Asteroids and Meteors and Lawyers: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Copyright Law

This post highlights Maryland Civil Case No. 81-803, Atari, Inc. v. Amusement World, Inc., Box 1123, which is one of the many court records held at the National Archives at Philadelphia. It comes from Andrew Salyer, an archives technician at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

Detail from advertisement for Asteroids, Play Meter Vol. 7, July 1, 1981, from Atari, Inc. v. Amusement World, Inc. (Records of the U.S. District Courts, National Archives at Philadelphia)

Before Nintendo sent millions of smartphone users out into the world to prowl for pocket-sized monsters, before Sega put a hedgehog in a pair of sneakers and defined the concept of “attitude” for an entire generation in the 90s, and long before a kindly cave wizard gave a young Hylian his spare sword, there was Atari. 

Founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972, Atari was arguably the dominant force in video entertainment through both the 1970s and the early 1980s. Hit titles like Pong (1972) saw massive success in the arcade market before successful home conversions (using Atari’s own 2600 hardware), which gave Atari ample resources with which to continue experimentation with new concepts.

One of the most successful of these experiments was Asteroids, a title conceived by Atari staffers Lyle Rains and Ed Logg. Released in 1979, Asteroids proved to be another hit for Atari, which earned hundreds of millions in profit and cemented Atari as one of the go-to developer for arcade owners eager to keep quarters flowing. 

As with any great success, Asteroids spawned a slew of imitators and pretenders each hoping to warm in the glow of the Atari original by releasing their own slightly altered interpretations of the game. Atari aggressively pursued legal action against any perceived infringements of their intellectual property and spent the years immediately following the release of Asteroids sending cease-and-desist letters to several publishers and bringing to court a number of lawsuits (with at least four defendants litigated in the state of Rhode Island alone). 

In March 1981, a new target appeared in the crosshairs of Atari’s legal department. The second annual Amusement Operators Expo was taking place in New Orleans, bringing together vendors and buyers from across the arcade industry, including a vendor known as Amusement World, Inc.—a small company founded just three years earlier by Stephen D. Holniker in Eldersburg, Maryland. 

Amusement World wowed expo attendees with a demo of a game called Meteors, a spiritual sibling of Atari’s hit Asteroids. Meteors featured notable improvements such as increased difficulty and a full color display. Unbeknownst to Holniker, the future of Meteors was not as certain as the positive reception at the expo may have led him to believe—lurking on the periphery of the expo was Atari’s very own patent counsel, Michael L. Sherrard, who didn’t fail to notice some striking similarities between his own company’s product and Amusement World’s Meteors.

Atari, Inc., swiftly brought suit against Holniker and Amusement World, Inc., citing clear similarities between Asteroids and Meteors and alleging that Holniker’s version was almost a pure duplication of the Atari original. Sherrard specifically mentions both games having near identical attract modes (i.e., a demo of gameplay displayed before a player begins actual interaction with the unit), identical game mechanics (shooting larger rocks so that they break into two consecutively smaller types of rocks before disappearing entirely) and even an almost identical scoring system (albeit with two instances of differences in the point denominations awarded). 

In short, Atari alleged that the only differences between the two were of the most slight, superficial variety, and therefore constituted offenses such as copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham Act (aka the Trademark Act of 1946), common law trademark infringement, and unfair competition. At this time, full-scale production of Meteors had yet to begin, and Atari was looking to ensure it never got to that point, demanding an immediate halt to all production and promotion of Holniker’s offending game, destruction of all currently extant copies of the game, and the award of compensatory damages including all profits generated from the defendant’s infringing acts and all legal costs incurred on the part of the plaintiff.

Holniker and Amusement World, Inc., refused to entertain any of these claims against their character, their product or their company, and they vehemently denied all allegations brought by Atari. In their response, Amusement World, Inc., asserted ignorance of any similarities between their game and Asteroids, dismissing such comparisons as being based on opinion rather than factually demonstrable violation of Atari’s intellectual property.

Simply put, no portion of Atari’s copyrighted material was actually contained within any hardware or software elements of Meteors, and therefore claims that Amusement World were somehow intending their game as direct competition to Atari were without merit. Further, Amusement World alleged that Atari’s copyrighted audiovisual material was itself far too broad in scope to begin with, rendering void not just their claim against the defendants but possibly providing grounds for the nullification of their own copyright in the process. 

As the trial proceeded, Holniker himself was called to testify. During questioning, he admitted that he was nominally aware of the game Asteroids and its general mechanics but repeatedly denied any direct inspiration, even when faced with specific, itemized points of likeness.  

Holniker had procured his PCB (printed circuit board—the “guts”/”brain” of any arcade cabinet—which contained the actual game information) for Meteors from a company called Venture Line, who were themselves supplied with design schematics Holniker had sourced from another company called “Processor Control, or Control Technology, whatever.” at Venture Line’s suggestion. 

Holniker testified under questioning that Amusement World, Inc., aside from a few physical alterations to the PCB to address overheating and other operational issues, had no direct input in the main content of the game received from Venture Line as a completed (and presumably legally produced) product. Additions such as a starfield background, assignment of color characteristics to certain game elements (i.e. the player ship, alien craft, etc.), improved audio reproduction, and the game’s specific splash screen were handled by Holniker and a contracted engineer by the name of Gary Lutters. 

Ultimately, admissions of any direct inspiration from Asteroids by Holniker would prove impossible for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. While similarities could be noted (and were, extensively), the essential element of each suggested similarity was one that could be found in any number of contemporarily available video games not under attack from Atari. Meteors had a spaceship like Asteroids? So did Defender. Meteors had “rocks” that break apart like they did in Asteroids? So did Moon Shuttle. Were these dismissals of association sincere? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the burden of proof in this case rested with the prosecution and ultimately there was little that could be done to shake Holniker’s composure on the stand. 

Case law to this point had served to establish that only specific expressions of ideas (rather than ideas themselves) were copyrightable material. Put simply, similarities between specific expressions of a concept cannot be considered infringement if the similarities in questions are essential to the expression of said concept. 

Cited by both the court in its decision as well as by Holniker’s defense, the precedent for this argument had been established in Rosenthall v. Kalpakian (9th Cir. 1971), in which the court held that the “plaintiff could not copyright his jeweled pin in the shape of a bee because such a copyright would amount to a copyright of the idea of a jeweled bee pin.” As such, Atari was entitled only to a defensible copyright for the specific collection of sounds, colors, shapes and other elements contained within their game Asteroids

This did not, however, grant Atari a copyright on the idea of a game containing asteroids, missiles, spaceships etc.—any similarities between Asteroids and other games, as long as those similarities could be considered to be unavoidable in the course of expressing the general idea of a game wherein the player shoots their way through a barrage of space rocks, could not be used as grounds for claims of infringement. 

On November 27, 1981, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland ruled in favor of the defendant, Stephen D. Holniker. 

Game over, Atari. 

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