4/13/12

Roleplaying games and copyright infringement I

About game mechanics and IP law:

I've made a lot of homebrew content over the years, and now that I'm putting out on the interwebs, I thought I'd figure out how IP law (copyright, patent and trademark) applies to the distribution of house rules, content and even home-made game systems via the internet. Thus begins my journey . . .

Driven by my own hubris, I delved into that which is mercifully hidden from human comprehension. My answers are incomplete - compared to the mad prophets of old, they are but the scratchings of a child - but they may yet be useful to others who are driven by the same questions. An attempt to make some sense of what I have learned follows:

First, the boring but necessary disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information contained in this post is my own opinion and must not be taken as legal advice.

Having said that: Game mechanics are not covered by copyright.

Via the US copyright office:
"Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles. Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form." (emphasis added)

Basically, copyright covers works of expression, which includes the text and graphics of the game manuals, but does not include ideas (with some caveats that I'll talk about in the next post) or processes like the game mechanics.

Short version: Sharing e-books of game manuals is copyright infringement. Writing a game system based on the d20 mechanic, or d6, or the d10/#successes mechanic used in Vampire probably isn't. 

In theory, if someone wanted to get IP protection for a particular set of game mechanics, they would have to file for a patent. For example, Wizards has one for some of the mechanics from Magic.

I haven't come across any patents for pen and dice RPGs. My understanding is that there are a couple of reasons that make such a patent unlikely. First, filing a patent is much more involved that getting copyright protection (which is automatic). As part of this process, you have to demonstrate a few things.  Basically, the thing you are patenting can't be a naturally occurring phenomena, it has to do whatever it is you claim that it does, and it has to be novel.

That novelty requirement rules out patenting most RPG mechanics - there is a hard and fast one year deadline after a process becomes publicly available. After the deadline, the process is unpatentable as are any subsequent processes that make only 'obvious' changes. At this point, patenting anything that amounts to 'roll dice and add a modifier to determine success' is going to require a natural 20 on someone's 'profession: patent lawyer' skill check.    

But, if you are thinking of doing something with a particular system, search the US patent records by company and make sure that the system isn't patented. No one wants to waken the ancient and unfathomable horror of a patent dispute.

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