Introduction: Copyright in the World of Game Design
Copyright can be a puzzling and intimidating topic, especially when it comes to the world of video games. It’s essential to protect your own game from being stolen, just as you wouldn’t want to infringe on someone else’s intellectual property. However, it’s important to note that I am not a lawyer, so for any legal concerns, it’s best to consult a professional.
This guide aims to provide a better understanding of copyright laws, specifically as they relate to game design. But beware, copyright law is a complex and ever-evolving field, subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. Precedence, or the decisions made in previous cases, plays a significant role in shaping the future of copyright law.
Understanding Copyright Protection for Games
Copyright laws can be challenging to navigate regardless of the medium you work in. You may have heard about high-profile lawsuits in the music industry, such as the case involving Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines,” or Lana Del Rey facing plagiarism claims. Similar disputes have arisen in the TV industry, like the lawsuit against the creators of Stranger Things for allegedly stealing an idea.
Even the gaming industry has not been immune to such conflicts. For example, Universal Studios sued Nintendo years ago, claiming that Donkey Kong was a copy of King Kong. However, it’s crucial to recognize that each case is unique, and the outcomes can vary.
What Can You Copyright in a Video Game?
When it comes to copyright protection for video games, certain elements can be safeguarded. Once you publish your game in a tangible form, you automatically become the copyright owner, although registering your work is still recommended. The following aspects of your game can generally be protected by copyright:
- Artistic choices specific to your game
- Characters (to some extent, as seen in the King Kong vs. Donkey Kong case)
- Parts of your code (with some debate over what qualifies)
- Original music
- Specific storylines and narratives
- The finished game as a whole
These components belong to you and are legally protected.
What Can’t You Copyright in a Video Game?
On the other hand, there are elements of a video game that cannot be copyrighted, such as “scenes a faire” (“necessary scenes” in French). These are the essential components required to realize a specific idea. For instance, in a racing game, race cars, tracks, drivers, and other common elements cannot be copyrighted because they are intrinsic to the genre.
The same principle applies to fantasy settings featuring castles, dragons, wizards, and the like. You cannot copyright these general concepts. However, if your game incorporates unique elements, such as a specific castle with distinct characteristics and a story revolving around it, you may have grounds for a lawsuit if someone uses a nearly identical castle in their game.
Mechanics of a game, such as gameplay systems or battle royale concepts, cannot be copyrighted either. The example of PUBG and Fortnite illustrates this. Although Fortnite’s free-to-play battle royale mode was inspired by PUBG, the mechanics themselves cannot be protected by copyright.
The Process of Copyrighting a Video Game
In technical terms, you automatically own the copyright to your original work, including a video game, as soon as it’s published in a tangible form. However, for added protection, it’s advisable to register your game with the US Copyright Office. Registering your work offers several advantages:
- Certification of authorship and publication dates, backed by the government
- Official records, simplifying any future legal disputes
- Strengthens cease-and-desist letters and provides an advantage in infringement trials
There is a fee for registering your work, usually a one-time charge starting at $50. This investment ensures additional peace of mind.
When Should You Register Your Game?
Ideally, you should register your game as soon as it’s published. Registering your work once offers lifetime protection and more.
The Reality of Game Copyright Laws
In reality, worrying excessively about copyright laws may not be necessary. Great ideas are often already out there, and the risk of someone stealing your entire game is relatively low. However, it’s understandable to care about your creations and want to protect them.
Keep in mind that copyright protection doesn’t provide a definitive shield against potential infringement throughout your lifetime. Instead of constant worry, take proactive measures like registering your work with the US Copyright Office.
Remember, engaging in legal battles can be time-consuming and expensive. The flexible nature of copyright law for games has allowed the industry to thrive, fostering diverse game mechanics and genres. Embrace the freedom to create, focus on producing exceptional content, and seek legal help if needed.
Securing copyright for your video game is a crucial step in safeguarding your intellectual property. Although the process may seem complicated, it’s essential to understand what aspects of your game can and cannot be protected. By registering your work and staying informed about copyright laws, you can confidently pursue your passion for creating extraordinary gaming experiences.