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Re: Releasing a software implementation of a board game as Free Software

<posted & mailed>

Ben Finney wrote:

> "Dr. ERDI Gergo" <cactus@cactus.rulez.org> writes:
>> [Please CC replies to cactus@cactus.rulez.org]
> Done.
>> I have no idea where I could get questions like this answered, so I
>> thought Debian-Legal would be a good place.
> You should definitely seek experienced legal opinion in your
> jurisdiction before doing what you propose.
> It might be polite to ask the holder of any trademark, copyright, or
> patent in the board game what their attitude is toward this kind of
> derivative.
>> I'm a European software developer and I'd like to release a GNOME
>> software implementation of a commercial board game.
> Whether it's commercial (traded for money) or not, doesn't really
> matter. What matters is any rights held to concepts in the board game.
>> The game in question is Gobblet
>> (http://www.blueorangegames.com/gobblet.php). Can I release the game
>> as Free Software (if I don't use the trademark Gobblet anywhere in
>> its description)?
> If some party holds any trademark to the game's name or image, you
> can't legally use that name or image (or anything confusingly similar)
> for your game without license.
> If some party holds any copyright in any of the game's creative
> content (rules, images, text, etc.), you can't legally base your work
> on that content without license. You can, though, generate entirely
> new content of your own, or from work for which you do have license to
> derive.
> If some party holds any patent in the game's mechanics, you can't
> legally implement those mechanics in your game without license. I
> don't know how far this extends to abstract mechanics; European
> legislations have historically been to be relatively sensible on the
> topic of patenting abstract methods and algorithms, though this is
> certainly a disputed topic.
> Yes, unfortunately board games can be restricted by all three of these
> disparate bodies of law. This may be part of why it's so expensive to
> produce a board game.

Not really -- board game producers pretty much always use custom artwork,
and new names (so no trademark issues), and game mechanics patents are 
generally construed very narrowly as far as I can tell (so it's hard to 
violate them by accident).  The expense in producing a board game is mostly
in parts, it turns out: pawns and dice cost money, color printing costs
money, box assembly costs money, cardstock costs money, board stock costs
money, etc.  Cheapass Games is an example of a company which avoids most
of these costs.

For sufficiently old games intellectual property law is rarely a serious
(1) patents on game mechanics have usually expired, since they last 20 years 
or less in most jurisdictions.
(2) trademarks can be handled by renaming.  A reference to the trademark
of the form "This game has similar rules to the game X" is always allowed. 
In some cases the commercial manufacturer used a preexisting generic name 
for a game which they didn't invent: 'monopoly' and 'parcheesi' are very 
weak trademarks for this reason, and quite a lot of uses of them are 
(3) copyright issues can be avoided by writing a clean-room description of
the rules and making entirely fresh artwork; usually there isn't enough
material for this to be difficult.  You will almost certainly want to do
this for a computer implementation of *any* board game, unless you can get
the author of the rules or artwork to license the rules/artwork as free 

Game mechanics patents are the most common method of protecting games
from 'cloning', in the jurisdictions which allow them (the US does).  This
generally affects games invented within the last 20 years.

> On the other hand, many board game companies are aware of the fact
> that fan-based derivative works only serve to drive up interest in
> their games, so you may find the company quite helpful.

Right.  It's considered best practice to talk to the game's creator
*anyway*, even if he holds no copyright, patent, or trademark claims (which
he probably does).

Nathanael Nerode  <neroden@fastmail.fm>

Bush admitted to violating FISA and said he was proud of it.
So why isn't he in prison yet?...

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