Copyright for Game Design



One of the most misconceived discussions I read on the forum boards involve copyright.  While some people seem to have a vague idea there are others that have no idea and often lead others up the wrong path – and this wrong path could involve facing legal action if a major copyright infringement occurs.

I will attempt to put the facts before you but I know that the subject will still crop up on the forum boards – hopefully this article will explain what the answer should be.

What is it?

Copyright is the legal concept of allowing the original creator of a work to profit from it for an amount of time.  And while it may sound simple in that one line it can lead to massive headaches all around if not followed properly.

Why do I need it?

If you make a little game that you and your friends play then you may not worry about protecting your own copyright, but you still own the copyright to it.

It’s only when others start to play it, and charge others for it, that you may have to stand up for yourself – because you have the legal, ethical and morale right to do so.

Imagine making a game over 2 years that turned into the next ‘angry birds’ (in sales, not gameplay as that would be copyright infringement!), you then put this game on steam for $19.95 and watch the money steam in (pun intended).

Then imagine the money stopped overnight and after investigating you find that another company is selling your game on steam for $4.95.  And I’m not talking about a clone of your game either, I mean YOUR game.  If there was no copyright then they would be able to do this!  But with copyright on your side you can simply email steam and get them taken off (and take legal action if you wish to recuperate lost revenue).

Another side note is that your game copyrights more than just the game; if your game stars  the detective ‘Jolly Joker’ and his sidekick ‘Captain Koala’ (this is a comic book I wrote btw so those characters are in fact copyrighted) then another company cannot make a game starring either of those two without my written permission.

Is it legal to make games with other game characters?

If they are not copyrighted then yes, if they are then NO.

The most famous example is Mario brothers, the amount of people who wish to use them in a game amazes me, mainly because I am not a big fan of them (but each to their own).

The short answer is you CANNOT use Mario brothers in a game, you cannot use a character that even resembles him.  It’s a simple test really, if you showed your character to  a normal person, would they confuse it with Mario?  If they say β€œthat looks like that Italian plumber bloke from that game” then you have a problem.

So what characters are not copyrighted?  Those in the public domain (Robin Hood for example).

Marvel comics own all the copyrights to their characters and so do DC comics (so Batman and Superman are out), but there is one company that DOES NOT own copyright to a lot of their own characters – Disney (did your jaw just hit the ground?).

While the Disney company does own copyright to the characters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck e.t.c they DO NOT own the copyright of Snow White, Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty (and others) – why? Because these characters were created by the German Grimm Brothers in 1812 (actually they added and subtracted stories over the years so the exact dates may be different for each character).

Now before you go making your own version of a Snow White game, now that you know you can’t be sued, you must know one more thing – Disney owns the IMAGE of Snow White that appears in all their books and movies (short black hair, yellow dress e.t.c).  That’s why movie studios use a completely different look for the character – the movie ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’  had Kristen Stewart as ‘Snow White’, this movie did not need to purchase any copyrights from Disney as Kirsten did not look like their version.

Alice in wonderland is by Lewis Carroll in 1865 so they don’t have that one either.  Alice in Wonderland with long golden hair, blue dress and white apron?  That image is Disney.

Why copyright must be enforced

Another contentious point I see on forum boards is when people receive copyright infringement notices for small games or fan games.  The reason for this is that if copyright is not enforced then it is null and void; which could devastate a company like Marvel entertainment.

Copyright can be enforced by a simple letter stating that you have infringed copyright and please take down the offending material.  You will not be taken to court on a minor infringement unless you are making a monetary gain, this is because court action is too expensive and would drive any company bankrupt within days; but a simple letter is enough for a court to believe that they have enforced their copyright.

How long do I have copyright

Currently copyright is active 70 years after the death of the copyright holder.

How does this affect my game?

In two ways.

Firstly what you can and can’t use.  You can’t use another persons intellectual property unless you gain permission (and you’ll most probably need to pay for it).  So don’t use a movie, a book e.t.c to base your game unless you have written permission to.

Once there was a forum member who wished to make a fighting game with all the characters from other games that were made in Game maker; the hardest part was not the game making but getting the copyright permissions in writing, some people believed that by saying ‘yes’ was enough to allow them to use their character, but it isn’t, you need to specifically state ‘I grant the usage of my character Jolly Joker to the game xyz fighting game‘, and that’s it.

Secondly what others can use in their game.  Everything you create in your game is now yours, this includes the characters, artwork, sprites – even the CODE you write.

While a game may be the same as yours in playability it is the actual programming code that is copyrighted – if they want a game that plays like yours then they must write their own code.

Who owns what in my game?

Simple if there is no money involved, tricky if there is.

Whoever created the asset (whether it be a sprite, background art, sound bite e.t.c) has copyright on it unless SPECIFICALLY noted; the publisher may state that all copyright is to go to them (don’t ever hand over your copyrights unless you are financially compensated).

Another example is code.  If a programmer writes an engine for your game then you CANNOT use the engine in another game unless you get permission again.

If payment is made there is usually some sort of contract to say what they can use it for.  An example of this is from my game ‘Dangerous Danika’ which has a music track done by a third person; they have given me permission to use their music in the game AND NOTHING ELSE.  I cannot put the music on iTunes and sell it for 99 cents; in fact I can’t even use the music in a sequel game.

If you are employed by a professional game company then everything you create is copyrighted by that company.

What do I do when someone infringes my copyright?

Send them a take down letter.

This could be as simple as ‘I have copyright on a Koala Detective called Captain Koala which can be viewed at, please remove this character from your game’.

So why have copyright?

So a person can make a living out of their ideas – and this actually encourages more ideas.

I will use the example of Star Wars; if there was no copyright and George Lucas bought out his Space epic without making a profit then would there have been a sequel?  NO!!

The movie would never have been profitable because cinemas would never have had to pay in order to show the movie, they may have had to pay for the original movie reel but then they could have made their own copy.  All the toy manufacturers would have put out their own toys with no royalties to Lucas and so on.

This would mean that George would have only made a few dollars (selling the movie reel to the cinemas) unless he went around the country with his own projector and charged an entrance fee.

No profit means there would have been no sequels.  And poor George would have gone back to his day job to support his family!

I can’t contact the original copyright holder, now what?

So what?  They still have copyright to their works.

You either need to find them, or wait 70 years after they die and then go for it.

Copyright rorting

Have there been cases of massive copyright infringement – you betcha! And it still goes on in this day and age.

A fad two years ago was to get short stories from web sites, put them together as a book and then sell it on amazon.  For erotic stories this was amazingly profitable (it’s so profitable that it is the only area that it still occurs today, the profits are worth running the risk).

The problem was that the author of the book had not written a single story, or asked for permission, they simply ripped it all off and published it.  100% illegal and immoral.

JK Rowlings (Author of Harry Potter) was horrified when she found out an encyclopaedia of the Harry Potter world was to be published – without gaining her permission!

The offender believed that because the world of Harry Potter was all over the Internet then it was public property – it wasn’t (and still isn’t until 70 years after she dies).  This instance went to court and the Judge sided with JK Rowling.

This should never have got to court as it challenged the whole concept of copyright.  JK Rowling has copyright over the names and characters (including likeness) to all the main characters, the game of Quidditch, the names of spells … the list goes on and on – even the name Hogwarts is hers!

Copyright of this article

I, James Clifton, wrote this article so I have automatic copyright over it; I have given the magazine permission to use this article for their magazine and nothing else.  So if they wanted to bring out a book this article couldn’t be used unless I granted permission.

If someone wanted to publish this article on another website they would need to ask me for permission before they did it.

If I was paid to write this article then the magazine would own copyright.  Most of the time a magazine will pay for the RIGHT to publish an article, not for the copyright itself.


James Clifton is a games designer who uses game maker for all his games after dabbling in C++ and then PHP, he goes by the name cliftonbazaar on the gamemaker forums.

You get what you pay for.

I once made my living selling full time on ebay.

And while it sounds simple it really is as hard, if not harder, than a normal job.
If you work for yourself you don’t get paid on a regular basis; I forgot how many times I lay in my bed at night wishing I got a regular pay check, even if that pay check was less than what I was currently getting!

Each morning I woke up and filled out the mornings orders, then answered any emails that needed responding too.Β  Then it was time to do research – this took up nearly 50% of the working day.

Why do so much research?
Because I needed to stay ahead of my competitors, if not then they would catch up to me and take away my market share.

The one thing I noticed when researching is that I got what I pay for, and that rule still applies today.

We’ll start with free advice
You really do get what you pay for here.
Ask an open ended question on a forum board (e.g “What is the best way to do this?”) then you will get 101 different answers; of which 10 will be accurate.

Another method of asking questions on ebay is to ask ebay directly – this would be the worst thing you could do as they ‘cut and paste’ the answers, and I’m convinced that a computer reads the email and tries to answer it. The answers I have received to my own questions have been so wrong as to make my head spin.
What I find offensive about this is that each month I receive a large bill from ebay (which I pay straight away), so you would think that they would have better customer service for paying customers – but I digress.

Cheap advice
I have bought a lot of ebooks off ebay for around the $1 – $10 mark. And most of these have snippets of advice that is worth the price of the ebook, but they also include a lot of waffle (It’s not BS information, the writer is simply trying to fill out a 20-30 page ebook so it looks like you are getting your moneys worth).
Rarely have I bought an ebook at this price and been disappointed, but nothing has ever really stood out from the crowd.

Medium(?) advice
Medium is the wrong word to use, but if I think of a better term then I will come back and edit this blog πŸ™‚
Ebooks around the $10 – $50 mark are the ones I refer to here.
Because of the price I can’t afford to purchase each ebook I see at this price; but the one’s I have bought are usually worth it – the writer has several points to make and knows their stuff.
I notice with these ebooks that the writer has gone out of their way to show their credentials throughout the sale; this may include screenshots of payments, screenshots of search engine rankings.

My biggest mistake was not buying a particular ebook valued at $30 that showed how this person got a number 1 ranking on google. The writer gave out the term he was number 1 for and if you searched in google (which I did) his website was number 1 AND number 2!
I think I saved it in my ‘watched list’ but didn’t do anything for a long time and it disappeared!
I search for the ebook regularly but so far I have come up empty handed πŸ™

Expensive advice
This is for ebooks or courses over $50.

The best purchase I ever made was from a marketing course, it cost me $600 (at the time I only had $800 in my credit card, but I took a chance).
The sales letter was very impressive so I thought I would give it a go.

And it was the best purchase I ever made!

I’m currently reading the whole thing for a third time (I read it once a year) and each time I congratulate myself on buying it.

Why I can’t give jobs to everyone that asks for one.

I think I had better get one thing perfectly clear to everyone – The Australian market is lousy when it comes to supporting locally produced comics.

What irritates my is when these same people ask me for a job, the same people that assume that anything that is Australian made is awful. Heck, i’ve even caught reviewers out that haven’t read it.

I remember the first time someone rang me up and asked for a job; I was flattered, someone wants to work for me?
I was really, really pissed off when I found out that they hadn’t even read the comic; his mother worked in the printers and took one home for him to read. He said he hadn’t read it because it was black and white – well if you don’t want to read it why would you want to work with it?

I have had more job applications than fan mail at the moment. I do this as a hobby because my sales only just cover my expenses, so how am I supposed to employ people? If I was helped to increase my sales then I would be more than happy to compensate you for your time. If anyone could come up with a few sale ideas then please tell me, I would be more than happy to reward a good idea or someone that helps me.

If anyone wants an art β€˜job’ (pencilling, inking or lettering) then yes, you can write to me with your samples. But do not, under any circumstances, expect to get paid for it.
Everyone who has drawn for me does it for one reason and one reason only – to get a profesional job. Some of them have been succesful too.

As for fan mail? Please send it in, I love hearing people’s comments. Good or bad.