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General Forge Forums => Independent Publishing => Topic started by: Glenn Vandre on November 23, 2011, 10:11:43 PM

Title: How similar is too similar?
Post by: Glenn Vandre on November 23, 2011, 10:11:43 PM
Hey all, I'm new to the site and have just been lurking for the past few days.  Now, however, I do have a question regarding game mechanics or "system".  But before I get into the question, I must say that I have read the forum rules that say I "must" post a link to some outside source so that my game content can be scrutinized- so that others may have a more clear understanding of my question(s).  I have two minor problems with this:  1.  I am open to doing this, but really don't know how to do it (product of public school system ;P).  I have created a blog type thing at Word Press, but not too sure I like it.  I also don't want to post a link to anything unless I have it in pdf format with options that forbid others from copying it.  So a little bit of help and direction on where to go and/or how to do this would be appreciated. As of now, my game is just an immense word document.   2.  The following question is broad in base, and doesn't really need "linked" examples to clarify because the clarification will be given in the question itself.  So I hope my post isn't summarily executed or banished into the realm of the "you didn't follow the rules"; because I think the question (topic) is something that should be addressed in this forum (what if you're game is "similar" to one that has already been published?  You dirty law breaker you!).  If this topic has been discussed previously, I apologize for my laziness in not researching the thousands of posts on this site, but please direct me to the appropriate place. 

The question:  How similar is too similar?... meaning:  You like  the mechanics (or aspects thereof) of a particular game system and would like to incorporate said aspects into your own mechanics (perhaps even tweaking them to an extent), but are wondering if doing so infringes on copyright.  So perhaps the question is-  Can a game's mechanics be copyrighted? 

I like the mechanic systems in games like Cyber Punk:  the attribute + skill + a roll vs. a difficulty of success type of thing.  For the types of games I like to play, and/or would like to create, this type of basic game mechanic, at least in my own opinion, is about as good as it gets.  I also know that other games have used this model (Ars Magica... yet tweaking it a little differently).  I've also read somewhere in here that Ars Magica was actually first by a few years... who was first doesn't matter (they were probably in development at the same time).  My point is:  They are similar, and I don't remember these game companies sueing each other (or did they?).  I would also speculate that other games have followed (or used) similar mechanics as well (though I don't know for sure which ones).   So these other games have used this mechanic scheme.  Does this mean that no one else can?  Does one's game have to be so many degrees of variance different from another to overcome the notion of copyright (different genre, different setting, rules tweaked, other elements, etc.).  If so, by how much?  Another example:  D&D version # (who cares) vs. Pathfinder (I don't know if these games are owned by the same company or not).  Pathfinder just seems to be another designer's take on D&D (or are they the same game... I don't know). 

Another example (of how stupid this can get):  I like to write fiction as well.  I once posted a story on some writing site that was fantasy oriented and used the term "Mithril" (as in armor).  I got called out by a "reviewer" who said that I can't use that term because it is copyrighted by Tolkien.  I researched.  They were wrong.  Tolkien never copywrighted his "linguistics", and even if he had, a copyright is only good for 70 years (which would have expired), at which point it becomes general or common domain, and is therefore open to the public to use and abuse as they see fit.  I mean- is there a copyright on the word "The" or the color "Blue"?  If so, the blue the blue the blue the blue... There. Now I've broken the law. 

So that's my question.  What constitutes copyright infringement?  Or is this a non-issue?  I understand that most of you are probably not copyright lawyers, but a general sense/opinion/discussion would be helpful. 



Title: Re: How similar is too similar?
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 24, 2011, 12:10:06 AM

Your question about the external document has been solved! You were right to state that your question doesn't really need one, which has the win-win feature that it's better suited to the Publishing forum anyway. So here we are.

I'll post again in a minute to respond to your question, although briefly.

Best, Ron
Title: Re: How similar is too similar?
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 24, 2011, 12:18:11 AM
I found what I was looking for: Making a game (, which I think will be a useful starting point for more discussion in this thread. As you'll see, the conversation was joined by someone with the username "ssem" who inadvertently demonstrated every falsehood currently repeated among gamers as terrifying truth.

I'm interested in your thoughts after checking out that thread and in learning what, if any concerns you have then.

Best, Ron
Title: Re: How similar is too similar?
Post by: Glenn Vandre on November 24, 2011, 01:42:06 AM
Thanks for the response and the link to the older post.  I think everyone cringes a little about the what ifs.  You describe your game to a friend and they say, "oh, that sounds like or reminds me of such and such game".  Then you're like "Oh shit. There goes that idea" or you start worrying and second guessing yourself on every single aspect of your game design.  I believe that nothing is unique.  Everything is based on everything that came before it.  I suspected that it comes down to degrees of difference- meaning that you don't take material from other sources verbatim. 

I never set out to create a game for sale or for free or even at all.  My gaming group friends played Warhammer Fantasy Role-play, D&D, Twilight 2000, Rifts, Cyber Punk, Vampire, Ars Magica, etc.  I prefer medieval type games and after playing and or game mastering many of the above games, and determining that every one of them is flawed in various ways (and thinking I could do better), set out to make a game that doesn't suck, i.e. a game that is everything the aforementioned games should have been.  The game mechanics of my project take some things from a multitude of other games (and systems), puts them in a blender, hits puree, ingests them, and then regurgitates them back up (having gone through my own filters of what is necessary, stupid, lame, needs to be fixed, awesome, innovative, etc. or not).  Hopefully it comes out as something new or different or viable, whether it may remind someone of another game or not. 

I would assume you can't copyright broad ideas.  I can't make an iphone, that is basically an iphone, and then call it an iphone.  But, I can make a cell phone.  I can't make "insert game name here".  I can make a game; even if some features may be similar.  That's my general understanding as of now, unless someone can tell why or how I'm wrong. 



Title: Re: How similar is too similar?
Post by: guildofblades on November 29, 2011, 12:40:41 AM
Hi Glenn,

Generally speaking, if applying US copyright law, ideas can not be copyright protected. Game mechanics too. Only the expression of the idea.

Basically you have three areas of intellectual property to concern yourself with, with one subset. They are.

In general, this protects written form and artwork. It can't protect the ideas these things either spring from or represent, only the fixed expression of them.

Trademarks are the words, symbols, sounds, etc that your company and/or product does business under. Names of products, key features, logos, sounds and such mean to identify your product. For instance, you can make all sorts of fantasy role playing games, but you can't all yours "Dungeons & Dragons".

Patents are the only form of intellectual property protection that can, for a short time, protect an application of an idea. Even then a patent can not protect the idea itself, only the specific mechanical/methodology of the application of the idea.

Patents are extremely rare in games hobby games. Everyone uses copyrights and trademarks, registered or not. Generally speaking, you are pretty safe from violating copyrights and trademarks if you don't go around using someone's trade names or marks and you don't go about copying their texts. The ideas, game mechanics, etc represented by the text, unless protected by a patent are completely and totally fair game. Worry more about the ethics of such a duplication and how you would handle such.

Normal disclaimers apply: I am not a lawyer, so for best protection on such matters, its good to consult one.