designs fall under copyright laws. While the laws concerning video games have their own idiosyncrasies, they are similar to copyright laws for other mediums.
Protecting the Game Code
Think of a video game as a book of code, with the code being the programming instructions that make up the game itself and instruct it how to act. Texas attorney and copyright specialist Mark Methenitis has explained in several articles that copyright very clearly protects the game code and taking even a portion of the game code and using it in some other context is a copyright violation if it is not your material. However, it is more the code as a whole that is protected and not simply the individual pieces. If one line of code is identical in two separate games, there is unlikely to be a violation. If entire chunks are the same throughout, there could be a possible lawsuit.
Copyright Does Not Protect
Methenitis has also written that copyright will not protect game mechanics. It can only cover the actual programming that produces those mechanics. For example, there are many flight simulator games on the market. If you design your own flight simulation, you are not violating any copyright. However, if you pulled some of the code you are using to make your game from one of the Comanche computer games, that would be a violation, according to Methenitis. Likewise, the game characters as a whole and basic story can be protected under copyright, but the specific character names and singular story points would not be protected. There are only so many story archetypes out there, so copyrights don't apply to constructs. You cannot copyright the basic story of a prince saving the princess from the dragon. However, you can copyright a specific story as it is told in your game with your specific characters.
Derivatives Are Protected
According to Russell Rains, director of the MBA Program in Digital Media Management at St. Edward's College in Austin, Texas, when a game is copyrighted, the copyright extends to any other branches of media as well. For example, once Nintendo bought the original Super Mario Bros., competitor Sega would not be able to license a Super Mario Bros. movie. Nintendo owns the copyrights to those characters for any venture, whether it involves video games or not. Even if Nintendo had no intention to make a movie with those characters, nobody else could do it without their permission, because they own the copyright. Likewise, some "fair use" activities are protected from copyright laws, but any activity that results in a financial profit through the use of a game or any of its likenesses would be a copyright violation without the written permission of the copyright holder.