Competitions: Copyrighted characters and famous people comedy game

I have an idea for a comedy parser game where there will be small appearances of various known characters (could be Winnie the Pooh, Catwoman, Super Mario etc) and famous people (could be Arnold Schwartzenegger, Angela Merkel etc). There will be a lot of these characters/people.

The title will not mention any of these so I doubt anyone would ever sue me. Still, it might be against the rules in competitions?

I also remember that in the IFComp game “Pogoman GO!” Elon Musk did have a significant role in the end game so at least that was okay for IFComp.

So how does the organizers of the big IF competitions look at this? I would be disappointed if my game was disqualified.
(I am especially interested in Ifcomp, Spring Thing and ParserComp but curious about other comps too)


We did have a rule about that in ParserComp but then on reflection decided it was a bit over cautious and took it out. So anything goes! (More or less).

I guess if you’re not actually achieving any financial gain by using someone else’s copyrighted characters and you’re not actually defaming any real people (I mean, seriously defaming - poking a bit of fun has to be OK) then it’s pretty low risk and it would have to be a particularly po-faced sort of copyright or reputational enforcer to go to the effort of demanding cease and desist.

I enjoy the idea of burying the copyrighted asset right at the end of the game, behind many layers of obscure, complicated and interlinking puzzles, so Disney’s or whoever’s legal rep has to spend hours playing through the whole thing before uncovering the illicit content!



“…What’s he building in there…??”


Thanks, good to know. Taking a look at it also seems that a lot of games there are a lot less careful than I am, e.g. searching for “mickey” reveals a lot of Mickey Mouse games with pictures of Mickey. I would expect Disney to aim for those first before going after an obscure parser game.

I guess what I am aiming for should be similar to “fair use” without being too finicky about the details. An example could be battling a couple of characters in a single scene. US fair use mentions parody whereas EU fair use seems to be more restrictive.


Rule 15 of Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2023 states that “The game must not contain any copyrighted material, other than your own, unless you have obtained permission to use that material or it is covered by the fair use provisions of the copyright act in your country.”

It’s the the fair use provisions that are the clincher. This varies from country to country. I think you’ll find that it’s okay to refer to someone, living, dead or fictitious, providing you don’t quote an extended piece of work where that character appears. Fair use normally includes reviews, research and parodies. A. A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh became public domain in 2022, but Disney’s various renditions are still copyright.

When using real people, you have to make sure it’s not defamatory, as that’s covered by different laws and you can get sued for that.


If you aren’t making money from the game, then IF with copyrighted characters is no more than fan fiction. Even if I wrote a comp piece where Harry Potter is the demon seed of the Prince of Darkness himself, I’d have a hard time imagining any scenario where that would show up on JK’s radar. And if it did, a cease and desist would probably be great publicity for the IF world :slight_smile:


Good point. Who’s copyright can we infringe on to get the maximum publicity for our wonderful hobby?


I feel like most celebrities and PR firms are aware of the Streisand Effect and will avoid slapping most things with a cease and desist to avoid this dynamic. There are always exceptions, though. (Laughs in Nintendo)

Streisand Effect for those unfamiliar:

The Streisand effect is an unintended consequence of attempts to hide, remove, or censor information, where it instead leads to increased awareness of that information. It is named after American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project’s photograph of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California, taken to document California coastal erosion, inadvertently drew greater attention to the photograph in 2003.

Attempts to suppress information are often made through cease-and-desist letters, but instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity, as well as media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, which can be mirrored on the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks. In addition, seeking or obtaining an injunction to prohibit something from being published or remove something that is already published can lead to increased publicity of the published work.

The Streisand effect is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware that some information is being kept from them, they are significantly more motivated to get and spread it.

The above is from the Wikipedia page and, for posterity and on principle, here’s Ms. Streisand’s Malibu Mansion:



Legally, you’re not supposed to be using protected intellectual property regardless of whether you’re profiting from doing so. You always run some risk that the owner of the IP will come for you. There are exceptions made for parody, etc., but that won’t necessarily stop them from trying. Ethically, I personally disagree with the way IP seems to linger on forever without entering the public domain. I, personally, will not object to your art crimes.


Practically speaking, it is almost impossible for a work of contemporary IF to get that kind of notoriety without a large authorial following.

However, since the chance is not zero, you would still be taking a chance.

I suppose the greatest nonzero chance would be in IF Comp, since that is the most visible annual IF event.

Should you choose to feature Batgirl, please consider using either Cassandra Cain or Stephanie Brown, rather than Barbara Gordon.


I think a lawsuit usually hinges on damage: “Is this work making money that the IP holder should rightfully be entitled to all or a portion of?” or “Is this game being marketed to people as an “official” version of the IP deceptively (thus cutting into marketshare of the IP)?” If the answer is “no” then IP holders usually won’t even bother with a lawsuit unless you’re deceiving people that you’re actually part of the IP.

Titles and ideas are not copyrightable. I can write a children’s book called “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” about a plumber named Harry who clears a rock from the neighborhood Sorcerer’s pipes that has nothing to do with the known series. But people would probably take umbrage if I made a Kindle book of it and sold it on Amazon where people looking for the Rowling book might mistake mine for an actual part of that IP. That’s the whole modus operandi of “Mockbusters” - direct to video movies that people might mistake for the original or “something just like the original” but the title is clearly “Transmorphers” instead of “Transformers” since the idea of robots transforming into other things as a concept isn’t copyrightable and technically legal. Just like Snakes on a Train. Movies on trains aren’t copyrightable. Movies about snake attacks aren’t copyrightable. It’s eyebrow-raising but legal the way they do it.

Similarly, I can’t write a fan fiction “Harry Potter and the Frob of Fantasticality” and publish it for money pretending to be an official licensed spin off. Starkid got blessed to do multiple Harry Potter musical parodies and make them non-monetarily public on YouTube by agreeing to not use the patented/copyrighted phrase “Harry Potter” - they titled it “A Very Potter Musical” - and likely agreeing never to make significant profit off of it in any way. [edit] And as Draconis points out, saying “Harry Potter” in any respect locks me out as that is their patented/copyrighted IP phrase.

@Draconis wrote Scroll Thief which is an original game sent in Infocom’s Enchanter universe. Other than using bits of the existing world like spell names, he didn’t lift any specific writing or plot points from he games so he is quite solidly in the “legal fan fiction” realm. Now, if he started selling this game on Steam as a “New Infocom Adventure” for $30, some rights-holder is going to come out of the woodwork and be like “either stop that, or cut us in on the deal” and if he doesn’t, that’s grounds for a lawsuit.

It recently happened that fans of Netflix’s Bridgerton wrote a musical about it that actually got some actual fan traction and they planned a concert with actual musical performers. Netflix instead of stomping down as companies normally do, offered them a deal to let them in on the marketing and streaming which the creators stupidly refused and then had to go to court and settle.


Titles and characters can be trademarkable, though, which is where any fantasy book about a character named “Harry Potter” will run into difficulty. (And ideas can be patentable, though this traditionally hasn’t been applied to story elements; the way patent law interacts with algorithms and code, on the other hand, has been a big mess.)

On a separate note, some IPs have licensing agreements that explicitly let you make fan works if you adhere to certain rules. For example, anyone can make video games set in the World of Darkness as long as you either release it for free, or release it for at least $5.99 per copy and pay 33% of the net revenue to Paradox. (Plus various other terms pertaining to ownership of rights.)


You’re right, poor example choice on my part. In my example, my children’s book would just be called *The Sorcerer’s Stone" - “Harry Potter &” would be right out as that is the IP lynchpin and similarly why Starkid changed their title.


Thanks, lots of good input. I am definitely aiming at parody so hopefully that would at least be okay in the US I guess. So if the publication platform is in the US and copyright holders are in the US too, I guess that should be okay.

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Also depends on how you treat the subjects of your parody. You can obliquely mention real-world subjects in passing without personal authorial commentary (especially public figures). For example, if you create a slamming-doors style farce where a character is a freak about the Royals and entered a sweepstakes to win a royal home visit, then during the height of mayhem the doorbell rings and it’s Queen Elizabeth (rip) who gets the door slammed on her like “NOT NOW!” you’re not undercutting her personal character or behavior in any way that people might object to.

If I drop that my PC smokes Camel cigarettes and repeatedly talk about how he’s killing himself, that’s probably not going to be considered parody. Or if Queen Elizabeth enters the fray and ends up involved in a lurid hot-dog eating contest that probably wouldn’t fly either.


You can contact the comp organizers beforehand and ask…I’ve done this in the past.


(all of this is US-centric, I don’t know enough about the rest of the world to begin to have a basis for comment…)

You can get away with a surprising amount when featuring a real person famous enough to be a “public figure” so long as it’s not defamatory and doesn’t violate their publicity rights (which vary state-to-state and are super-confusing).

Weird features Madonna as a main character and portrays her as a terrible person, but didn’t seek Madonna’s permission. Because she’s a public figure and the depiction was so over-the-top parodic that it’d be ridiculous to assert it as defaming her, they could get away with it. (It’s less clear to me why they felt safe from a possible publicity rights complaint given how prominent “this movie portrays Madonna and Weird Al’s torrent affair” played in their promotion, but that’s why I’m an idiot on the Internet giving commentary outside my expertise and not a lawyer.)


Sounds like “rule of funny/rule of parody” based on public figures.

In much the same way that the real ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic has made his career creating parody versions of familiar popular songs, this movie is a parody of well-worn rock biopic cliches, tropes, and subjects (bad behavior, torrid affairs, substance abuse) that are the opposite of Yankovic’s clean-cut, uncontroversial real-life story.

The IMDB trivia also notes that Madonna had suggested to Yankovic that he parody “Like a Virgin” so they may be friends or at least acquaintances.

I mean…

Spoiler maybe?

The ending where Madonna places a rose at Al’s gravestone and a hand reaches out of the dirt to grab her was a parody of the ending scene of Carrie (1976) where Sue Snell has a nightmare in which she places a rose on Carrie’s grave and her hand reaches up to pull her into the ground.

Now I want to see this!