When is it stealing?

Started by Tayr_an-Naar, July 22, 2010, 05:42:56 PM

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Howdy all, I have a question, and in case it wasn't evident by my post count, this is my first question.  So I'm not really !00% sure this is the right forum, as this website looks helpful but is really confusing.

So, here goes.

I'm working on a rules set and I'm close to getting an alpha version ready to go.  Playtesting will probably begin soon.  The reason I'm here rather than talking to the playtesters is there's a potential publishing bug-a-boo I'd like to sort out before playtesting, to cut down on the amount of playtesting that's necessary.  Sorry again if this is too general.

How close is too close in terms of borrowing game mechanics? I'm sorting out the combat system of my game right now, and I see an Initiative system in another game I really like, and would like to use in my system, but I'm betting that's a no-no.  What I'm wondering is, how close can I cleave before it's stealing?  Because if there's a clear line, I'd like to walk up to it, then take two steps backward so that there's no doubt I was 'inspired' but not 'infringing.'

Callan S.

From what I understand, you can't copyright a mechanic. Think about it, otherwise the owners of D&D would have copyrighted rolling a d20 long ago, and you actually see d20 rolls in a few companies products (like the letigious palladium). Never mind a host of other games mechanics showing up, like rolling a d8 for damage, or whatever.

Never use the same names except for the most generic ones (eg the word initiative is no copyrighted) and you free and clear.

Well, actually with a legal system that uses sloppy, semantically ambigious, subjective wording, your never free and clear. But that's the medieval mindset sitting behind our legal system for modern times and another subject.

Larry L.

Is this a legal question or a moral question?

For a legal answer, you talk to a lawyer. Any other answer should be understood to be bullshit; It won't be their ass on the line when they give you completely inaccurate advice.

The moral answer? I dunno, you use your best judgment on the matter, and if others think you're wrong, they'll judge you, and if they think you're right, they'll judge you. Whose judgment do you care about and what sort of judgment would you not be able to live down? That's life.

I suggest you be bold and go for it! I'd be surprised if anyone really judged you a thief. At worst, you'd be judged unoriginal, and that's really not so terrible. Better to make a game that's unoriginal and fun than a game that's truly novel but tedious, I think.


Legally speaking, game mechanics can not be protected by any means other than patent. I know of no patents for role playing game mechanics.

That said, the "express" of a mechanic can be covered by both copyright and with the inclusion of any trademark terms. This means the text of the rules and any images they use to illustrate examples, plus any trademarked terms they use within the text or images is protected.

You can legally take and duplicate the mechanic, but you have to be very careful to express its mechanics fully in your own way and with your own text and not copy any part of theirs. There is a remote chance that large blocks of their texts might not "qualify" for copyright protection, as under copyright law, while a mechanic or process is not protected, so too is dry and unartisticly enhanced texts that describe a process. But just the same, its best if you do a complete rewrite in your own words to avoid any potential legal complications.

Now, whether you "should" copy that mechanic or not. Whole other can of worms. Reality is, bits and parts of games have been taken and duplicated in other games a whole bunch of times throughout the history of hobby games. Whether you should do the same is only a question you can answer for yourself. But it seems maybe you have two questions here.

1) If you should at all.

2) if you decide to, do you simply do it? Or do you do it and also give homage to the source from which is sprang?

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Retail Group - http://www.gobretail.com
Guild of Blades Publishing Group - http://www.guildofblades.com
1483 Online - http://www.1483online.com
Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Publishing Group

Marshall Burns

It ain't stealing; it's a natural, healthy part of game design. It's good to acknowledge what you appropriated and who from, though, like in the back of the book somewhere. Not only is it polite, but it's of particular interest to other gamesmiths who read your game. At least, I know that I want to know this kind of stuff when I read an RPG.

I'm not a lawyer but I know one. Here's what he's told me:

1. Copyright isn't an issue here, unless you're copying actual text from the game in question.
2. Game mechanics can be patented. As far as I can tell, nobody in the pen-and-paper world does this (some video game folks have).
3. Trademark may apply to certain terms that could be considered product identity. Words that are commonly used for all sorts of things are immune to this -- strength, initiative, encumbrance, and so on. More specialized terms might be, if the companies bothered with trademark. I'm pretty sure that most of D&D's invented monsters (including the beholder and rakshasa, but not -- oddly enough -- the bulette or catoblepas) are trademarked, for instance.


One thing from Apocalypse World that I thought was classy was the list, near the end of the book, of what parts of the game were inspired by ideas in other games. Something I'd like to do if I ever get mine to that stage. I think John Wick's new samurai game did something like that too.


Lance D. Allen


The legal and 'moral' angles have been covered. Here's what I think you're asking about... "When does 'stealing' damage my street cred?"

Based on my own observations, it doesn't, really. If you stole the entirety of an existing games mechanics then tweaked a few things and said it was all your work, then you might have some people calling foul, but if you take a mechanic from here, and one from there, and mangle them to work for your game, then that's pretty much par for the course. Ralph Mazza of Ramshead publishing has a game, Blood Red Sands, which he deliberately cobbled together from mechanics stolen from other published games. I think I recall somewhere that it was an intentional goal that not a single mechanic used in the game should be entirely original.

For me, I look at games that do things I like, rip out the parts that make them do what I like, and then cram them into my existing rules, tweaking both my original systems and the stolen graft-on until it works together. Then I make a note of who to mention in my acknowledgments/author's notes as inspirations. Acknowledging your game's spiritual ancestors is both polite and practical.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls


QuoteWhat I'm wondering is, how close can I cleave before it's stealing?

If you take a look at a lot of games from the 80's and 90's, you can see a lot of... creative influence to the point of straight up lifting.

As everyone has noted, there's not any copyright protecting any given mechanics, though you might want to watch out if, say, you're copying sections directly from something like the D20 SRD.  (Fun side note- look at D20, then go look up Talislanta's system...)

You're just playtesting now.  Use anything and everything that you think will make for a better game, cut everything that gets in the way of it.  Odds are, even a good subsystem will see changes under playtesting and may come out VERY different by the end of it.  Maybe you find all kinds of flaws or things that make it a poor fit for your game and do something else.  Or maybe, it fits just right.