Copyright: two questions

So, let’s talk about copyright as it pertains to interactive fiction. I have two things I’ve been wondering about, one specific and one general, but other people should feel free to talk about other things that are related to IF and copyright, though please refrain from spreading misinformation.

Question one: Suppose there’s a scene at a concert, where the music is so loud that the characters can’t actually make out the lyrics. The scene contains a distorted rendering of the lyrics, misquoted but recognizable. Something like:

Would that be problematic? Would it qualify as a parody? What about misquotation of a poem rather than a song?

Question two: What’s the status of using characters or settings from a copyrighted work in something that doesn’t directly quote it and isn’t directly derivative? Direct use of language obviously raises copyright concerns, and so do derivative works such as direct adaptations and perhaps sequels. But is the appearance of a character or setting enough to make it a derivative work? Suppose I have an otherwise original game where the player is occasionally struck by a stray roll that flies out of an open window in the nearby Drones Club; does that make the work derivative of P.G. Wodehouse? I’d think not; but where does the line fall?

Unfortunately, I suspect the answer to all these questions is “The holders of any copyrights you may be interested in can tie you up in court longer than you can afford, but if they don’t notice or don’t care it’s OK. But watch your back.”

I don’t know the answer to either of your questions, although my sense is that, in both cases, there is not likely to be a hard and fast answer and a lot depends on the precise details.

Having said that, I will say that I personally have a situation somewhat analogous to your second question. The first game I wrote when I discovered Inform 7 (primarily as a learning exercise) was based on certain characters from the popular culture of a few decades ago. Although the plot (such as it is) is my own, the game is laden with allusions to those characters and the way they behave, and the characters themselves made appearances.

As it turns out, the rights to those characters are claimed (and, to a certain extent, probably actually owned) by a notoriously litigious bunch. In order to avoid the aggravation and expense of a possible lawsuit, I have chosen to use the piece only for my own amusement and that of a few close friends, and not to make it publicly available.

Of course, this is probably a less attractive case (from my perspective) than one in which you might have a passing allusion to P.G. Wodehouse; in my case, the whole point of the game is to bring the player into the world of the characters. It sounds like your example may be a much more attractive case for arguing that there is no infringement.

Might I have made the game more widely available if the rights claimants/owners had a reputation for being less troublesome? Possibly, but this is not a legal distinction so much as a practical assessment of the risk.

Robert Rothman

Neither of my cases are actual – I do have an idea that’s somewhat like the “Purple Haze” example, though maybe less silly, but I don’t have anything in particular going on with other people’s characters. The Drones Club was meant as an extreme case. I was partly thinking about Foxaroo’s TARDIS project – would the inclusion of the TARDIS alone make it a derivative project? Seemed like his case might be over the line, but I do wonder where the line is.

Obviously I’m not a lawyer, but I’m fairly sure a case like that would be fine. For one thing, quoting is fair use; if you’re only reproducing a part of the lyrics, you’re already sort of safe, and if you’re also changing them you’re even safer. Plus, it’s in an entirely different medium, and presumably you’re not making any money from it. Of course, in reality anybody can sue you for whatever they want regardless of how valid it is, just to waste your time and money, but personally I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this one.

I looked around the net for reliable resources on this stuff. I couldn’t find anything definitive about your specific questions.

The reference I see on copyrighting characters are all about degrees: for example, whether the mentioned character is developed enough to constitute a significant part of the work, or if it’s just scenery. (Google “Judge Hand specificity test”.) I’d guess that Bertie Wooster is a copyrightable character but the Drones Club… well, Wodehouse used it a lot, so maybe it is too. (But note that the earliest Jeeves stories appeared before 1923, and therefore are now public domain.)

The TARDIS is almost certainly distinctive enough to be copyrighted. Like most fan fiction, a game that uses the TARDIS is squarely in the domain of “technically illegal but almost certainly ignored.”

Also note that my guess is worth nothing. You might be better off asking this on a professional writer’s forum – I would point at

At the risk of making a suggestion which may not be all that practical, I would venture a guess that anything you hear on a writers’ forum is also not likely to be too reliable. The only one who can really give an answer on this would be a lawyer with IP experience – and I suspect that even such a person could probably not give you an answer that’s very definitive, although it would be less likely to be incorrect than anything the rest of us might say. Sorry, but I think this is probably one of those areas where a little bit of knowledge could be a very dangerous thing.

Robert Rothman

I can’t offer advice on your questions directly as i’m nowhere near fit to do so. :open_mouth:

But a path which does not often seem to be taken, is asking the copyright holder for permission. The worst they can say is no.
Most larger companies are well geared up for such requests.
If you give them a concise description, make it clear it is not for profit, and that it is not damaging their IP, then you may be pleasantly surprised.
And sleep soundly.

If I release (and I pretend to) a post comp version of my Indigo speed-comp entry we would have a lot of material to discuss about, as just everything in it is on the thin border line and ocassionally openly crosses it:

-It’s a remake of a commercial game. An old and obscure one, but commercial, so copyrighted. Incidentally the original author seems to be unknown (at least there apparently are no credits anywhere I searched) but I should ask Jimmy Maher, my guess is that if someone has a clue It would be him!

-The original game is a very simple text adventure written for a 4 kb machine, so It hardly has a handful of ultra-brief location descriptions a some elemental puzzles. My remake is sort of a dramatization over that scenario and puzzles.

-If that wasn’t enough, I added a couple of NPC and named everyone after some very recognisable TV characters. The point is, they just have their names. They don’t pretend to resemble them any more than that… but… the relationship among them happens to have a more than vague similarity with the TV play…

Now, this is something like the Z-Machine Matter situation. Characters were named after some well known real people. They didn’t pretend to be them, or relate to them, or parody them, or reference them, but it was something easy to misunderstand which was, in fact, easily misunderstood by more than one reviewer. If I ever make another IF work It will have a NPC named after matt w (in reference to his help in this thread), but this hipotetical character will not pretend to be neither him not like him. It would be just a name… but yeah, it’s always a thin line…

At least, my Indigo entry has not a TARDIS :laughing:

Misquotating a poem or a song is certainly fine. In fact, quoting a poem or a song is fine – the details depend on the country in which you reside, of course, but something like a maximum of 40 lines or 25% percent of the poem (whichever is less) would be fairly standard.

You might want to check out the limitations Wikiquote has set for itself. I assume they had an IP lawyer look at that list.

Characters and settings fall under intellectual property law (rather than pure copyright law). This is far more risky territory. Were I you, I wouldn’t use any characters or settings directly lifted from works published after 1900. (By the way: this kind of intellectual property is total crap and should be abolished today rather than tomorrow. Reusing characters, settings and stories is part of essence of art – I call in Ariosto, Cervantes and Shakespeare as witnesses.)

Just to make sure that this is clear: whether the game is commercial or not has nothing to do with whether it is copyrighted. If I release a game for free, that does not mean that I waive my copyright or intellectual property rights, and it does not mean that you are allowed to make derivative works. Depending on the license used, it may not even mean that you are allowed to redistribute the game.

This is why it is important for people who do want their game to be free in both senses of the word (“free as in freedom” as well as “free as in free beer”) to choose a license that ensures that this actually happens.

Thanks for the answers, all. Robert, I think you’re right that if I’m really worried I need to ask a lawyer – I do have an uncle with relevant expertise, I think, but as I said this is all very hypothetical.

zarf, thanks for that info; I looked a bit about the specificity test and it seems very confusing. No surprise.

shammack, I don’t think quoting is a clear-cut case; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen books with copyright acknowledgments for a few lines of a poem. I’m going to guess that I’m probably ok mangling quotes, though, which is what’s most likely to happen.

Greeny, that’s not a bad idea and is definitely the most legal approach – I’d just be afraid of being told “no” (or “Yes, for an exorbitant fee”). The first line of defense may be that the copyright holders will never hear of you. Depends on the stakes, I guess.

–I forgot to mention one feature of the loud concert scene, which is that the player would be encouraged to type in whole sentences for conversation, which would be mined for keywords. The NPCs can only hear every other word you can say, so it’s totally mimetic for them to respond to “I don’t want to hear about Sally!” by telling you about Sally.

[UPDATE: Victor, thanks for the additional info about quoting. And I agree about the intellectual property law. I mean, you can’t put Superman in your picture without permission from DC? Such bullshit. I guess we should be happy they didn’t suppress the relevant song, which mentions “The Man of Metropolis.”]

Mm, “intellectual property law” is just a blanket term for copyright law, trademark law, patent law, and a few others. Characters and settings are definitely under copyright law. (The character’s name and/or likeness might be trademarked too.)

Quoting lyrics is not that easy (in the US, certainly), and published books are careful to get permission.

I looked it up in the other thread and quoting is only fair use if it’s for criticism, analysis, etc. So putting a quote from a book in a review of that book would be fair use–putting the same quote at the beginning of a novel would not.

I don’t know about everything else, but yes the last line is copyrighted (in a book of misheard lyrics).
It’s sort of like:




(forgot where I heard that when I posted it)
Or my favorite:

You forgot “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

However, I doubt any of those are actually copyrighted since they all predate any compendium of them.

Sorry, you’re right. In an attempt to cut it short I expressed it in the totally wrong way. The game I was talking about was “commercial and copyrighted”, not “commercial, so copyrighted”. It is a 1979 work and my mind was in “1979 mode” :slight_smile: when it was usually took for granted that computing stuff was either free to hack with through college networks (as in hacker culture tradition) or a fully closed commercial product.

It was an adventure for the TRS-80, that’s why I thought of asking Maher about the anonymous author (he’s been researching the TRS-80 late 70’s scene lately in his blog), as even if I’m making a blatant copyright breach I would like to cite the author if possible at all.

Do you have any resources for determining whether lyrics can be quoted?

What’s the worst that can happen if you are considered to be in violation but you’re not receiving any income? Cease and desist orders? Fines? Jail time?

The problem with asking for permission is that it puts you on the radar. If you’re denied, it seems much more likely that you would suffer consequences for a violation. What are the chances that a copyright holder would know or care about a work of IF otherwise? As the popularity of the quoted artist increases, I’d expect the difference to get bigger.

This is a pretty good summary from the copyright office. Again, it seems to me that if you’re only quoting a small portion, changing the lyrics, and doing it as only a small part of a game that you’re not profiting from, you’re probably OK.

I don’t know what’s the worst that can happen, but the most likely thing to happen (if anything) would be a cease and desist order, since you can send those without paying any legal fees or anything. If you receive one and ignore it, they might attempt to sue you. Criminal charges strike me as extremely unlikely, if possible at all (my understanding is that criminal copyright infringement has to happen on a commercial scale – but again, not a lawyer).

Thanks for the summary. I’ve always been a little fuzzy on what constitutes fair use. It sounds like if your game doesn’t parody, comment upon, teach, study, or report something about the song, it doesn’t constitute fair use. I think the altered lyrics would constitute parody in this particular case, though.

I’ve read a lot about fair use in the context of mashups by parodists like Negativland and the Evolution Control Committee. I think it’s easy to forget that these artists, while they play a lot of legal and social games, are protected by fair use because what they’re doing is clearly parody. While their activist rhetoric sometimes advocates abolishing copyright restrictions beyond an excessively narrow definition of fair use, their actions can’t be considered “civil disobedience” if you accept their status as parodists.

More on fair use: … 30100.html

There are no hard-and-fast rules, unfortunately.