Question RE: Tribute Games and Copyright

Hello everyone! New to the Gauntlet, hope this topic belongs here!

I was wondering if anyone has had any experience with making tribute games? I have started on a system based completely off of the movie Pacific Rim, and if I don’t really plan on making money off of it, just releasing it into the world for people to play and to get my name out there a bit, do you think I will run into trouble with Warner Bros in the event that it gains any popularity?

If I wanted to publish it physically and charge for the cost of production and shipping (with possibly some margin for profit) would that cause issues? If I published it as part of a larger platform that makes its own money (say the Codex) would that pose any problems?

Things I am using that is theirs:
-Names of things (Jaeger, Ranger, Kaiju, LOCCENT etc.)
-The entire concept + history of their world
-I’m not sure about art yet

I could be overthinking it but if anyone has any thoughts I would love to hear them!

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Welcome to the gauntlet! This is totally a fair question, I’ve wondered it myself. Someone more in the know can answer, but my guess is that using their names and designs is an issue. Someone else can opine!

I have a related question maybe I can bootstrap off: what is the legal status of PbtA games? How about defended from the queen? Or any game that adapts another games mechanics? Let’s say I wanted to make a game based on Ars Magica’s system, especially the magic system (PArMa - Powered by Ars Magica). I know such games exist. I especially would like to use the wording around the magic system…I guess that is where copyright would kick in? I don’t want to be a jerk, I could probably change names and stuff it would be ok, I guess I’m just curious how this is handled in the community. I would absolutely credit them copiously for their amazing work, I’m just worried if there are legal barriers to this, or just barriers of decency.

Edit: ugh, internet failure, this got cut off and I didn’t realize

Usual “not a lawyer” disclaimer, but charging anything for someone else’s copyrighted material (which things like using the specific words used in the film would be) is a no-go. If you’re not charging for it, you can get by on “fair use”, though you might still be subject to a takedown notice. Obviously, both of these things are contingent on the company ever finding out, but charging money for it is not something I would recommend. If you sufficiently change names etc., then you’re on fairly safe ground.

Regarding games systems, both Vincent & Meguey and Alex Roberts have published guidance on use of their games, so search for and check that out. Broadly speaking they’re both fairly permissive “licences”. Mechanics for games are not subject to copyright, though the game text itself is. So you can absolutely adapt mechanics from other games, as long as you’re not reliant on the game text itself. From an ethical standpoint, though, if you’re going to base your game off an existing game, you should at least reach out to the original author, and credit them in your text. If nothing else, if people perceive you as plagiarising someone else’s work, it’s probably going to put them off your work.

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I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, but it’s worth noting that large entertainment companies are notoriously litigious. Such companies sometimes issue takedown notices in situations where IP has not technically been breached, or sue people in situations where they know they wouldn’t win. This is because they know it is cheaper for smaller entities to settle or fold than to employ the legal resources required to resist. Most people who work with IP (I work in publishing) are extremely cautious for that reason.

My understanding is that whether you charge for a product or not is irrelevant in terms of IP law; however, IP holders are more likely to consider it worth pursuing those making money.

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As with the other posts usual not a lawyer but I’ve had some basic copyright training as I work at a uni (in the UK so don’t know how different our laws are to other countries).

If you post anything that uses material from somebody elses creation without permission you are infringing their copyright. There are a few exceptions (generally referred to as fair use) which cover research, criticism, review, reporting of current events and parody. I was told that most of the time somebody states they’re posting something under a fair use exemption they have misunderstood the rules.

In terms of the three specific examples you mentioned (names, world concept, art) then you’d be infringing their copyright. You could probably rewrite the history of the world enough to make it a generic clone but the other two are big infringments, especially art because it is so recognisable.

Now as for publishing - this is where it gets… questionable. If you were to freely publish fan material you’d probably be fine. You’d technically be infringing on their rights but it is unlikely that they’d care. If you start charging for it or it became a big hit then they’d be increasingly likely to intervene. You’re making money off of their property and may be using it in ways that they might not agree with. The question isn’t are you breaking the law (answer: you are) but whether it is financially worth them getting involved.

As for somebody else publishing it that wouldn’t matter and depending on the publishing agreement they could end up liable (I’m less clear on this aspect but I believe publishing in Codex vs say self publishing on DTRPG would work differently with regards who is liable).

Short answers:
You will be infringing on their copyright.
This almost certainly wouldn’t fall under fair use.
It isn’t worth trying to make money off of it.

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Thank you everyone for your feedback! What I’m hearing is that I should do more research, but that as long as I’m not making money off of it the worst they can do.is ask me to stop, and that’s assuming they even notice it’s happening.

The thought occurs to me to reach out and ask permission, but Warner Bros is HUUUUUGE and I’m just some rando with most of an idea and only some of it on paper, it seems unlikely I’ll reach anyone who can properly give me that permission anyway, so I guess I’ll just go the free route.

Unless I make it and try to sell it to them or something (lol)

Not anyone here’s lawyer, not an IP lawyer and neither have nor want to have all the necessary specifics here … but yes, this is substantively correct as far as I can tell.

Fair use is generally transformative use. If you are making a fan work about the setting created by someone else - using all the concepts and names, that’s clearly and obviously infringement, and while a freely published fan work isn’t too likely to peev a large entertainment company it might, and the fan violator would have little recourse. Once you start trying to make money of other people’s copyrighted material that’s far more likely to get you in trouble. Don’t do it.

Purely as a player of games - don’t do it either.

Taking basic concepts like “giant robots fight giant monsters” is fine, but do one’s own thinking and setting design, world building and such - you might end up with something a lot better then your source material, and you’ll certainly end up with something you can be more proud of.

The question of copyrighting game mechanics is somewhat tricky and while generally the mechanics of a game aren’t generally copyrighted (it’s tricky I don’t fully understand it and there may be changes here as video game companies battle for the mobile app market) the terms and fictional elements become increasingly likely to be. Thus using whatever dice mechanics a game uses is likely fine. Using them with the same terms and to do the same thing is much more tricksy. Using them with the same terms in the same setting is bad. In other words the line between mechanics and fictional content is what you’ll end up arguing about, at roughly $500 an hour if things get ugly.

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You’re probably right, and reaching out to Warner Bros. is unlikely to get me anywhere. It’s kind of a shame, I loved the movie and what it felt like, and I would have loved to pay homage to it with my ideas, even if I wouldn’t make anything off of it. I appreciate the warnings and the call for caution.

Nothing stopping you from writing a game and playing it. Running it here online or elsewhere. The main impediment is selling it.

My personal view is that in this community and other TTRPG spaces way too much emphasis is placed on selling things. Just look at the recent Trophy contest here, something people submitted to out of enjoyment of the game, but within several posts on the entries someone was clamoring to bundle and publish them. One can enjoy a hobby without monetizing it, and without monetization copyright disputes become far less likely.

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Agreed - although even if you’re not selling it, in this case distributing it can cause trouble (though as others have noted, it’s less likely in this case).

I’m 100% with @Gus.L about placing too much emphasis on selling things. One of the ways I’ve always enjoyed looking at the OSR and, more broadly, indie games is as an ecosystem of sharing and building on each other’s work. Open Source Roleplaying, as it were, rather than “Old School” whatever.

In that spirit, then, I think a game about mechs fighting kaiju is GREAT and I hope to see it, regardless of whether it references specific names and copyrightable elements from the movies. I have every confidence that people will enjoy it with or without those things, just like people love “Scum & Villainy” even though it doesn’t specifically reuse Star Wars and Firefly names.

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You’re right, I agree with this, and those are good point on Scum and Villainy. I could even just list it as an inspiration or a touchstone, the concept of mentally connecting to pilot a mech together isn’t unique to this one movie so if I don’t reference it directly it shouldn’t even come up on the IP radar.

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IANAL but my limited understanding of fair use is that it lets you defend yourself but is not something you can invoke in your work and feel safe (people do that though, obviously).

Deriving copyrighted work is always a risk and seems to increase with copyright holder’s plan to enter market X. So if there’s a plan to transform IP of your interest info a game (tabletop or video) lawyers are more likely to scout for violations. Dormant IPs (unless it’s Dune, hur-dur) are safer but no IP is safe.

What is much safer is evoking the theme or feel of an IP and focus on that. Try not to talk about inspirations too much though, this can also draw attention.

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I would suggest taking this and running even a little further with it: check out other media in the same genre. Watch some of the animes, check out some other mech games (the Sad Mech Jam on itch.io might be an interesting thing to look at if you haven’t) etc.
Once you’ve steeped yourself in the genre, you can allow yourself to be inspired by many different takes on the core themes and tropes. This lets you find a combination that works for you and helps you make your own thing based on a more generic reading of the stuff you are interested in instead of one particular IP.

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That’s also super valid, and because I haven’t interacted tooooooo much in the past with the genre, and the primary audience would be people who consume this kind of media (I expect), that’s a great point

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Like, I keep thinking of Blades in the Dark, which is so clearly and explicitly a homage to Dishonored and Thief. But then, also, John lists a ton of urban fantasy novels, other games, The Wire and so on and so forth as touchstones.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other media, but often it’s more interesting to see the mixture of ideas that somebody pulls together from various sources and makes their own.

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And I find myself using the Dishonored touchstone so much more when I play Blades, so bringing in a whole mixture of ideas will allow each table to colour it however they like, makes it less rigid.

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