Intellectual Property Rights and Co-Creative Games

Watching the amazing creativity of so many people at College of Wizardry: Nibelungen 4, and the various wizard school larps I’ve been to in the past, combined with the failure of Dziobak Larp Studios which ran the College of Wizardy series of games, has finally prompted me to put some thoughts to paper.

College of Wizardry 13 in Czocha castle, Poland. #cowlarp #collegeofwizardry #dziobaklarpstudios

Copyrights and intellectual property are a problem with co-creative games and endeavors. In the case of a larp, especially a larp where players and volunteers contribute a great deal, the topic of intellectual property gets very messy very quickly. As long as everyone’s friendly and the sun is shining, there is no problem. But when someone who has contributed a lot to the community decides to leave, or is barred for safety reasons, or when the game is sold or transferred, or the game runners decide to make it a for-profit enterprise, these issues can become a major hurdle.

The traditional creative industry (video games, movies etc.) tends to be pretty clear about who owns what rights; for example, if you are hired as a photographer for a film production, you agree to a work-for-hire contract and the company owns your work, period. (How predatory this model is is an entirely different conversation.) You get paid, someone owns the creative output and has full control over it.

In a game, there is significant creative and professional work that goes into the creation of design documents, meta-techniques, workshop structure, game structure, behind-the-scenes game organization and a great number of other similar aspects. The design of the lore and setting to support the style of game, by picking the location, by building in conflicts, by guiding the types of stories that will be created, and making this mesh with the rest of the game design is the heart of a larp. It’s an art, and the people involved in it deserve their recognition and rewards and to claim their credit. Doing it right is incredibly hard. It’s definitely work worth protection and payment — though on the flip side, the idea that someone asserts copyrights or demands payment for advances in workshops or safety techniques might come across quite poorly in the community.

And yet, no matter how good and complete this design is, it will never be enough to run a game without creative input from others.

College of Wizardry 13 in Czocha castle, Poland. #cowlarp #collegeofwizardry #dziobaklarpstudios

A larp like a College of Wizardry is different from a movie production. One of the most important parts of this kind of a larp is the co-creative aspect. A setting and all the other things mentioned above are provided by the organizers, as are potentially short character descriptions. However, players bring the characters to life and round them out and change them to be something very different from what the character writer might have had in mind.

Players and volunteers create crests, logos, companies, products, props, runes, rituals, songs, outfits, history, customs, in-game magazines, poetry, and countless other creative things. They come up with families for their characters, and backstories. Players may define how fae and work look in a given game, or werewolves, or whether it’s allowed for a teacher and a student to go to the ball together. Players may define school rules. And indeed this is a way to support the re-playability of a game; no two games will take place in the same world, and there will always be something new and different even for returning players.

This is all content created by players and volunteers, and owned by them. It’s the output of their passion. It’s the world they live in, love in, suffer in, find themselves in. If the game runners try to claim that the likeness of a character, or the concept of a character, or any such thing is theirs, and that you, as the player, can’t bring the character to another game, or write fanfiction about them to post online, that goes very violently against the sense of what is right and wrong.

This kind of a game can only work when players and volunteers are encouraged to contribute; when they build each other and the game up; when the organizers can use props and posters left behind, when people give their portraits to be used in the following games. It only works then the players of professors bring supplies for their classes, and decorations for their classrooms.

As soon as players feel like they don’t own their work, or the character they’ve been living as, or that the work they’ve put into the game now belongs to someone else to make a profit off of, the passion is extinguished. It’s no longer creating fiction together, it’s no longer contributing to a great, common story. It’s now doing unpaid (indeed, you arguably pay for the privilege of doing this!) work to line someone’s vault with new intellectual property that they can use for profit, and tell the creators they have no control over it anymore.

People are generally happy to see themselves in character portrayed in documentaries and web pages and social media. Attempting to use people for direct marketing, especially for a different game than they prefer playing, quickly gets hackles up, rightfully so — and is legally extremely dubious. The players have not signed model releases, and demanding one as a condition of play is not going to be accepted. Once more, as long as the players believe in what’s being done, they tend to be happy to cooperate, but when the project moves from collaborative fantasy to a business, things change.

Not only that, I fear there’s a shift of expectation. A commercial business with controls over intellectual property, I imagine, would produce a game where players expect to be customers that are catered to. They expect plot, they expect a good experience. That’s in stark contrast to a co-operative game where players understand that the company running it provides the setting, but the game itself continues to be a co-creative endeavor. The introduction of too restrictive intellectual property rights has the potential to harm the co-creative aspects.

It’s clear that the name of the game, and perhaps core elements are intellectual property, and anyone wanting to use them needs to get permission, and possibly a licensing deal for commercial use. Protecting the core intellectual property of the game against someone trying to take it over, or abuse it, is probably a wise precaution as well. It’s also clear that fan works, fan gatherings, and within reason spinoffs have to be allowed, and even encouraged. If a player wants to make team jerseys with a school and house logo for a game, or just in general — maybe there’s a loss of some potential licensing revenue, but there’s much more gained from the passion and advertising and loyalty the players show to the game and the world.

The quickest way to get people to bail and make their own game is to send them a cease-and-desist letter demanding payment and adding arduous conditions when a dozen of them want to get together for a weekend in a cottage and finish some plots in character.

College of Wizardry 13 in Czocha castle, Poland. #cowlarp #collegeofwizardry #dziobaklarpstudios

There is a legitimate worry that the brand will get tarnished or diluted if people can do whatever they want while using the world, and that if there’s a cheap spinoff it may siphon players from the expensive main event. But that’s a balance that has to be dealt with in a more open, creative commons direction than traditional media would — because that’s exactly what this kind of a larp is: a creative commons.

It’s also clear that volunteers can only run the game so many times, and a bunch of volunteers can only make it so big and take so much responsibility. To rent castles and buses and make agreements, and to work on a game four times a year for years, you need a company of some sort, and some reasonable income to run it. I want to be clear — I would love for people to be able to do this professionally or semi-professionally. It’s a very hard problem, how does one balance these competing needs in the existing legal intellectual property landscape. I don’t have answers. I do have a lot of sympathy for people trying to make it work.

It’s impossible to run a larp while paying everyone for their labor; it’s not even close. It has to be a project that excites people, that welcomes and attracts volunteers to pour their hearts and souls into it, a project that has people carrying boxes and setting up candles in the forest from dawn ‘till well past midnight, that has people crafting and sewing. One where once done, people will rally together over something they have created together, and they feel they have a stake and ownership together; if not financially, at least in the way the created world is treated, and the contributions are acknowledged.