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Court overturns verdict against EA in Madden copyright lawsuit (update)

Six months after a jury decided in favor of an original Madden developer in his copyright-infringement lawsuit against publisher Electronic Arts, a federal court overturned the verdict and granted EA's motion for a new trial.

Robin Antonick worked with EA founder Trip Hawkins and John Madden himself on the first Madden game, the 1988 Apple II title John Madden Football. Antonick filed suit against EA in 2011, saying the company violated its contract with him regarding royalties on future Madden titles because those games allegedly incorporated his code. A jury agreed with his claims on seven Madden titles on Sega Genesis, saying that in addition to "substantial similarities" in the source code for plays and formations, those titles were each, as a whole, "virtually identical" to the Apple II game.

Had the jury's verdict stood, EA could have owed Antonick more than $11 million in damages and unpaid royalties — as well as, Antonick's attorneys argued, royalties from post-Genesis Madden games, EA's total revenue for which is more than $3 billion. But in a decision issued Jan. 22, Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California fundamentally disagreed with that verdict, saying it was contrary to the evidence Antonick's lawyers presented.

"Even construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Antonick, there is no legally sufficient basis for the jury's verdict that any of the Sega Madden games as a whole are virtually identical to Apple II Madden as a whole," Breyer wrote.

"there is no legally sufficient basis for the jury's verdict"

Breyer's argument centered on the second question posed to the jury, the one comparing the Apple II original to the first Madden game on Genesis (1990's John Madden Football) and the six annual Genesis titles following it. According to Breyer, Antonick's legal team only discussed specific elements of the 1990 Madden game in comparison to the Apple II title, and failed to present evidence that could have reasonably allowed the jurors to evaluate the games "as a whole." Antonick's attorneys had also argued that all seven Madden games on Genesis were virtually identical to each other, a claim Breyer dismissed, saying "the record contains no legally sufficient basis for the jury" to say as much.

"For these reasons, the Court concludes that the record contains no evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that Apple II Madden and any of the seven Sega Madden games are virtually identical when compared as a whole. Consequently, Antonick did not prove any of the Sega Madden games are infringing works, and EA is entitled to judgment as a matter of law," said Breyer.

Breyer also granted EA's motion for a new trial, saying that the jury's verdict is "against the clear weight of the evidence."

A spokesperson for Keker & Van Nest LLP, the law firm representing EA, sent the following statement to Polygon: "We are thrilled to see the claims resolved in favor of EA. It was the right result. As Judge Breyer held, there is no evidence that any of the Sega Madden games are virtually identical to the Apple II game that Robin Antonick programmed. The evidence also proved that EA's source code was not substantially similar to Antonick's source code. As EA has maintained from day one, Antonick was fully compensated for his work on the Apple II game. Because Antonick had no involvement in the Sega Madden games, he had no entitlement to further royalties."

A representative for Antonick's legal team at the firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP told Polygon the firm has no comment at this time. We've reached out to Antonick for comment, and will update this article with any information we receive. We've uploaded Judge Breyer's full opinion below. For more background on Antonick v. EA, check out our primer on the case.

Update: Stuart Paynter, co-lead counsel for Antonick at the Paynter Law Firm PLLC, told Polygon: "We believe that we have strong grounds for appeal and intend to do so."

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