Everyone loves a good sequel. Right? Ok, so maybe The Empire Strikes Back is one of the rare exceptions when the follow up is as good as - and for some people better than - the original. I would almost agree, although I'm still eagerly awaiting the follow up to Titanic It should be called Titanic II: Back to the Atlantic, and will feature turn of the century technology raising the ship, relaunching it, a love affair between a pauper woman and a rich loving man whose fiance wants to kill them both, and the ship sinking when it hits Shamu off the coast of Florida, forcing an evacuation onto the warm sunny beaches of Fort Lauderdale. I smell a hit already.
I've been focusing a great deal on DRM lately, but there are other copyright issues that can directly affect us as video game designers. For example: how many different versions of the hit game, Bejeweled, are there currently available on the market? More then the total number of disks distributed by AOL in the 1990's would be my guess. But what limitations are faced by people creating knock-offs of popular titles? Assuming of course these people prefer to do it legally and are not hiding out deep in some eastern European nation simply making copies of the originally, changing one letter in the title, and selling Bejoweled outside the door of their home.
Gamasutra did a really great break down of these limitations last year. The basis of any legality begins with what is considered "copyrighted" material, and what is not. For example, the actual graphics, sounds, and words used within the game to describe game play are all copyrighted materials. So are help files, the music, the source code and object code.
Ah, but once you get past the copyrights, the next thing you have to worry about are trademarks. Company names, game names, logos, etc. You also may have to worry about fair competition laws, that prohibit you from using marketing that looks too similar to the original game, such as box design.
And now that you've gotten past all those, your last bit of worry are patents. Did the programmer patent the methodology of performing an action in the game? Sort of like the way Amazon has patented the "one click" thing a ma jiggee. Ok, don't get me wrong, I actually think its WRONG to patent an idea like this. Patenting the code that performs the action is fine, but can you imagine if only Microsoft could hold a patent on the idea of what a "mouse click" is? Talk about stifling innovation. But them's the rules at this time, so you have to be careful to check which of these might have an affect on what you are producing.
So... what does that leave you with? I'm glad you asked, young padawan. What you CAN legally copy are a games rules, at least according to the U.S. Copyright Office. It's goals. It's structure of play (but not the exact methodology of play, as mentioned above). This has always been the case, whether we are talking about board games or video games. The PRINCIPLES of the game are able to be freely copied, which is how a game like The Landlord's Game was able to evolve into that masterful hit, Monopoly. OK, so maybe not quite. Maybe Hasbro stole more then they had a right to. But now we get tons of Monopoly style clones, such as Solar Quest, which takes Monopoly into outer space. Buy and sell property? Heck, now we can buy and sell planets!!!!
So, to sum up: making clones easy. Sending clones out in the world to live, thrive and survive much more difficult. Make sure your clones are clones and not copies, and you should do just fine.
Now hand me the popcorn, the 237th installment of the Bond franchise is on, You Only Die A Thousand Times....