I’m going to go through this step by step and at length, because I think I’m right about this.
ReV_VAdAUL’s argument does not apply equally to copyright, and he (assuming gender) is wrong in just about everything he writes on this subject. Of course everything is ‘arguable’, especially in the law (and IANAL, of course), and the law, written in natural language, is meant to be interpreted in a human way. Ok, so we’re arguing over our interpretations. The upshot, though, is that copyright protections simply are not subject to the same abuses as patent protections. These are two different kinds of intellectual property and they work in different ways. Furthermore, the facts of this don’t present any great danger of breaking the copyright system or harming gaming in general, quite the reverse.
Some negative evidence: where are the copyright trolls holding painters, authors, movie makers, and composers ransom with their extensive libraries of deeds for copyrighted works? They don’t exist for other media, they don’t for computer games, and there’s nothing in this case that should make anyone think they will in the future. Pretending otherwise, as ReV_VAdAUL seems to do, is jousting at windmills — inventing bogeymen where there’s nothing but shadows.
ReV_VAdAUL only makes the argument based on the way software patents work. It’s boiler-plate rhetoric addressing patent law and applies there because corporate trolls do suppress innovation using patent statutes. If this were a patent case he’d have a point, but in the EA case, patents aren’t involved.
Could copyright law become a similar tool in the hands of corporate giants? Granted, again, not being an expert, it certainly looks to me that the application of copyright law to computer games in this way makes for an interesting novelty. Games don’t specifically figure among the eight categories of works enumerated in title 17 of the US code. So yes, if there isn’t already case law addressing this application that I haven’t been able to find in a cursory internet search, then the way court resolves this case might set interesting precedent for the application of existing copyright law to electronic games. So perhaps this case could change things.
But if copyright could become a widespread tool of corporate trolling, why hasn’t it happened before with other media? I can only speculate, but I offer the explanation that copyright is just easier to understand for the layman, including judges. The details involve less domain-specific knowledge and are, by definition, directly perceivable to anyone witnessing the expression. This make it more easily subject to ordinary intuition and less liable to abuse. Maybe this is why the landmark American copyright decisions in the past ten years have centred (as I understand it) around the permissibility of copying and not around the differences between works, which seems to be a settled area of law in the US.
Indeed, contrary to what ReV_VAdAUL alleges and to SuperNashwan’s more thoughtful OP, if you read the document you’ll see that EA in fact does ground their complaint in existing law. The precedent in which audio-visual “elements … can be pursued” (ReV_VAdAUL’s comment) already exists, in fact, that’s an integral part of how copyright law works now. Not “design elements”, notice, that’s patent law. In particular, in their complaint EA shows “animation sequences, visual arrangements, characters’ motions and actions, and other audio-visual elements” (p. 14, ll. 19–20) they believe are direct imitations of their own designs.
The law protects “original” designs that “provide a distinguishable variation over prior work pertaining to similar articles which is more than merely trivial and has not been copied from another source.” (§ 1301. Emphasis mine.) I’m cherry picking the law here, because I can’t recite it chapter and verse, so I may be misunderstanding it, but this is pretty close to what you say about games being “nearly indistinguishable”, except this is about (I think) visual designs, not a whole game, and the language is a bit more specific. But isn’t this what copyright should be about? What other standard can there be? If two expressions are “indistinguishable” then they’re the same for practical purposes. If expressions are distinguishable in non-trivial ways and not direct copies of others, that’s a pretty good basis for calling them “original”.
In its complaint, EA alleges that the differences between the two games are trivial, that the Zynga game features direct copies of artwork made by some of the same people who made the previous designs for the Sims games, and that the expressions in detail and as a whole are indistinguishable to potential customers. These are the details of the case, and to my layman’s eye they’re the basis for a pretty good argument. Other examples like the ones you mention (Spelunky and Spelunker, for example) don’t have facts nearly this strong. A case this good should only come up when the game and its assets are indeed imitations designed to steal creative ideas and confuse customers, as EA alleges is the case with Zynga. So there really isn’t a great risk of this case setting a dangerous precedent.
On the other hand, the business/creative approach Zynga exemplifies has done widely documented damage to gaming. It has deprived original game makers of the fruits of their labour and driven them out of business. If EA is successful here, it could make such corporate bullying harder, so I for one will be rooting for EA in this case, for whatever that’s worth.
And if you actually returned to this aging thread and read all that, you earn the Netizen of the Day achievement for actually caring about debates conducted in blog comment sections.