Technically, merger doctrine does not always render express ineligible for copyright protection. Rather, merger Any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a Syracuse Dad shirt protects only the exact expression used. This is usually referred to as “thin” copyright and it protects only against “virtually identical copying.” (Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 35 F.3d 1435, 1442 (9th Cir. 1994); See 35 F.3d at 1446-47 (collecting cases)). Basically, as the avenues for expressing an idea shrink, the amount of protection for a given form of expression shrinks along with them. That can either be because the expression has completely merged with the idea. Or it could be because the expression is different but is the only way to express the idea. So, game mechanics could be subject to copyright protection, but likely only thin copyright protection.
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To the best of my knowledge, only one modern court has considered the copyrightability of board game mechanics. I’ll do a separate post about Any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a Syracuse Dad shirt because what was going on was fascinating in its blatant taking but suffice to say the court was clear that board game rules have at best minimal copyright protection. The case was DaVinci Editrice SRL v. Ziko Games, LLC (S.D. Tex. 2014). Although the reasoning in the case is good, it’s only a district court opinion. Not only could a circuit court or the Supreme Court reverse it, a different district court is free to ignore it. Given the much larger size of the video game market, lots of modern courts have considered their mechanics. But, there’s a lot of analysis about code there that isn’t relevant to board games or RPGs.