China presents a wealth of opportunities for foreign gaming companies, but (and this is true of pretty much every IP-laden industry), it also presents substantial risks. See Gaming the System? Foreign Access to China’s Online Gaming Industry.
This post sets out the basics on how online gaming companies can protect their IP in China via China IP registrations. Though our law firm represents a host (sort-of-pun intended) of online gaming companies, we have been hesitant to write specifically about largely because it is not all that legally different from other industries. But because we have lately been getting emails requesting we do so, we will. Starting now.
The big thing to know about China IP laws as they relate to online gaming is that there really are no IP laws specific to online gaming. China’s IP laws relevant to online gaming are the same trademark and copyright and patent and IP licensing and trade secret and unfair competition laws we constantly write about on here. But though the laws are the same, how best to apply them to the particular product/industry — online gaming — differs. Our China IP lawyers generally view the IP work we do for our gaming company clients as similar to what we do for our movie and music and software and publishing (especially comic books) and toy company (especially dolls and character figures) clients.
China Online Gaming Copyright Protections. Copyright laws usually come into play when you are talking about “content” and when you are talking about online gaming, you are essentially talking about content. Online games are typically rife with copyrightable content, including the characters in the game, the music, the speaking, the story-line, and the animation. Oh, and of course the code
Registering copyrights for online games in China is very much like doing so in the United States and in Europe. Because of this, when we do such registrations, we usually just track what has already been done in the U.S. or in Europe. Registering video game source code in China typically consists of registering the source code using China’s special software registration rules. When it comes to registering the artwork in games, our normal strategy is to treat each character as a work of art. If there are special locations, these are also treated as a work of art. All the artwork is usually then collected into a bundle and is registered in one filing. The exact physical item that is sent to the registration authority depends on the nature of the work. Registration is not expensive and it is better to register too much rather than too little.
China Online Gaming Trademark Protections. As regular readers of this blog well know, we are huge fans of registering China trademarks. It is bad enough if someone copies your game but if they can legally give it and its characters the same names you gave them, it becomes nearly impossible for you to distinguish your game from the copy. Enforcing trademark rights in China is generally easier than enforcing a copyright rights and that’s why trademarks should always be considered for the name of the game and the names of the characters. The key thing you should know about China trademarks is that they usually take around a year to secure. This means you should file for your China trademarks as soon as you have an idea of what you will be calling your game and/or its characters.
China Online Gaming Patent Protections. Patents are still pretty uncommon in China for online games, but there will be instances where securing one will make sense. It really just depends.
Protecting your gaming IP requires you think ahead and act ahead. And as is true for pretty much all industries in China, the biggest benefit in your securing China trademarks and copyrights and patents will likely not so much to give you the ability to prevail in a lawsuit against an infringer, but to make potential infringers think twice before copying you. If given the choice (and to a certain extent infringers are given this choice) between copying your game that is loaded with registered China IP protections or copying a game with few or no China IP protections, the infringer more likely to pass your game by, which is exactly what you want.