- Copyright exists when you create a work and protects it from being copied.
- Be aware of who owns copyright in works you are using and commissioning (like music, art etc.).
- Enter into contracts to pro-actively manage rights ownership and use.
Copyright is typically the core right at play in video games as one of the suite of intellectual property rights underpinning content. This is the one to sit up and pay attention for!
Copyright is a right which the creator of the work automatically owns when the work is created. It is a legal right to prevent the work in question from being copied. Created some graphics to go into your game? You own copyright in that graphic. Created some unique code to support your game? You own copyright in that code. This is because the creator of a musical, literary or dramatic work owns copyright in that work under UK law.
Similarly, if you want to use works in your game you need to be aware that they many have rights vested in them. That catchy Final Fantasy background theme? Most likely? Copyrighted (although sometimes trademarks, like in the name, or even patents may apply so be sure to check those pages). Use it and you put yourself at risk of infringing copyright in that work and receiving a cease and desist letter from the rights holder.
Want to work with a publisher, supplier or developer? They will likely want to keep the rights, likely copyright, created in your works. This is so they can freely, re-use, commercialise and manipulate the copyrighted work as they so wish – such as using the background art you supplied in a sequel without charge. Many independent contractors should have a clause in their contract which clarifies who owns the intellectual property rights in the work they create, usually in favour of the commissioner.
The result is that games developers usually own most intellectual property, including copyright in their games. Use any element and they are likely to send you a cease and desist, protecting the elements that constitute their game in the process. Put contracts in place determining who owns the rights in works created for or by you and you can to. If you are a creator you can reserve these rights for yourself, allowing you to re-use your work, or charge more for them.
In the UK copyright is typically covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This sets out the rules and regulations which apply to copyrighted works, including more complex issues such as joint ownership and moral rights. As a rule of thumb copyright ownership typically lasts 70 years from the death of the author of the work. Older works are covered by historical copyright laws.