Pac-Man and K.C. Munchkin // Atari Vs. Philips

Gameplay screenshot for the arcade game Pac-man(1980)

In the early 1980s, Pac-Man was the most popular video game in the world, and its manufacturers, Namco and Midway, were developing a home version port of it for the Atari 2600. But a year before Atari’s release, Magnavox and Philips Electronics debuted the video game K.C. Munchkin, which resembled Pac-Man’s gameplay, for the Philips Videopac home console. While K.C. Munchkin was not a direct clone of Pac-Man, its winding levels and its ghost-like monsters bore an uncanny resemblance to the Atari game.
In 1982, Atari sued Philips for copyright infringement and an appellate court found that Philips had copied Pac-Man. The Court’s ruling was the first to recognize how copyright law would apply to the look and feel of computer software.


The court noted many differences and similarities between PAC-MAN and K.C. Munchkin, which are reproduced in their entireties below. However, what is interesting in this case is that K.C.MUNCHKIN is a clear improvement over PAC-MAN, providing additional strategic aspects that make game play much more dynamic and difficult to master. The court does not ignore these differences, but instead reminds us that "it is enough that substantial parts were lifted; no plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate" (citing Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 81 F.2d 49 (2nd Cir.)). The court went on to state that "[t]he sine qua non of the ordinary observer test ... is the overall similarities rather than the minute differences between the two works. ... When analyzing two works to determine whether they are substantially similar, courts should be careful not to lose sight of the forest for the trees."

Indicating that video games "appeal to an audience that is fairly undiscriminating insofar as their concern about more subtle differences in artistic expression," this case is useful in tha

t it indicates that infringement can occur when the similarity between two works relates to matter which constitutes a substantial portion of copyright holder's work, i.e., matter which is of value to the copyright holder, regardless of the amount of the alleged infringing work that is similar (hmmm, sounds similar to a fair use factor). Once that determination was made, the court had no trouble concluding that Atari had a good chance of success on the merits in their copyright infringement claim. The fact that North American Phillips advertised K.C.MUNCHKIN as a PAC-MAN-type game probably didn't hurt either.


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