Digital Asset Copyright Protection and What Developers Need to Know

In today’s digital market, there is a serious issue with cloning and misusing assets which can become a big problem for fledgling studios entering the Indie space.

Angrybirds

For this post we are going to examine some basic rules of public assets and what a new developer needs to understand.

What are Assets?

For new developers or students reading this, it is important to briefly define what assets are. Assets for the game industry are commonly referred to as Digital Assets and can include visual, multimedia or textural files that are stored on a device.

When we’re talking about a video game, the assets we’re referring to are any music or sound effects, the game engine itself, animations, any artwork that includes: characters, items, weapons, background/environment and any visual UI elements like health bars, status icons, quest screens, etc.

There is also the issue of cloning which is where someone copies a game’s design but we’re going to be saving that for another post due to the complexity of the matter.

Major studios usually have enough people and departments to create everything they need in-house with the occasional exception being the game engine which can be licensed from the engine’s creator.

CallofDutyGhosts

The work that goes into developing the assets for a game can be the most time consuming and expensive for any game project regardless of scale.

However, for Indie studios starting out that are only made up of a few people, it’s a different story. Developing art and animation assets can be a long and expensive process depending on the game’s aesthetics, even more so if you’re developing a 3D game.

Because of this, it’s tempting to use free assets available on the Internet from people showing what they can create. With that said, there are rules that you need to understand on how to protect yourself, your game, and your studio prior to using free assets.

What is your Project?

This first part is mainly for students or new developers reading this. If you’re putting together something for educational purposes with no intent to sell, then the assets in mind are protected under the fair use doctrine.

If you’re trying to create a mod for a popular game, most likely you’re going to be using the game’s editor such as Valve’s Source Engine or Blizzard’s editor for Starcraft 2. In these cases, the assets that you either create or that come with the engine are going to be locked to the respective game and will be available to use for free.

You should also understand that most mods cannot be sold directly from you regardless of the time and work you put into it, as you’re still using someone else’s assets and work to create them. However there are exceptions such as getting your work picked by Valve to be in either Counterstrike or Team Fortress.

teamfortressworkshop

Valve is currently the only developer that will take modded items and integrate them into a game while compensating the creator.

On the subject of mods, it’s important to check with the developer in question if you want to create something that alters in game files. This is especially true if you’re working on any type of competitive or multiplayer title as the developer may have restrictions on what the consumer can modify.

This refers to any art like new characters and animations to changing how characters or items behave. When it’s time to talk about creating a product to sell, this is where things get serious.

Using Assets in your Game:

The first thing you need to understand should be very obvious — You cannot take any assets from someone else’s game and use them in your own. It doesn’t matter what the genre is or if the game is F2P or not. Taking another game’s assets is a violation of a game’s licensing agreement and against the law.

For assets available online, even though they may not be a part of a game or product, they are still someone’s work and owned by them. It’s important to contact the person and get their permission to use their assets. For free products they may just say it’s okay, however if you’re making something that you intend to sell, you may have to pay to license the asset and acknowledge it in your game.

Newgrounds

Sites like newgrounds offer public assets like music, but it’s still important to contact the asset creator to get their permission before using anything.

When negotiating to license someone’s assets, there are different terms that must be worked out — what are you licensing, how long are you going to license it for, are you going to alter the asset in any way, will the asset be exclusive to your title and more. The answers to these questions will affect the value of the asset and you will probably have to get it in writing to prove the legality of the deal.

These questions also need to be answered whenever you’re dealing with outsourced talent like freelance artists and programmers. Because they are not a part of your company, they will need to be treated as an outside source of work and have to be compensated and negotiated differently than your regular employees.

Regardless if you have regular or outside employees, if someone leaves or gets fired before their work is complete, you will need to figure out what happens to any partially finished assets.

If you’re licensing a game engine like Unreal, Unity, Source and so on, it’s important to find out from the company itself if there is a cost to use the engine or any assets created with said engine in a product that you intend to sell. With the Unreal Engine, they will take 5% as a royalty charge from your profits once they exceed $3,000 on top of a $19 a month subscription service .

Creative Control:

Because of the legal hurdles for licensing assets, it is always to your best interest as a developer to create all the assets for your title in-house whenever it’s possible.

That way you have complete control and are less likely to infringe on someone’s IP. While no one is immune to IP Infringement claims, it is easier to protect yourself and your company by producing original assets. But no matter how much you avoid copyright violation; there are always problems with clones which we’ll be talking about next.

Please note that this post is not meant to give legal advice and it’s always best to consult a lawyer whenever you’re unsure of a legal issue or making use of assets found online.

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