Think FreeCiv or Clevelandopoly
January 31, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

There's a board game I enjoy, and I've been considering programming a web version of it to play online. How different must my knock-off version be from the "real" one to avoid trouble?

Similarities I'm concerned about (feel free to bring up your own if I've overlooked anything):

Name. Can I safely call it "[Game] Online" or "Web[Game]" or do I need to remove the title of the original from mine? What about a portmanteau like "[Gam]ultiplayer" or something? If neither of those options, would a rhyme or synonym be okay? Or do I really need a title that doesn't evoke the original in the slightest?

Rules. I want to keep the actual game rules 100% intact. Am I on thin ice? I'll change the names of certain elements, like using "peon" instead of "pawn" or "train station" instead of "railroad" for example. Is that different enough? There was a Risk clone posted on MeFi last year that allows a wide variety of customization in game rules, but (I think) it suggests the official Hasbro rules by default. Would something like that differentiate my game enough?

Art. Obviously I'm not scanning and using artwork from the original game. I'll be creating my own assets, which will likely be pretty crude since I'm not an artist. I don't think there's any danger here but please correct me if I'm wrong.

Web site text. Can I reference the original game anywhere in the site's "about" text? Or am I supposed to act like it simply doesn't exist? I'd prefer if it were clear to people what game it is before playing.

If it makes a difference, I'm not planning on making any money from this. It's really just a programming exercise for me and maybe a way for some friends of mine to play online. Maybe if people were interested in it, I could bring in a few cents from ads. Or possibly an Amazon referral link to buy the original board game (or would that be a no-no?). But I'd never charge anyone to play.

I know you're not a lawyer. How can I proceed without needing to hire one? Surely there's a well-recognized middle ground for generic stuff that'll guarantee I won't be receiving any nasty C&Ds from anyone. Help me find it!
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Law & Government (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's what you really need to understand: You can't copyright an idea. You can copyright the expression of that idea.

Idea: "It's a game where you spell out words with letter tiles."
Expression of the Idea: "It's a game called Scrabble, and there are X number of tiles, and each player starts with Y tiles, and those tiles are worth Z points, and the triple-word scores are located here, here and here."

So, you get Scrabble and you get Words with Friends.

In other words ... consider minor variations of the rules, and completely changing the expression of the gameplay (e.g. cars instead of trains).
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IAAL, but IANYL.

Using the actual name of the game in any way, even as a portmanteau, is just asking for trouble. FreeCiv can probably get away with it because "civilization" is actually a generic word with a meaning independent of the computer games. Note that they're always called "Sid Meier's Civilization [x]". The various Monopoly knockoffs frequently have Hasbro support, which fixes that problem. But Scrabulous is not Lexulous because Hasbro sued 'em and won. Wasn't even really a close case.

Copying the rules directly is a closer case, but you'll be on better ground if you modify them in some way, even if it's just an alternate play mode. FreeCiv does that too, operating as a rather robust customization engine which can generate a game almost identical to either Civ I or Civ II but need do neither.

Avoiding others' art is always a good idea unless you are explicitly offering commentary on it. See the use-mention distinction, with the latter always being safer in IP issues than the former.

But your latter point actually does make a difference. You can do almost anything you want with anyone's IP as long as you don't "publish" it, "publish" in this case meaning something like "make available to the general public".* So if you're just making a game for you and a couple of close friends, have no intention of releasing your project to the public, and actually take certain steps to see that your work isn't released into the wild, you'll probably be okay. Think about re-creating a Scrabble board from scratch. Hasbro has no way of preventing that unless you try to sell it. Obviously a lawyer should be consulted for a definitive answer there, as the analysis necessarily depends on your particular facts, but that's the general rule anyway.

*Or potentially some subset of the public large enough to make an argument for private use unbelievable.
posted by valkyryn at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: See this thread at Board Game Geek.
posted by yeti at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2011

Have you tried contacting whoever produces the game? They might not mind you coding a web version if they get something out of it.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:24 AM on January 31, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the detailed responses, Cool Papa Bell and valkyryn! Some great points in there.

lockestockbarrel: I'm sure that my knock-off game will be far too small and crude to be of interest to the original publisher. Contacting them directly would only be bringing it to their attention, which, if they're litigious types, would do me more harm than good.

From yeti's link:
Can someone steal my game/Can I use elements from someone else's game?

Sure, as long as:

1) The artwork is different
2) The "expression of the rules" are different
3) No trademarks are infringed
4) No patents are infringed

This is may be why web developers such as ASObrain can offer Settlers and Carcassonne clones without paying royalties or requiring permission.

So sure, you could publish a game that works exactly like Settlers of Catan or Star Wars: Queen's Gambit as long as you did not use the name, artwork, or licenses.
I think this directly answers my questions. Let me know if there's more I should be aware of, but this has been enlightening.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: Well, I know that rules can't be copywrited, so as long as you don't use *any* of the terms that the original does (Back in the day TSR sued people for using Hit Point) then that should help protect you. Rewrite things from scratch and you should be ok.

The name is certainly copywrited so you can't use that. Try to find a synonym?

You can probably find some advice on this from retroclone authors. These people rewrite old editions of D&D and give them away for free, and Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro has not sued any yet.

That is another point: Don't charge for it, and don't try to make money off it. That is much more likely to bring down the lawsuit hammer than a free fan-game.

If it looks LIKE the original game you might be a target. I'd change this as much as you can. For example give monopoly a circular track, or a figure 8. Change fantasy to SF, real life to the inside of a computer, and so on.

That would be my starting point anyway, however I do not think there is a point at which you can't be sued, just one in which you could win if you had a good lawyer and lots of money.
posted by Canageek at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2011

Oh, and I am not a lawyer and I am not even in your country.
posted by Canageek at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2011

The name is certainly copywrited so you can't use that.

Technically, the name (and images like character portraits and the like) are trademarked rather than copyrighted, but the gist is more or less the same for your purposes. Stay away from them, in other words.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:07 AM on January 31, 2011

How can I proceed without needing to hire one?

For a fun side project? Just do it. You'll very likely get a cease & desist request before you get any sort of official legal action (all bets are off if you make money or cost them any), and be ready to stop or make drastic changes if you offend the company in question. Do everything from scratch, don't read their rules or descriptions for ideas.

For a business venture? Don't. Having a lawyer is a cost of doing business, and if you're doing stuff on the internet, you're likely going to need an intellectual property attorney sooner rather than later. It's not a matter of "can I afford one" -- in a society as litigious as ours, you can't afford to go into business without one.

Remember: it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong if you're not willing to fight it in court. A multi-million dollar company that sends you the threat of a lawsuit probably has the upper hand, even if they're wrong, because most folks aren't willing to pour money into defending themselves when it's easier just to acquiesce.
posted by toomuchpete at 11:31 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

What hasn't really been touched on here are the ethical issues. Games are built on prior games, art is built on prior art, but if you copy the rules 100%, you're taking somebody else's hard work and using it for your own purposes.

You may be interested in reading about Desktop Dungeons, a free PC game by QCF Design that was cloned for the iPhone as League of Epic Heroes by Lazy Peon Games. New art, new programming, but he took the original's rules and spell system. He also added a couple of things, seemingly to differentiate his game from Desktop Dungeons, but the basic gameplay was identical.

Opinions were mixed as to whether this was a dick move, but it the folks at QCF Design were not pleased. They ended up sending a legal letter to Lazy Peon Games and the game was, after some consideration, withdrawn.

General opinion seems to be that QCF wouldn't have prevailed if the case had gone to court, but I think the creator of LoEH was unprepared for the backlash that he received. (See some of his comments in the 'opinions' and 'mixed' links, above.) A lot of copying goes on in the game world, but what this shows, I think, is that people perceive a world of difference between a small guy copying a game made by the big guys (like Risk, to use your example), and a small guy copying a game made by a another group of small guys who are probably struggling to get by themselves.

Only you can decide where the line lies for you, but I think it's worth thinking about.
posted by Georgina at 5:08 PM on January 31, 2011

Response by poster: Your point's duly noted, Georgina. Not trying to make a profit here, or starve anyone, I just want to recreate something I enjoy as a bit of a hobbyist side project. I'll ponder awhile on if it would be unethical, or if I could change the gameplay enough to change it into something original. Or, of course, if the project's even worth pursuing at all — at this point it's just an idea floating in my head and my time for hobbies is at an all-time low as it is. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:23 PM on January 31, 2011

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