Glass houses & roleplay copyright
Written by Charles Star and Jonathan Swift from Independence Fleet.
A disturbing trend developed during 2012. First, in May, an unidentified party filed a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint against the Simming Encyclopedia (SimEnc). Later that summer, at least three individuals filed similar DMCA complaints against our home club, Independence Fleet. Each of the complainants alleged that the party identified was, without permission, actively displaying copyrighted content that they respectively owned. Fortunately, each of these complaints caused only minor inconveniences for SimEnc and Independence Fleet and didn’t result in any permanent damage to our community. They did, however, set a dangerous precedent as there are now those within our community who are becoming more and more militant over their creations. Instead of joining that chorus, we decided it would be a good time to educate everyone on the fine line that all of us in the online role playing community unknowingly walk every day.
For simplicity’s sake and our familiarity, this article will focus exclusively on United States copyright in regard to simming and online role playing. While specific laws and applications may vary from country to country, the U.S. has relationships with most other nations to honor each other’s copyrights.
So what is copyright?
In short, it is legal protection for original works, be they literary, musical, artistic, or some other form of expression or creation. Copyright law does not protect facts, ideas, or systems of operations. We’ll get into more detail as we go.
Do we own the content that we create as simmers and online role players? Yes and no. If you are role playing in an entirely original game and everything in your sim is your creation, then yes. Copyright is granted by U.S. law as soon as your original works are fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., on a website). If, on the other hand, you are simming within an existing universe, like Star Trek, Firefly, or Charmed, then yes and no. But mostly no. The only reason we are even able to sim within those settings is because of the good graces of Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers Entertainment, and other media companies.
Copyright holders have the exclusive right to distribute derivations of their original creations. Our Star Trek, Firefly, and Charmed sims are clear derivatives of their original works, and therefore are in violation of U.S. copyright law. For our creations to not be considered derivations, they must be substantially transformative from their original works. No judge would ever agree that our sims, posts, and logos are transformative. Then why hasn’t Paramount already shut down all the Star Trek sims? The most obvious reason is that they don’t want to alienate their fan base. Just because they can do a thing it does not necessarily follow that they must do that thing.
Like Paramount, most companies choose to allow online role playing and internet fan fiction to exist. On occasion, however, they have (successfully) been able to shut down sites that try to profit or claim legal rights.
Most of the material we create within our Star Trek sims is not copyrightable unless we first receive licensing from Paramount. That’s right—we have no legal basis to claim ownership of the images, posts, and websites we’ve created that include the words “Star Trek,” any Star Trek symbols, Star Trek ships, Star Trek characters, Star Trek uniforms, Star Trek planets, Star Trek aliens, Star Trek events, Star Trek anything, etc, etc, etc. You get the point. This extends to any property we may not own that we wish to write in. We may still have copyright of some of our creations within these sims that do not use any Star Trek material, but these copyrightable items are few and far between. In general, we don’t have a solid legal standing to claim ownership of most of what happens within and about our sims. Since Paramount has been gracious enough to let us borrow their material, we should be equally gracious with our fellow role players when they borrow from us.
What does this all mean for us?
Not only do we live in glass houses, but we all live in the same glass house! So for heaven’s sake, let’s not throw stones at one another! We’re not advocating that everyone stop using Star Trek, Firefly, Charmed, or other pre-existing universes for their sims. Far from it! In fact, both of us are quite fond of Star Trek sims and have been involved with them for some time (as if you couldn’t already tell). Existing universe sims have many inherent advantages:
- A fan base already exists so it’s easier to recruit new players.
- People are familiar with the medium so they’re less of a learning curve for those new players.
- Since a lexicon and established norms already exist, players can spend more time role playing and less time defining the universe. We love Star Trek and Star Trek sims, and hope that both continue for a long time to come.
Another issue of contention within our community has been that of fair use. Copyrighted material can be displayed or used without permission under certain conditions. If the copyrighted material is used for satirical, educational, or informational purposes, for example, it is generally considered fair use and permission from the copyright holder is not required. For instance, Wikipedia doesn’t have to get the permission of the Coca-Cola Company to use Coca-Cola’s logo in a Wikipedia article about Coca-Cola. It’s informational.
Likewise, William Shatner and Saturday Night Live didn’t have to get Paramount’s permission to do a comedy skit based off of Star Trek. It was parody. They’re both examples of fair use. When others talk about you or use an image from your sim or club to identify you, it’s fair use. When others poke fun at you, that’s fair use too. 🙂
As the sun sets on our crazy little world, we must recognize that all of us operate in a precarious legal position–one that requires both tact and politeness. We don’t have a legal or ethical leg to stand on to accuse other people of violating our copyrights. Thus, we should be at least as generous with others as Paramount and other companies have been with us. This is all for fun anyway… so let’s have fun and stop fighting! If someone else mentions you or uses your logo to identify you, be thankful for for the free advertising. If someone else uses some of your sim material, be flattered! Maybe just ask for a link back to your site? It’s of no commercial value to you, so let them enjoy it too.
We’ve just scratched the surface of copyright. If you would like to read more about this topic, check out these two links:
This article is not be construed as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney before taking or responding to any legal action. Charles Star and Jonathan Swift are not lawyers. Jonathan Swift, however, works professionally as a graphic designer and has dealt with imaging copyright issues.