To copy or not to copy?

Few words about copyright in Game Dev Industry

In recent months we could observe many comparisons between Overwatch and Paladins. Many times many people have used words like plagiarism or copy. How was this problem solved? Have developers met in court? Copyrights are very important in game dev industry. Here are few things to know and remember.

There are many cases when without any doubts we can admit there is a copyright infringement. The most visible case is when the visual layer of one production is Ctrl+C -> Ctrl+V to the other, sometimes with some minimal color change. We can observe such situations all the time either in App Store or in Google Play, when one game, which is on a roll, is rapidly cloned in several versions. Sometimes the clones are a complete copy in the graphical layer and they do not contain any novelty. However, such situations are not that common and usually there are parts that look like cloned. To find out whether we are dealing with someone’s copyright or not, we have to think about what copyright protection actually does.

The main rules are uniform throughout the world. So what is the work? Wikipedia says:

“Copyright may apply to a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms, or “works”. Specifics vary by jurisdiction, but these can include poems, theses, fictional characters plays and other literary works, motion pictures, choreography, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, computer software, radio and television broadcasts, and industrial designs. Graphic designs and industrial designs may have separate or overlapping laws applied to them in some jurisdictions.
Copyright does not cover ideas and information themselves, only the form or manner in which they are expressed”.

A lot of disputes involve someone stealing an idea or concept (eg, reading someone’s Game Design Doc) and using it — from a copyright point of view such a dispute is meaningless because as long as we deal with an idea or a concept that is not implemented in a specific way, there is no question of exclusivity (no patent, trade mark, etc.). A good example might be Superhot: if someone had read Game Design Doc before and learned the principle of the game’s mechanics, then he could have same mechanics and a game based on it even before the “original” Superhot. The mechanics of the game probably will never be protected. Of course, specific documents, which are all described in detail, are protected as a literary work, so if anyone wants to use our idea, he must rewrite it for his game, not to use it as a documentation. The game concept itself and the mechanics will not be protected — both in the case of simple mobile fishing game and when we are dealing with a more elaborate gameplay. The opposite is the example with two games: Flappy Birds and Flappy Crush, where the gameplay is completely different, but visually (because we do not focus on the idea or the concept of gameplay) there are grounds to state that we are dealing with copyright infringement.

Issues related to the plot are treated similarly. The subject of the dispute was, for example, the plot of God of War. It was initiated by a couple of scriptwriters for films based on Greek mythology, which have never been realized: there have been allegations that the developers of GoW have benefited from the plotting solutions that the filmmakers prepared for the purposes of movies (never realized). The answer was simple: we all enjoy, especially settling in such a well-known world as Greek mythology, from some obvious figures, from certain obvious solutions, and everyone can draw from it. And since this (“Greek”) field is already so exploited, it can not be said that there was anything else to take over than ideas. And ideas can be freely used without asking for permission from their author.

Another issue is the difference between the inspiration and the rewriting of something. As long as we inspire (eg, we refer to pop culture), from the point of view of copyright there is no problem, we can be inspired without restriction. The case is different when we want to process the original. Even if we are doing it nicely and in an interesting way, taking the source elements and using them (and in such a way that these source elements are visible in the final result) requires permission of the author of the original or the person who owns the copyright. Any use of someone else’s intellectual creations is considered separately, even if it is a fraction of a percent of our entire production.

In order to deal with copyrighted work, it must exceed a minimum threshold of individuality and originality: like very simple illustration, 3D model, program, item description or in-game content. Both the character sketch and the character model, which never goes into distribution, are already protected by copyright. An example of what is not protected by copyright is often the title — usually too short, so that it can be considered as unique and distinctive.

However, the details are much more important than the cloning or plagiarism. Very often these details will be the biggest problems in our production. For example, we have a permission to use the image of a person that has a tattoo, but we do not have the permission from the author of the tattoo, so our production is almost blocked just before release (like in a Hangover Part II movie). Do not forget about the details, they make the difference.

At the end let’s go back, basing on the information from this short article above, to the subject of games mentioned at the outset: Paladins and Overwatch. The accusations of one against the other were very serious, because the games are quite similar to each other. However, concepts are not protected, and in the case of a network shooter the rules are so well defined that there is a general probability of similar elements appearing.

Therefore no legal steps have been taken.

Not yet ;)

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