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Copyrights and Patents

How do I prevent my game from being stolen?
New designers are often very secretive about their creations, and one of the first questions they ask upon finding the BGDF is some variation of "how do I copyright my game"? The assumption behind this question is that the designer has in fact created something that others are likely itching to steal. The purpose of this page is to hopefully assuage the designer's concerns about theft, as well as to provide information about how copyrights and patents work, what they protect, and how they can be obtained.

Why you shouldn't worry about theft

  • ''A design in the very early stages (e.g., "I want to make a game about taxi cabs in New York City") is not actually that valuable.'' It's very easy to come up with an idea for a game, and many designers have several such new ideas ''every day''. Much more valuable is a game that has gone through most of the steps in the design process, including heavy playtesting.
  • ''Games are expensive to produce and yield very little profit.'' The majority of self-published games are produced in a print run of a few thousand copies or less, and if they manage to make a profit, it is often minimal. Thus, there is little incentive for a fellow designer to steal your game and try to publish it. There's even less incentive for a publisher to steal your game; the potential of a lawsuit that cuts into their margins is unattractive, and most are swamped with submissions. They will pay for an idea that they want badly enough.
  • ''Secrecy will kill your project.'' To make your game as good as it can be, you are going to need help from others at some point. At a minimum, you'll need folks to playtest your game, but many of us have found that discussing details of our games openly here at BGDF has resulted in very useful feedback. Asking your friends to sign a Nondisclosure Agreement before testing your game could make them feel you don't trust them, and publishers will not want the hassle of your project if you demand they sign an NDA before evaluating your submission.
  • '' Parallel development is common.'' Even if you successfully keep anyone from every hearing about your game, it's still quite possible that you'll see similar concepts emerge in a published game at some point. It's very common for two designers to be working on similar ideas without either of them knowing it. Tom Jolly wrote an article on this subject, and gives some examples. Several of us here can attest to having come up with mechanics we thought were very original, only to see the same mechanics used in published games.
  • Borrowing in game design

    So, does the above analysis mean that you should just speak freely about your game? Well, yes and no. You should only talk publically about your game if you feel comfortable doing so. It is very common for fellow designers to appropriate aspects of your ideas that they believe will be useful in their projects. For example, starting a thread saying "I'm going to make a game about being a lifeguard at the beach" could certainly inspire others to make a game about a similar subject, and such occurrences are very common at BGDF.

    This borrowing and give-and-take of design concepts is a healthy part of the design process, and in general, the game design community accepts it and even thrives on it. Games like ''Citadels'' and ''Puerto Rico'' have borrowed very liberally and openly from other pre-existing games, and the games are considered to be the better for it. The key distinction is roughly that borrowing a mechanic (eg, using a trading mechanic like that in ''Settlers of Catan'') and using it in a different way in your game is permissible, but borrowing entire collections of mechanics (e.g., using the die-rolling for resource production, trading, and conversion of resources to buildings) could cross the line into plagiarism. The gaming community generally knows the market very well, and will quickly identify a game that has "stolen" from an existing game. This too can help protect your ideas, provided your games see publication.

    Of course, if you have aspects of your projects that you'd prefer to keep close to the chest, of course you should be selective about how much you disclose and to whom.

    Copyrights

    Copyrights grant the holder the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform, or profit from an artistic work. It protects the particular expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. With respect to game design, this covers little more than the game's rulebook and the visual appearance of its components. Copyrighting your game will not protect you from any aspect of the actual game design from being borrowed or stolen.

    Any work that has been "fixed" (e.g., the rulebook for your game) is automatically copyrighted under U.S. law, but there may still be benefit in officially registering your rules for copyright. To do so, you pay $45 to the U.S. Copyright Office.

    Additional information can be found at the wikipedia entry on copyrights.

    Patents

    Patents are more applicable to game design, and a patent grants the holder exclusive rights to sell an invention. However, patents are also very expensive, and conventional wisdom is that given that games are expensive to produce and market, the money you would spend on patenting would better be spent marketing your game so as to increase sales. This both increases the visibility of your game, making it less desirable as a target for theft, and puts more money in your pocket, something that filing a patent in and of itself does not do.

    Patents are obtained in the United States from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

    In no way does BGDF, its staff, or its members represent a legal entity. If you have any doubts or concerns involving a legal subject it is advised that you seek qualified counsel.



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