Copyright resources (split)

Started by Tom Tom, July 11, 2010, 07:36:48 AM

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Tom Tom

i'm about to release my own game in a few weeks time and what someone from a business registering company told me was that if you don't register yourself as a business, you can still have intellectual copyright to your work but if anyone steals your work, you'll have to finace any legal battles yourself. if you registered your business with them then he said they'd finance and fight your case for you.

i don't know much about any of this but the impression i got was that copyright is essentially free but can still be an awkward thing to deal with if you're not registered as a proper business or sole trader as you'll have to foot the cost of any action on your own.

edited to remove sticky - RE

Ron Edwards

Hi Tomas,

Copyright, intellectual property, copyright registration, trademarks, and more related terms are a source of many headaches in independent publishing. I am now calling on folks at the Forge who have published to provide information on what you've done in these terms, and what consequences you've had to deal with. I would like to focus on this issue of 'stealing work,' which is kind of a bugaboo in many people's minds.

I will provide my experiences in a week or so, when I get the chance for a real computer session. Until then, publishers are invited to contribute. If you haven't published an RPG, please do not post to this thread.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

This topic gets raised now and then, I'll just summarize my own experiences and policy quickly. As Ron says, it's better if we stick to speaking of our own experiences and conclusions instead of trying to provide a comprehensive overview of the legal field - it's complex, specialized enough for a special occupational niche to have emerged centuries ago, and it's different in different parts of the world anyway. So:

First, we need to distinguish between three essentially different copyright situations:

  • The US law and most any other will allot you copyright the moment you create a work. There is no way of losing the rights to your work by not going through some legal ritual. The only question in practice might be whether you have the means to defend your copyright, but practically speaking: who's going to contest it? You need do nothing to ensure that you have copyright.
  • The US law has this peculiar system of "registered copyright" that is not typical of how things work in the wider world. I understand that the system is a legal relict from earlier in the 20th century when the US copyright law required you to explicitly "file for copyright" to have it - works were in the public domain without that or something of the sort, I don't remember. I've heard that today the registration is mainly useful as some sort of legal leverage to prove your copyright neatly and quickly, but it hasn't actually been a necessity in the USA for decades.
  • What you're describing, Tomas, sounds like a company that is offering a legal service related to copyrights. Perhaps they're lawyers who work with the culture industry to advice and manage your legal hassles regarding copyright. No idea of their quality as a service, but I do have an opinion on the need: the sort of service described therein, having them fight your legal battles and such, is completely unnecessary on the level of business I operate on - and probably on the level of your operation as well. We would have to be talking of intellectual properties worth a couple of orders of magnitude more than anything I operate routinely for anything like this to make sense. Legal fights only make sense when there's significant money involved, copyright wrangles likewise - if your IP is actually not worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, there's no reason whatsoever to even think of legal services.

Now that we've distinguished between those, one more thing about registered copyright, my case #2: copyright registration in the US is a form you fill with the patent registration office (I seem to remember, easy to check if you need this for some reason) and it has nothing to do with the incorporation of your business. Copyrights are registered per work, not per business. I won't comment on whether the US law actually gives you some sort of discount in the copyright proceedings if you're a registered business entity, but that'd seem weird to me - the only thing of this sort that I know of is that it's apparently easier to get the offending party to pay your legal costs after a copyright case if your copyright was registered, but that still has nothing to do with the state of your incorporation.

But anyway, that is quickly going into the realm of legal speculation. My real point is that all this concern over legal battles, copyright registrations and such is completely irrelevant to what you're actually doing in the real world right now, in my experience. I've never encountered a copyright case of any sort related to small press roleplaying games, it's just not the right venue of handling things. For this reason I personally find this a complete non-issue: I honor the rights of other authors carefully when doing my own work, and others do the same for me. I could only wish to have such a hot property that somebody would actually want to work with it - and then they only need to ask, no reason to go and steal it. It's always very satisfying when somebody wants to do something with your game.

In a nutshell: you're working yourself up on an issue for no good reason, and are probably reading up on sources that are not suitable for the field we work in - of course a copyright lawyer will tell you that you need to worry about copyrights, and of course somebody running a million-dollar culture industry business should. But you're not million dollars, I understand, and if you are, then you need to get with a lawyer.
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Tom Tom

to put ithis in simplistic terms, is someone able to just copy and paste my work and sell it themselves? and if so, would it then be financially impractical for me to make them stop?

Nathan P.

Hi Tomas,

Legally speaking, no. You have copyright on your work as soon as you create it. Once your work is created, putting the words "Copyright (Date) (Your name)" is pretty much all you need, and/or the c-in-a-circle mark.

If you go to the US Copyright Office site (, the first link in the left-hand column is a really good, human-readable explanation of how copyright works in the US.

Now, if someone DID copy your work and sell it themselves, but put that they have copyright on it, then you would have to take them to court in order to make them stop and recover any money you think that they cost you. In this case, as far as I can tell from the Copyright office info (but I have never been in this position) having a registered copyright (where you fill out a form and pay some money) gives you a much stronger legal case, basically proving to the court that you did indeed create the work first. My understanding is that having people who have purchased (or downloaded, or whatever) your product is also a pretty good way to establish precedence - like, if you can show sales receipts for your work that predate the copied work. But that's conjecture on my part.

So, if someone did steal your work, and you did have a registered copyright, taking them to court could make sense, but it depends on the details. I imagine that legal fees may be an issue (as in, I don't know if you would still have to pay those even for a successful case) - but that's getting into "talk to a lawyer" territory.

That said, there is exactly one time that I've ever heard of anyone in the RPG community (indie or otherwise) outright stealing someone else's work, and that involved a 3rd-party Tunnel and Trolls publisher stealing artwork for book covers. Obviously people borrow ideas from each other all the time (that's the nature of the beast), but there just isn't enough money in the business for it to make sense to outright copy another persons game, not to mention that the fan base is so small that people will know. In my experience, there are so many other things to worry about - I just put a copyright notice in the book and move on.

Hope that helps!
Nathan P.
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