a club without a clubhouse
June 19, 2021 4:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm part of an online writing group. Our website fell victim to technical issues, and then our (largely absent) founder abandoned the helm and will not respond to messages. We want to continue writing in the universe that the founder (and others) created. Can we? How?

Specifics withheld for obvious reasons.

What issues should be aware of - logistically, legally? There was a trademark and copyright on the original site, but it has expired. We do not plan to charge/make money. Please explain legal stuff like I'm 5.

The founder created the basic structure of our fictional universe, but the details were a group effort by many different members. The writing format was a message board forum -- like if you were playing a D&D campaign with friends online, writing your actions during each turn in prose. We each created our own character(s) and wrote from their POV. We want to create new stories, set in the universe from the old site.

Is it as simple as creating another message board forum website and picking up where we left off? Can the founder take action against us if they ever return from neverland?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
IANAL but I believe technically speaking if it was an original world with original characters, the founder could claim that copyright and take action against you, but it would potentially be expensive and troublesome for them to actually track you down and take you to court over it. At most I should think they might complain to the new host site's management and ask them to take your site down, which would be up to whoever is running the site.

Personally I've not heard of an RP forum facing this issue outside of copyright claims by more established authors with clearer claims to a universe (Anne McCaffrey is a famous example, she used to have her lawyers send cease & desist orders against RP sites that were infringing on her work, which she could back up since she had many published books to prove her ownership).

If I were you I would tweak some details of the original universe to make it more something you've created, so it's less likely the founder would have a problem with your continuing the story (though they might still be pissed, depending on how your relationship with them ended). Up to you if you consider that risk worth it.
posted by fight or flight at 5:09 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

Legally, this is basically the exact same situation as writing fanfic in a modern universe owned by a publisher with an ambiguous/unstated opinion about fanfic. There is some chance the author could take you to court, but it would be extremely hard for them to prove you were doing financial damage in this case as the original work was not commercial. Probably the worst that could happen is an order to take the material off the internet. Morally, I would also say it's the same as normal fanfic unless the author said something about not wanting to use their universe without their input. So, I would follow the general guidelines used by the fanfic community, which generally seems to be write as much as you want for your own benefit but don't try to do anything commercial with it.
posted by JZig at 8:45 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I think it would depend on how original and distinctive the world setting is. If it's generic D&D fantasy, go for it and just file any distinctive names off. If it's a really unique setting like it's a Dyson sphere and everyone is wolf-dragon hybrids, you should probably make your own new world to play in.
posted by The otter lady at 8:48 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

Legally you can't really do it without expressed permission, but SOMETIMES, it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

I would put a website and a forum back up, with a disclaimer: characters, setting, and original concept by X, with additional worldbuilding and initial stories by Y, Z, and W. By posting a story here, you indicate that you are granting display and archive rights to us... (and other legalese) And a link / form to contact admin (you or other admin) prominently displayed.

So if the owner want it back, s/he can contact you, and you'll announced shutdown in... 30 days or whatever you agree to. If not, keep running it, and make people aware they are playing in someone else's sandbox, and by participating they acknowledge that.

Which, I believe is the best you can do, without quitting the game altogether.
posted by kschang at 9:42 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

The founder created the basic structure of our fictional universe, but the details were a group effort by many different members.

IANAL, but unless there was some agreement that assigned copyright of all of that material to the original author, whoever wrote the material in question is the owner of copyright within the law, as far as I'm aware. Derivative works is a legal standard for determining whether a piece of work infringes on another, but it doesn't transfer copyright ownership either.

This is definitely not legal advice, but in your shoes, if you're not planning to make money from this and just want to continue writing in this universe, find some other place to host your stuff, probably make it accessible to members-only, and then don't worry about it too much. Fan-fiction writers are basically doing everything you're doing already and unless you know this person to be a vindictive asshole about whatever, then you're probably fine. (If they are a vindictive asshole, then I *might* re-evaluate, but that's more out of a desire to avoid more drama in my life than worries about legal troubles.)

If you're really worried about the legality of this, then your best bet is to start from scratch with your own setting. Untangling the copyright issues of your original setup sounds like it'd be difficult at best.
posted by Aleyn at 1:37 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Your situation happens all the time in the RP world, and the consensus is that it’s a jerk move to abandon or close a creative writing shared universe rather than offering to pass it on to people who are still interested. Sometimes the “child” groups that spring up are a very similar concept and setup with some slight tweaks and different names; sometimes they’re direct ripoffs. Sometimes people take characters from one setting to another totally unrelated one, if/when it’s allowed.

Go to Dreamwidth, make a community, make it private/locked-to-members, have everyone make one personal account per character/voice and join it to the community. You will need to have a personal account to make the community; name it something like [settingname]mod. Anyone can make as many personal accounts as they need to. They’re not limited to one per address.

I think legalities are really unlikely to be an issue because, as others have said, this is just fanfic (of the original setting), and no financial harm can be shown. Past that, Dreamwidth in particular is invested in free speech and is extremely unlikely to ever close your community under the circumstances anyone has described here.
posted by verbminx at 3:25 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I don't know if I can offer advice, but Metamor City sounds like a similar situation to yours?
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:36 PM on June 20

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