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Protect or not?

18 replies [Last post]
Joined: 02/16/2010

I'm brand new here but thought I'd share a personal experience after finding this website while looking for publishers currently accepting submissions.

So then, I have been designing board, card, Rpg, and a host of other products for some time now. My greatest hope in life is to be able to devote myself to these loves full time, but I’m sure we all know how well this path pays.

During my younger days I spent a great deal of time working on a non-collectible card game called X, (since the name is now trademarked we can just refer to it as X here). I spent literally the better part of a year crafting the game to a fine edge as I added and removed points and parts in a ttempt to make something truly special. After a long year worth of work and a lot of lost free time I figured it was time for some blind play testing. This is, literally, the finest test of a game, and for any of you aspiring game designers if you have not had a blind play test, do it.

Takeing my game to a local hobby store I came across a big group of folks, some I knew some I did not, I asked them if after their current game of “Awful green things from outer space” they would like to try something new. I hastily called to order them a pizza and some two-liters as they agreed and awaited my turn, clipboard in hand. The players spent the better part of four hours playing the game repeatedly and seemed to have a great deal of fun, with one of the group asking a myriad of questions forcing me to continually point to the rulebook and restate that it was a “blind” playtest.

Gathering my things at the end of the night I went home contented with my results and carrying valuable notes for some minor and possibly major changes to improve the game.

Now we jump ahead about 6 months, its summer and the game has grown a thin film of dust sitting on my desk for no less than a month untouched as work has driven me away from my true love once again.

Marching in from my car I open the door to my living room to find my roommate and a friend from the hobby store enthralled with a game their playing on the carpet. I’m interested so I plop down on the couch to watch the drama unfold.

No sooner had my tail touched the couch then I realized the setup of the cards on the floor identical to my own design. This design element is so unique that it has literally only been used in my own game and the game design before me. Completely derailed from any other element of reality I became focused on the game, noteing placement of dice, and action in turn sequence.

I seized my rulebook and began asking questions. “So for the beginning of your turn your gonna do this?” “So on your next turn you’ll probably wanna use him to do that and this?” I asked questions based on my pre-existing knowledge of the rules, reading from my rulebook as I did. Within a few minutes my roommate asked, “Have you played this before? Pretty kool game, right?”

Handing my roommate MY rulebook I retired to my bedroom for the evening. That was nearly the end of any dreams I had for game design, it turns out one of the people at my blind play test was a graphic designer for a much larger company and had simply stolen the idea in full.

Now given that my rules were scribbles in a notebook and that the cards etc I used were printouts from my home PC I figured I had at least SOMETHING to work with when I contacted a lawyer in the following weeks. This could not have been farther from the truth, I had, in fact, nothing. The lawyer suggested and this is a quote “If I were you Mr.X I’d go design another game and this time you should look into a copyright.”

Since this initial lesson I’ve become a much more wary person. Thiers a lot of people out there that know good and well, most game ideas are crap. The fact remains though that should your idea be “the one” and you haven’t shown any precepts of control or protection, it’s literally “up for grabs”.

Why share this? Because I would loath to go through those events a second time and so hope to prevent any of you from experiencing a similar outcome. Fully understand that my own experience was a rarity, but that these things DO happen, should you fail to protect your work it will be your own fault.

Dralius's picture
Joined: 07/26/2008
what is the game that is

what is the game that is identical to your game?

truekid games
truekid games's picture
Joined: 10/29/2008
that is certainly

that is certainly unfortunate, i'd actually contact the game company and talk to them directly about it- at the very least to warn against further interactions with that designer.

also, a copyright would, in reality, protect diddly-squat in a game design, so that seems like something odd for the lawyer to advise.

InvisibleJon's picture
Joined: 07/27/2008
Empathy, and a thought...

Two thoughts:

1) I have a lot of empathy for you. That was very unfortunate and unpleasant for you, I'm sure.

2) This doesn't directly relate to your situation, but I wonder if sharing ideas can make them "safer"? Let me explain: You share your idea in a public way, such as a print-and-play game on your website. You explicitly state that you retain rights to the idea. Does this establish your date of creation and rights to the concept, in the event that someone attempts to use your game without permission or compensation?

(This is all theoretical. You're better off never going to court.)

j0schm03's picture
Joined: 10/19/2009
This is very unfortunate and

This is very unfortunate and I'm sorry to hear.

I've been wondering the same thing as the post above however. For instance our game we have a track record of sales, receipts, website etc that can establish when it was created and what not.

Does that provide ANY evidence or any backing in a situation like this?

Joined: 02/16/2010

As far as a copyright goes this places a time of creation on the product, allowing you at least the chance to go to trial. I certainly wouldnt say this means you can wreck anyone that comes near your design, it just offers you the chance to attack a clone, depending on your bank account and drive to press the subject.

As far as "sideways copyrights" you can do a great many things to show proof of an established idea. I imagine the only real impact this would have however would only become evident after a worst case scenario had already taken place, at which point it may be worth very little.

Either way you wanna go I simply accepted my fate. I no longer hold any anger or hate towards anyone over the subject and have since simply taken it as the only kind of silver lineing I could imagine, they proved my concept worked and made me want to redouble my efforts on further products.

As far as the name of the product or company, lets leave this dead. I let it all go years ago and pointing fingers or smearing names wasn't the intent of the post, only awareness.

Joined: 07/08/2009
I'm sure . . .

. . . there are people who wouldn't want that company to be the one they send their ideas to, though!

Darkehorse's picture
Joined: 07/21/2008

Even though legally you have no recourse, I believe it is your DUTY to expose this misdeed. This sort of exposure is required to keep the industry honest. Also consider the possibility that the individual was working on his/her own, and the company does not know that something dishonest has taken place regarding the game.

Also, sadly, I am not inclined to believe you, for several reasons:

1) Because thousands of people are working thousands of game designs, and since we don't live in creative vacuum, it's nigh impossible that anyone will come up with something that hasn't been thought up by someone else. Read Tom Jolly's article "Those Bastards stole my game idea" for further in depth reading regarding this subject.
2) You said it was 6 months from the time you demoed your game until you saw your friends playing a copy of the published game. Again, given the time it takes to do everything necessary to produce a game, this is highly, highly unlikely.

To me, you're just spreading unnecessary paranoia. I say reveal the game/company in question, otherwise you have little to no credibility regarding your statement.

If you have indeed been wronged, then the Internet community will react accordingly, and there will indeed be repercussions. If you don't believe me, do a little research regarding the current reputation of Games Workshop among gamers on the Internet.

Also let me say that I'm not trying to be rude or disrespectful, but as the founder of this community, I take great pride in the sharing that goes on amongst its members. Baseless paranoia does little to encourage the sharing needed for continued growth of the community.

ReneWiersma's picture
Joined: 08/08/2008
I agree wholeheartedly with

I agree wholeheartedly with everything DarkeHorse said. I do believe you truly believe your game design was stolen, but I find it hard to believe. It might be possible that one of your blind testers copied some of your ideas and used it for a design the company was already working on, but I can't believe the whole game was copied 100%.

I too would like to know which game this was, so I can form a more informed opinion on this matter. So far I never heard a (true) story that was similar to yours (ie. a blind tester ripping off a game 100%).

Joined: 12/16/2009
Welcome to the Jungle

Well Darke I can only speak for me when I say it does indeed happen. Simply outing the offenders just sets a legal mess in motion that a small operator cannot afford. Else wise I would name the two offending parties in my examples below as well. I have seen other friends raked over the coals by companies like TSR and Games Workshop over the years. It happens.

To the OP -- I can sympathize with you. It has happened to me twice as well.

In one case thirty years back I made the mistake of bringing my game to a convention in a misguided attempt to attract production investment from a large game company that was suppose to have a rep there. It did not work out as planned, although the 8 players of the game considered it a excellent systems and board. The usual common story.

Well the following year at the same convention who should set up two tables next to my own but one of the players from that previous year. Seems he had thought my idea so good that he got some money from his rich daddy and went and stole my work, fancied up the pieces, and became very popular for it. Of course typical human style -- every one else raved about how great his game was and literally ignored me. One pair of guys called me a stupid loser because I was even there, and that I should have been polite and left so that the other guy would not be embarrassed by the clear theft. I expected people to be moral and support me against his theft. I was wrong. He sold hundreds of copies of the game in that first day, and in the end only three people even came over to say one supportive thing about the obvious rip off. I was so humiliated by the experience (more so by how dishonest so many gamers were out there) that I stopped making games for almost six years out of disgust. But I was young and idealistic and learned a painful caveat.

About ten years ago I made a computer game that was set to go to the million dollar sales level. It too got stolen by one of the playtesters, re-engineered, and sold under a different name. He even sent me an email saying "HA HA! we stole your idea." That game is still pretty popular these days on that other forum. I am no longer welcome there because I pointed out the obvious theft. Bottom line -- no one cared. They only went with the supposed "winner". I was the loser even though I originated the game.

So it goes. Welcome to the business world. In the past ten years I have seen more then a few of my products and the underlying idea stolen and reused by a few big name companies. I have had supporters of that game tell me on the various forums the equivalent of "shut up and go away", even after they knew the big companies action was a clear rip off of stuff that I spent months working on. I had legal protection, but big fish do not care. They have even bigger lawyers and they know that the gaming community will be on their side.

Point is, a lot of gamers have no good morality about this kind of stuff, and treat it like normal rules of the jungle behavior. The bigger fish is respected for what they do, and you get zip. That is one reason I no longer contribute to games forums that I play in regards to maps, better rules, new cards, etc. It is also why I refuse to use playtesters I do not know.

Do everything to protect yourself that you can, and if in 50% of the cases you have a success -- then thank whoever is looking out for you upstairs. Getting any success in any business these days without piranhas and weasels lined up to screw you is pretty tough. I have been at this forty years now, and every year I see something that is a new level of low. You have to be paranoid because there are scum that hide in the shadows waiting for unsuspecting and well meaning inventors like you or I.

All hard lessons, but ones you won't forget. Look at it that way. Don't get too frustrated. Keep trying. Just do things smarter.

truekid games
truekid games's picture
Joined: 10/29/2008
"anything you can to protect

"anything you can to protect yourself" amounts to very little, though. copyrights only protect art and rule-as-written (which means nothing); the majority of patents, if brought into court, get dismissed from "prior use" (i think the figure i read was 2/3rds, but it might have been higher). the best protection is making sure the idea has a clear timestamp associated with it (which is essentially all a copyright will do) and actively pursuing both its publication and its protection- if you are unwilling or unable to press charges, specifically, even a rock-solid patent (sic) doesn't mean anything.

additionally, you MUST playtest. with a lot of people. if you only use people you know, you are probably generating an inferior product. the best protection is, as mentioned above, establishing your timestamp, and the policy-based protection of the community. COMPANIES in general don't want to steal your idea- individuals do. helping the community understand which people are unscrupulous is important, as well as making sure the companies knows who's sketchy... because the companies don't want a lawsuit (even one that gets dismissed is expensive, and bad for rep)... they would rather license their ideas from the legitimate inventor (they're paying royalties either way, even if it's their in-house graphic designer, i guarantee he's getting a cut, so they'd rather pay the correct person than get sued).

just saying "thieves are out there" doesn't mean anything if they aren't identified... because thorough, blind, and impartial playtesting is required for a quality product. if you keep your game on the downlow, you cut down on your timestamp footprint (100 witnesses of prior existence is better than one didn't-hold-up patent), and if you keep the thieves on the downlow, you hinder the natural repercussions of the community.

Taavet's picture
Joined: 08/15/2008
The Big Fish

So based on everything stated here:

IF the big fish are going to steal your idea, game design, mechanic, rules, ect; what can you really do to protect your stuff?

Us small fish will never have the resources to pursue legal action, from what I have read copyrights, trademarks, and patents can't really protect your game, and if the gaming community is unsupportive as you say then where does that leave us?

What exactly does "Keep trying. Just do things smarter." mean. If the sentiment is to protect us from similar experiences then why not reveal the scum who practice such bad business so they can be avoided. Then give some evidence/ideas of IF I would have done this or taken such and such a precaution it would have been fine. Secrecy breeds tyranny, and the Truth will set you free. Why allow the scum to continue and sleek around in the shadows to take advantage of other unsuspecting and ignorant wanna-be designers/inventors?

Bottom line, paranoia isn't going to get us anywhere. What should/can be done to protect us against the Big Fish out to get us?

And on a side note, there are Big Fish that will not take advantage of you. John Huntsman would be one I can think of.

Dralius's picture
Joined: 07/26/2008

My interest is not to out anyone but to investigate the accusation. More often than not it’s a case of parallel development. I have run into this with my own designs. People do come up with the same idea sometimes.

Lofwyr wrote:
This design element is so unique that it has literally only been used in my own game and the game design before me.

I wanted to see how unique the mechanic/card layout was, if it or something similar had existed before. I have heard these sorts of things but I have never encountered one that could be backed up by evidence.

An accusation from an unidentified person with unidentified games etc.. is meaningless. Nothing but a rumor.

Joined: 02/16/2010
Understanding your Audience

Truthfully, some of you conduct yourselves as though i attacked you personally.

Lets begin at the beginning. I was only about 21? when this took place, 6 mnths is an approximation, not a fact. If any of you were doing what i was when you were that age then you understand the days kinda ran together for a few years thier.

Next lets move on to publicly outing a company on a forum for stealing, this is called slander. Its a crime, because i have neither proof nor persuiant complaints registered, its illegal.

Now rather then get myself in hot water with some company, or portray myself as some twit makeing up nonsense online i reserve the right to CMOA. Lets all just take a deep breath and think about possible reprecussions before acting.

Now to sate some level of cutriosity. Take out some playing cards and arrange them in front of you in a pyramid, thinking of the tip as your leader and the large base as a rank of troops. Its a simple concept, coupled with a good combat system and resource system your able to crank ouy an army, reinfoce it, and even tinker with specific troop abilitys. Such as "can attack 4 ranks in" etc.

Now its certainly possible that some game i havent ever run across had this mechanic before me. Other games such as Warlords, a CCG, have since used part of this concept to facilitate battles. Regardless, prior to my own product i was not aware of ANY other product useing my method, even if thier WERE products, none used a COMBAT SYSTEM identical to mine, makeing it increaseingly unlikely to be a simple duplication.

And as far as breeding fear or spreading paranoia, I find that insulting, your cavalier attitude and agressive comments make for poor reading.

Dralius's picture
Joined: 07/26/2008
I certainly can’t speak for

I certainly can’t speak for anyone else but it was not my intent to appear hostile. I was attempting to put you in my shoes.

Every day we encounter all sorts of things that are presented as facts and often they are misrepresented, erroneous or outright hoaxes. Being that I don’t know you, or at least I don’t think I do I hope you can understand my desire for some conformation. Besides I like to do the detective work.

I understand that you feel company X will somehow find your post and be able to track it back to you. Being that no one here knows who you I feel it’s unlikely at best. You of course have the right to CUA if you feel differently or to say not stick it out in the first place.

All in all I am still prepared to do what I have done for years. Take my pack of games to a public venue and test them. This is what im doing at BashCon this coming Saturday. Will someone steal my games? I can’t say for sure. Will my games improve from the testing? This is something I am sure will happen.

Joined: 12/16/2009
It is not paranoia

Bottom line, paranoia isn't going to get us anywhere. What should/can be done to protect us against the Big Fish out to get us?

Well "paranoia" is an irrational belief that someone is out to get you. The reality is that there are indeed people out there who are "out to get you" in the sense that they want to steal others work and ideas, in order to claim the originality and the fame for it. They are petty to be sure, but denial of their existance by saying most in the industry are good is a disservice.

I have issues with WOTC over something they did to me. The forum community were well aware of the obvious rip off that it was, yet they supported WOTC. That is how these things go. Truth means nothing to far too many people. Back in the day TSR did a number on a friend of mine. Games Workshop on another friend.

Is all of this lawsuit worthy? no. Maybe if I had a million to waste. But frankly you have to pick your battles, and naming a company over it just produce bad blood feelings -- whether true or not. In the GW case my friend settled with them and actually ended up working for them. It is after all not necessarily some conspiracy of the company but the actions of one immoral individual that puts the wheels in motion to enact the theft and once in print it gains the same legitimacy under the law as posssion being 9/10ths kind of deal.

IF the big fish are going to steal your idea, game design, mechanic, rules, ect; what can you really do to protect your stuff?

Copyright is never "useless". The problem is that as the other poster mentioned is the money you need to defend it, and that many cases are thrown out of court. Even the use of "Poor Mans Copyright" is still some small step you can take to have a fixed date associated with your name, that you had it in your possession first. Will it be admitted in court? Depends entirely on the judge. Some authorities on copyright and trademark laws will tell you PMC is a waste of time legally. I have heard of cases where it has been used successfully. Who do you want to believe?

That is just one thing I mean by being smarter.

That and have your playtesters sign NDAs. Those are also in practice useless, yet they can still be legal leverage in the right circumstance. Easier to get an injunction based on a NDA then on words and air. Just be careful and do not turn it into a IP blanket agreement, else no one will sign it and it will make you look the villian.

By being smarter I mean do not trust the general public with being honest. Do not expect them to support you in any battle either. Some will, most won't. Recruit a small circle of people you know are relatively moral and honest, and stick with them as the alpha play testers. I do not agree that testing amongst this small circle will make your game defective. It just means you have to be far more critical of the game, and willing to make eventual refinements that may make or break the game. The primary use of alpha testing is to identify the holes that people manipulate to break the game, not just to test the game to find out how acceptable it is to the general public as a marketable concept. This cart before the horse way of playtesting is I think a big mistake that small developers make. And doing something that reduces your chances of getting the game to market before someone can in fact plagarize it is part the battle.

Once the initial testing is done, then have some elements of the game like the board or cards printed professionally for any further testing. This also gives you legitimacy and proof of production date via receipts and witnesses to said production. Most printers have no problem producing such evidence for professional purposes, and worse case scenario you subpeona them.

Only when you have a paper trail that points to the game and concept being your possession to you go to the next level of public discussion and testing. That is where I am right now with one of my games. I have to be cautious because I know from years of game design experience that it is "a good idea" made ready for market. Will someone steal it? Probably not in this case because it is a smaller project them my normal ventures. But I will not take that risk.

BTW Outing someone for their actions can still make you libel or slander target in some lawyers cross hairs. While I do agree there is in some sense a duty to accuse where it is due, it will almost always backfire. The Big fish will win in a case like that, unless you have proof to support the claim.

The person making the accusation (whether true or not) will always get accused of being only interested in destroying the successors victory. I lived that bud, and it is not a pleasant feeling to know that someone else is clearly a thief, and the rest of the gaming community supports "them" because when it comes down to it too many people are sheep. They are only interested in the "winner". Those people take the truth as a personal affront because you are disgracing someone they respect (aka. the person who published the game first). Even if that corporation or person are known crooks. Gamers have a surprisingly short memory when it comes to such affronts.

And btw I am not talking about parallel development here. That does happen with a thousand people working on something, especially in the software industry. I am referring to specific cases of bullying and out right plagarism based theft.

Telling a young or fresh designer to be smart is important. People new at this stuff get wounded by it all and discouraged easily. It is not just over the level of work it takes to get a finished quality product out the door. They need to hear that one failure does not lose you a war either, and I think that is more important then simply outing crooks some times.

BTW "true kid" I do agree with the points you are making.

In the end it comes down to being as much the luck of opportunity as it does being smart. No one successful can tell you they did everything right to get to where they are. It is more a matter of reducing the impact of your mistakes.


Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010
You rather be copied

I will try to be polite just in case you are actually telling the truth, although I have to tell you up front I don’t buy it, and although that won’t matter here.

Most things in the web are just crap. Many people spam each other with crap at a regular basis and most of them not even for a good reason. So, bear with the critics. These guys are not meaning to be offensive; they sound just skeptics to me. They have a community here to watch for, and that community is based in sharing. You don’t just have to tell the truth these days, you also have to look credible. And the fact you posted a mile-long confession on your first day in the forum doesn’t help you there.

Trying to be positive about this, I will share my experience for those interested.

First (this will sound odd) you may want them to copy your design if you have previously showed it around some other big shots in the gaming industry. It’s a way in. Now we all know it was a marketable idea and it was yours, even if you didn’t profit directly from it. This will serve as leverage for your next design, even with the same people that rip you off in the first place. While I was looking for public funding of my project, this helped me a lot. I’m on a new design now for one of the big shots that didn’t support me at first.

Second, if they copy you, they may want to settle just out of risk management. Bad press is bad for business and a corporation has much more to loose in court than a simple designer.

Third, on a personal level, if you were 21 you could only think (or imagine) your design will be a great hit, but you wouldn’t know for sure. If the stolen game ends being a hit, your ego would have expanded enough to fuel your creativity and you would have a much better design by now. From your post, it sounds that this was a veeeery long time ago, and we haven’t heard from you since.

Forth, not every company will steal your design just because they can. And, not every company can use your design in their games portfolio. All submissions advices state that you should study the portfolio of a company to see if you fit on it first. The fact is that they don’t accept submissions because THEY fear a law suit if one of their games ended at some point similar to a submission they passed out from a trillion years ago.

I can design (not develop, just design) a serious game once a year, and three or four small games in between. So, if you really design, there is much more to loose from withholding your virginity than to set out and try to conquer your mountain.

Remember, just
Keep thinking!

Taavet's picture
Joined: 08/15/2008
Cutthroat Business

Obviously scum, scoundrels and scammers are out there. Anyone would be a fool or completely naive to believe otherwise even if they do like to see the world through rosy colored eye glasses. is an interesting site about scammers in particular and the lengths they are willing to go to rip someone off.

I am aware of the opportunity for anything, especially on the internet, to be taken and used without my consent. My personal viewpoint is that what I share or post online is basically open source.

Thanks for the awareness and the tips on steps that can be taken to help protect our time, efforts and ideas.

I wasn't trying to be sarcastic or aggressive in asking what can be done to protect our stuff. There are bad people out there. From my own personal experience, as others have mentioned, knowing who you are dealing with is the biggest part of protecting your stuff. As history has proven, even if taking every precaution you can still get taken. We have a great community here and can get defensive of it.

Anyone with experience want to write up a 'how to protect your game' article? (example NDA, where/how to copyright, what makes up a paper trail, what should trigger red flags, ect)

metzgerism's picture
Joined: 06/19/2009
Taavet wrote: Anyone with

Taavet wrote:

Anyone with experience want to write up a 'how to protect your game' article? (example NDA, where/how to copyright, what makes up a paper trail, what should trigger red flags, ect)

There is a (relatively new) stickied thread on the BGG game design forum for much of this stuff...however you will find my posts on there amount to "legal documentation is a waste of time."

NDA's are usually only used when your game is getting submitted for publication or playtested in a group or at a show. In game design, NDA's are generally a BAD IDEA because any publisher in his right legal mind will see an NDA attached to a prototype and simply send the game back, unopened, NDA unsigned (if you're lucky - the trash is an easier place to put it). Copyrights and patents are not as bad but remain significant hurdles from a publishers point-of-view.

However, I really like the idea of adding paper-trail advice and red flags to designers.

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