No One Can Hold The Wind: Control Over Art Released Into The Public Domain

(The author of this post is a licensed and experienced intellectual property attorney, but nothing in this post should be construed as specific legal advice. Consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction and familiar with the relevant law before making legal decisions.)

“Public domain” is a very slippery term, legally speaking. What it usually refers to is an artistic creation that either predates modern copyright law, or for which the copyright has expired – in other words, there is no applicable legal copyright in the work. Once something is in the public domain, anyone may use it in their own artistic creations. (Though this may create a new, copyrighted work, to the extent that the new creation comprises an original artistic creation beyond the artistic elements of the integrated public domain work.)

There’s no way, under US copyright law, to “release” a copyright before it expires. (This is a conversation I’ve had with other copyright lawyers.) Since neither registration nor notice are now required to create a valid copyright, it’s literally impossible to create a new work and have it NOT be copyrighted. However, one can release an artwork and offer the public an unlimited license to use it. Technically, such an artwork is still under copyright and is not “in the public domain,” in the way lawyers use the phrase, but for practical purposes, it may be thought of as being in the public domain.

That is just a little background for the actual topic of discussion for today, which is a game developed by indie developer Jason Rohrer called “One Hour One Life.” Mr. Rorher has an unusual business model: He “releases” all of his games into the public domain, and makes money from his creations in various ways that don’t involve strict control of the copyright. You can read about his philosophy here: Free Distribution.

Mr. Rohrer makes very good games, and between selling copies of “his” version of the games, donations, and other methods, he makes his living. But of course, you wouldn’t be reading about him on a legal blog if there wasn’t a legal issue.

*ominous music*

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Video Game Preservation: Not a DIY Project, But Now A Lawful One

(This post was originally written for Ron Coleman’s Likelihood of Confusion blog. Please note that while the author is a licensed and experienced attorney, nothing in this post constitutes specific legal advice. It is provided for general educational purposes only. The author has made an offer of pro bono consultation related to the subject matter of this post. This may be considered ATTORNEY ADVERTISING in some jurisdictions.)

If you are into vintage video games, you probably know about “ROM Sites.” ROM sites are websites where you can download the ROM (Read Only Memory) code for classic cartridge or board-level games, such as Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges or arcade cabinet games like “Spy Hunter.” They’re not really different in kind from websites or torrents where you can download more modern software which was available on disk or CD-ROM. They’re just a little more arcane because you have to not only download the ROM code (which has been “ripped,” or copied from the ROM chips to a computer hard drive) but download and run “emulator” software, which allows your modern PC to run code written for much, much older hardware. It’s entirely doable, but requires a little effort and tech know-how.

Recently, Nintendo sued one of the better known ROM sites, loveroms.com, and won a 12 million dollar judgment against them for copyright infringement. Here’s a copy of what was the front page of loveroms.com from the complaint:

Here’s what’s on the loveroms.com front page now:

Apology to Nintendo

Our website, LoveROMS.com/LoveRetro.co, previously offered and performed unauthorized copies of Nintendo games, in violation of Nintendo’s copyrights and trademarks. LoveROMS.com/LoveRetro.co acknowledges that it caused harm to Nintendo, its partners, and customers by offering infringing copies of Nintendo games and has agreed to cease all such activities. To access legitimate Nintendo games online, please visit www.nintendo.com for information about the Nintendo Game Store.

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I’ll be at MAGFest in February!

I’ll be giving a panel talk on “Third-Party Trademarks in Video Games.” In other words, if you want to put a Coca-Cola® sign on the street in your game world, can you? Should you? How should you do it if you want to, can, and should? I’ll be at the conference all weekend and am always glad to talk law, technology, pop culture, or the random topic of your choice.

Legal Achievements?

Okay, whoever invented the concept of “achievements” in computer games is probably an agent of the Adversary, because now they’re everywhere. I have been reviewing legal questions on Avvo.com and they have a point system which gives “contributor level” advancements. Yes, they’ve turned legal advice into a form of game system. It’s insidious, I tell you.

Anyway, if you’d like to see some of the answers that I post, just click on my Avvo badge (it’s on the right side of the screen) and it’ll take you to my Avvo profile, where you can see things I’ve posted by clicking on “View Contributions.” Trust me, it’s worth it. I’m a funny guy. I’m even a funny lawyer.

 
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