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Legal Issues that Developers Face

These are common legal issues that developers face, with tips on how to avoid them.

I have had a few troublesome legal issues lately that have dragged me down and made my work all the more difficult. They are not actually related to my work, but to a mechanical lemon that I paid $10k for, only for it to break down on me. Such is life. However, it did get me thinking. No one likes to go through these things, yet they seem to be a major part of modern life and as game developers, we are not exempt from that.

Here is a short list of the legal issues that we can face and the things that we can do to escape them or to avoid encountering them in the first place.

Contract Disputes

In the early days, I made the mistake of taking people on their word. I worked with someone who accepted payment in cash for work they provided on a game of mine. That person was actually a friend and stayed in touch. When that game became successful, he got jealous. At first he made jokes that I should give him more because he helped. In fact, I would have done just that, if all of the game's profits were not going back into marketing it and creating a sequel.

After a few weeks of not hearing from him, I received a letter from his solicitor to say that he was suing me, claiming I had never paid him what we agreed and that he deserved a share of the profits.

He thought he had me where he wanted me, all because I agreed to pay him in cash and he could deny it. In the end, he didn’t win because he didn’t get anything in writing either. Still, the stress that it caused and the money I lost in legal fees wasn’t welcome. It would have been much easier if I had just created contracts and kept these on file.

So, my final piece of legal advice of game developers is to get everything in writing. If someone does work for you, make sure the details are written down, including payment and any royalty share. If they are refusing, then at least make sure you get something in writing, whether it be through emails or Facebook messages. If you can prove they don't have a leg to stand on should they try to sue you in the future, then you can make life much easier for yourself.

Libel

Obviously, as gaming developers it is unlikely that we will encounter any serious product liability cases. We’re not going to create games that will blow up as soon as someone installs them. Maybe an evil man in an underground lair is thinking up something just like that right now, but it’s certainly not on the cards for most developers.

However, there is a very real threat of libel if we talk about a living person in the games we create. I’m not quite sure if this would cross into the realm of slander if they were spoken by gaming characters (libel is written; slander is spoken) but in any case, it’s serious.

I have a history in writing, so I am somewhat prepared for this issue and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind. Simply put, you an’t get away with doing this just by placing a “This is a work of fiction and any similarities, blah blah blah” disclaimer in the beginning. You also can’t get away with it just by changing a single letter in a name.

It becomes libel if the person you are writing about can be identified by the descriptions you are using. Of course, there has to be intent there as well. A random person on the street can’t sue you (at least not successful) just because you created a bad character who looks and sounds like them.

To avoid this, you just have to be sly. I get it, we all want to have little digs at people we don’t like. It’s part of writing and developing and it’s normal. To make sure you get away with it, you just have to tweak it so that the person you’re having a dig at will recognize it, but no one else will.

Copyright

I have created games and websites that use public domain content and I am very careful when I do this. However, I know of other developers and webmasters who freely take images from Google, with little care for the consequences. Inevitably they get stung and it can cost them.

There are a few things you need to consider. First, all images and content has its own rules. You may be allowed to use and edit it freely; you may be allowed to use only when you attribute it to the creator; or you may have to stay away completely. This copyright info can be found on the site that contains the media and even on the media itself. Also, know that while this often applies to images online, it rarely applies to written work. No self-respecting webmaster will let you take their written content because of the SEO penalties it can occur. SEO companies and writers make a lot of money creating this content for their customers, so it’s unlikely they will give it away and risk penalties from Google.

If you’re worried about your own stuff being stolen, just know that the rules are different from country to country. In the UK and many other countries, the work is yours as soon as you create it. From then on, it just becomes a case of proving that you did indeed create it first. In the US, you need to file for copyrights. 

Trademarks

In all countries, US and UK included, trademarks (which protect names) need to be applied for and then actively protected. Simply put, if you have a trademark then you need to be seen actively trying to protect it, otherwise you’ll lose it. This is why trademark owners go out of their way to target everyone who so much as touches upon their name. It’s not because they want to destroy the little man, but because that’s how they show that this trademark is theirs and that they are staking their claim on it.

You can search for available and unavailable trademarks using this WIPO link. It’s also important to know what you can trademark and what you can not, as well as what is fee to use and what is not.

You probably knew that you can’t use Disney. This is one of the world’s biggest brands for a reason and they are very active in staking a claim to every single copyright and trademark they own. However, you can use places and you should also be able to use names. If you want a horror-themed game, there is nothing stopping you from using a famous haunting, which is why there is so much out there about Amityville. The names of films and books are usually okay as well, and it’s why you will see so many duplicates of these.

There are exceptions though and i’m not a lawyer, so make sure you research these things.

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