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Budget Gamer - Free Game Design Tools: Copyright Considerations

I know that in my last article, I mentioned that I'd be talking about the Unreal Developers Kit this time, but I wanted to touch on something that is more important than you may realize when you are creating your "own" content for games. And that's Copyright Law.

Free to Look At is Not Free to Use

You can find images of almost anything on the internet, from cute puppies to complicated ground textures, and you can listen to all sorts of audio content created by artists who run the gamut from amateur to professional. However, it is very important to be aware that just because an image or an audio file is free to enjoy, you can't just slap it into your game. Almost all professional and many amateur artists are very protective of their work, whether it's a photograph of a gravel parking lot or an audio recording of a bird singing. "Borrowing" someone's art or sound may make your game cool, or more realistic, or just more fun, but it is technically illegal.

All Rights Reserved

No, you probably won't go to jail, but you may wish it was as simple as a prison term when the lawyers get done with you. Violating copyrights carries heavy financial burdens. A copyright holder can sue you for damages - and the law allows for tens of thousands of dollars for a simple violation.

Purdue University's web site informs us that "The law provides a range from $200 to $150,00 for each work infringed." [CopyrightBasics, Purdue.EDU] Who sets the value of the infringed work? Certainly not you. In reality, the copyright holder goes before a judge and claims that your infringement is worth a lot of money, and the judge then decides how much you owe. In addition to what the work itself is worth, you will have to pay the copyright holder's costs of suing you, and your own lawyer for defending you.

So how do you make sure that you aren't put in financial danger just because you created a game for you and your friends (and a few people on the internet) to enjoy?

Create Your Own Content

If you need a picture of a brick wall - your best course of action is to find a brick wall and take a picture of it. No one can claim you stole a picture if you have the original photo on your camera memory stick. If you need a recording of a car door slamming, or an engine running, or a door opening or closing, your best bet is to make them yourself.

Remember, content that you create yourself is yours. If you take a great picture of a sunset and use it as a "sky texture," and then see that great sunset in the next Call of Duty game, it might be you who has the cause of action!

Search for Free Content

There are a variety of websites that make content available and require no attribution. These sites get contributions from enthusiasts who want to show off their work, and they have no problem with you using it! Sometimes they only require you to put a note in the game editor source file somewhere giving them credit. Some don't even require that much!

The following are some useful websites that I have used content from that require no attribution for FREE games (like the demo you're making). But remember, the rules change when you start selling product!

For textures, you can try http://texturez.com/, http://www.textureking.com/ , or type "Free Textures" into the Google Search Engine and click the "images" result. Remember, just because Google says it's free, though, that may not be the case. Make sure that you check each image (if it has a watermark on it, it's probably NOT free to use!)

For audio, I have found sounds at pacdv, soundgator, and SoundfxNow. All three allow free use of sounds you download, with searchable databases. However, be sure to check each site's licensing restrictions. pacdv and soundgator have a "no redistribution" policy - that is, you can put it in your own work, but you can't make the individual files available online or resell them. SoundfxNow pretty much says "go crazy." Other sites have other policies.

Ask

The simplest way to add a piece of content to your game is to ask the copyright holder if you can use it. Of course, this is also the least successful if you want it for free, but some artists are just cool guys and gals who are tickled to death that you think that much of their work. Of course, make sure when they say "yes" you get it in writing, with their signature.

Give a Hoot, Attribute

If you make a habit of recording the content source you use, and it's attribution requirements, you'll save yourself a lot of worries later on. Attribution is a big word meaning "who gets credit." If you find yourself grabbing a lot of textures from texturez.com, put them in a texturez.com folder just so you remember where they came from. It also makes it easier to find similar free content in the future.

I don't mean to scare anybody, but it's always a shame when people who work hard make perfectly innocent mistakes and find themselves on the losing end of things. If you are making your own games, or even designing levels and mods for your favorite on-line games, be sure you don't end up trying to explain to Sting in court why you didn't feel the need to pay him for a song, or Dwayne Johnson why his burp was so awesome you had to use it but forgot to ask.