Copyright, Cover Art, and the Idea of Property (I)

April 27, 2021    copyright derivatives creative legality design

So Sam has made an excellent game about some kind of old books (First Edition). Not extremely old, I should emphasize – we’re talking about a couple hundred years at most! and I’m developing a game about medieval manuscripts! – but old enough that I had assumed from the get-go that words like “copyright” and “license” and “rights” would no longer have any meaningful application to our needs. I had assumed that every aspect of the 1719 Robinson Crusoe, for example, would be accessible to the great grimy masses of commercialist nerds like us, for creative use, redeployment, interpretation, and – most importantly – sale.

I was, as usual, wrong.

Or at least, I think I was wrong, but I would really really like it for a professional lawyer to tell me that I am in fact wrong now, and was still-wrong-but-closer-to-being-right, then. Because I am not a lawyer! I just read too many books and like to play games.

Anyway, Robinson Crusoe is probably the most famous early novel, and obviously it is going to appear in First Edition, and it’s going to be awesome. At time of writing, I am about 95% sure that no one can stop us from using the title Robinson Crusoe and the name of its author, “Daniel Defoe,” in Sam’s game. Nor can anyone stop us from writing derivative works based on Rob Cru, since the terms of the copyright for the text have clearly expired. This makes for great literature and fantastic worldbuilding, not to mention excellent board games!

I am also about 60% sure that we could use the title and author for a book still within copyright, which isn’t very sure at all, but it’s more than the 0% I was at in the middle of April. (I am still not a lawyer.) If we slap “Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin” on a card and sell that card, my impression is that we might be in the clear, technically? Page 2 of the U.S. Federal Government’s Circular 1: Copyright Basics reads: “Copyright does not protect . . . . Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans.”

But I am ALSO 99% convinced that I printed a series of Game of Thrones cards tomorrow for a game about fantasy novels, then sold those cards to you for money, the kind folks at HBO and probably Bantam Books and maybe even Fantasy Flight Games would have unkind words for Tower Grove Games LLC; and I am 100% sure that even if they were to be incorrect, those various entities would still have millions and millions of dollars more than Tower Grove Games LLC to spend on lawyers and lawyerly unpleasantries. That would be bad for us! Which marks out a nice line for grown-ups between “what you can do” and “what you should do.” (This is something I’m teaching my 2 year old, also, but except I won’t take his playhouse in suit. Probably.)

Bonus caveat! I am also confident GoT is trademarked in every conceivable way a thing can be trademarked, which is its own can of worms that I still understand less than copyright, somehow, maybe mainly because the US Trademark Office search methods are arcane and inscrutable, and not made for humans. Also they are self-declaredly incomplete? The law is dumb, do you know what it says? Does anyone!?

. . . .

Actually, this post is getting long, and I haven’t even gotten to the fun part about IMAGES that I meant to get to, so I’ll pause here for now and make this a two-or-more-parter (here). In the meantime, if you know about IP/copyright law or know someone who does or know someone who knows someone who does – let me know via email or twitter or the comments below, because we need all the help we can get!

Once again, I am 100% not a lawyer, not even a little bit, not a jot; and none of this is legal advice.

-- Tom

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