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Intellectual Property Insights from Fishman Stewart
Mini Article – Volume 23, Issue 7

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Easter Eggs and Copyright Traps

By Kristyn Webb

For many of us, the term “Easter egg” conjures up memories of dying hard-boiled eggs in bright colors or hunting for treasures and candies stuffed inside plastic orbs hidden around the neighborhood. But for video gamers, the term “Easter egg” means a secret feature or message hidden inside a video game.

In the video game context, the term was coined in the 1980’s, around the time that Atari released its Adventure video game. During those years, Atari kept numerous programmers on its payroll but did not give the individual programmers any type of recognition. In the US, creative works, such as video game software, made by employees within the scope of their employment are “made for hire” and the copyrights to those works are owned by the employer, not the employee. So, while Atari owned the copyright to Adventure, its failure to provide any attribution or public recognition of the individual programmers was not always received well by those programmers.

One such programmer, Warren Robinett, decided to do something about that. He put in a bit of code that created a secret room within the game. If a player successfully executed a series of tasks, a hidden message was revealed that stated, “Created by Warren Robinett.” Robinett told no one and the secret code was not discovered in prerelease testing. It was only after the video game was released and a thousand copies were shipped around the world, that fifteen-year-old Adam Clayton discovered the secret message and wrote a letter to Atari. 

Once word got out, it spread around the gaming community and school playgrounds like wildfire. Atari decided it would be too costly to try to recall and fix the code. Instead, it leaned into the phenomena, called the message an “Easter egg” and promised to put more such hidden treasures in future games

Beyond corporate rebellion or attribution, the use of Easter eggs in software can have other effects. In fact, for ages, mapmakers have been incorporating such hidden treasures, called “phantom settlements” or “paper towns.” These are cities, streets, and other features that appear on maps, but do not exist in real life. You may have had the frustrating experience of following your GPS toward a shortcut that does not actually exist. These features, sometimes called “copyright traps” help identify unauthorized copies of the maps.  

So, next time you find what appears to be a secret message in a video game, or end up hopelessly lost trying to find a street or destination that doesn’t exist, you’ll know why! 

Kristyn Webb is the Group Leader of Fishman Stewart’s Copyright Practice Group, and is currently earning a Master’s Degree in Copyright Law at King’s College London.

Published April 7, 2023

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