Video games form the heart of a vital economic industry that relies on the creativity of game designers and innovative companies to develop a consistently fresh supply of new games. Copyright law protects the economic value of video games by insuring that only the creator of the work has the right to duplicate, sell or make related merchandise from the game codes, images, dialogue and characters.
Copyright law protects the entirety of the computer code that creates the game in the same manner as it protects the entirety of a novel. Copyright law also protects the music, dialogue, scene and setting images, and character images within the game. The copyright for a video game may be held by the individual who created it or, more commonly, by the company that hired the many people who contribute to creating a complex game. No one can legally use, duplicate or sell a video game or make a new game using its characters without the permission of the copyright owner.
When a company sells its video game to a player, it licenses that player to use the game within the terms that are set forth in the license. Because a video game is also a computer program, U.S. copyright law does allow purchasers to make backup copies of the game software for purposes of archiving and re-loading in event of a computer crash, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Licenses to players may differ from game to game. Some game companies permit or even encourage their users to record and distribute screen shots of their plays of the game. Although a video game, unlike a movie or book, involves the interaction of the player, this does not diminish or obviate the game designer's copyrights. Gamers should read the license agreements of the video games they play carefully; failure to abide by their terms could result in a lawsuit being filed against them to enforce the copyright, or, in the case of online games, termination of their access to the game.
Plots and Concepts
Copyright law does not protect ideas; only actual expressions that have come into being as some object or tangible property. Although the artwork creating specific characters and the words that comprise the game dialogue are protected by copyright, the basic game concept or plot is not protected by copyright law. The idea of a band of rebels fighting an evil empire, for example, or the concept of a first-person shooter game, are not within the protections of copyright. Game designers are free to design new games based on these plot concepts, provided that the characters, art and words are substantially different from other games as well as novels and movies and television shows that are protected by copyright.
Open Source and Creative Commons
Some video game designers choose to license their video games as open source or Creative Commons works. These games are still protected by copyright law, but the owners of the copyright have chosen to allow the general public to make designated use or some kinds of changes to the game. Creative Commons licenses can set out different kinds of authorizations, such as allowing others to make new games based on game characters or producing t-shirts or other commercial products based on the game, provided that the original copyright holder is identified on subsequent works, according to the Creative Commons organization. Video game designers who designate their game as open source, license the general public to use it and make changes to the original codes or incorporate those codes into new games, according to the Duke University School of Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
- Law of the Game on Joystiq: Copyright? Copywrong
- University of California Santa Cruz: Landscape of Open Source Games
- Creative Commons: About the Licenses
- Artisthouse Music: Interview with Russell Rains
- United States Copyright Office: Copyright Law of the United States
- Duke University School of Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain: Public Domain Day Frequently Asked Questions
A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.