OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


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.

Star Trek UFP logoMost 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:

  1. A fan base already exists so it’s easier to recruit new players.
  2. People are familiar with the medium so they’re less of a learning curve for those new players.
  3. 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.

William Shatner and the GornLikewise, 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.

Jonathan Swift commands the independent sim USS Asimov.  As Dick Sprague, Charles Star commands the USS Chuck Norris of Independence Fleet.  Both sims operate within the Star Trek universe.

  • Your explanation of our writings being derivative is spot on, and no one can argue that.

    Your understanding of image copyright is lacking however. Derivative works in imagery is an entirely different situation. Merely using the words Star Trek in our logo for instance does not necessarily confer derivative nature to the image. The legal test for such images is very complex, and is why trademark and copyright attorneys make so much money.

    The best advise anyone can give in respect to our community, and especially our images is that if you want to use them, you ask permission first. This keeps you in the good graces of everyone, without the need for such actions like DMCA takedowns.

    In our case, we (the fleet) didn’t post the images that were being claimed in the take downs. The users filing the takedowns had posted them while members of Independence Fleet. When they left Independence Fleet they demanded that their names, characters, images and any reference thereto be deleted. Independence Fleet was not required to remove the data, and we could have fought the battle in court but to what end? What possible benefit would have been served?

    We should be flattered and appreciative of any free marketing that can be offered, however as a community we should extend courtesy to one another. Asking permission to use someones images takes very little time, and very little effort and might very well save all parties a great deal of heartache.

    • Alison Carlyle

      Not exactly. In most cases saying ‘Star Trek’ on an image for your role play is a copyright violation. Only Viacom is authorized to hold a public ‘Star Trek role play’. Therefore if you use any Star Trek copyrighted material like the name ‘Star Trek’ or a Starfleet symbol to show that you are running a public Star Trek role play than you are in violation.

      Yes asking permission is always the best policy. Only a complete tool would deny the request. I’m sorry you had to deal with such lowlifes. They should be shunned.

  • Good article! Informational… and seriously, how hard does it have to be drilled into us to plan nicely with one another? Have we not learned that the sandbox is not ours, and we did not create it but all play in it? Is not the spirit of mankind leaving behind its petty bickering and territoriality what makes Star Trek so appealing?

    Now if you’ll excuse me I gotta go poach a player and steal next month’s plot from somebody with worse ideas than me…

  • Of course, you don’t have this as much with original sims. *Plug*

    • Absolutely true! But remember using an established world also has benefits, likely it’s easier to recruit & advertise if there’s an existing audience base.

  • Lt. Railey Nelson

    I thank you for the information, it is very interesting that some people just can’t seem to “grow up” and learn that this is a place where people like me with creative ideas have a voice. I quess that they haven’t learned the most valuable lesson that Gene Roddenberry tried to teach us that “If mankind can learn to get along with one another then just maybe we might have peace world wide” until then we won’t be able to reach for the stars. So “Thank you” for setting the record straight for those who seem to simple minded to realize what simming is really all about.