Copyright and Theft

Copyright Theft

What happens if you design a game, show it to a publisher and then they steal your idea and make the game without you?!  Is there anything you can do?  As a designer, do you automatically have some kind of copyright?  Or should you take out a patent before you show it to anyone?

I’m no legal expert, but these questions have been asked many times over the years by budding designers and the answers are all fairly unanimous (more on that in a bit).  The one thing that most people agree on though, is that it hardly ever happens.

However, unfortunately it seems as if it really is happening in the case of the latest boardgame based on the popular Alien franchise: USCSS Nostromo…


Nostromo

The original Nostromo

Back in 2010, a French designer called François Bachelart designed a game called Nostromo (the name of the ship from the original Alien movie).  He took it to a publisher called Wonderdice, who offered him a contract for them to develop and publish the game.  However, for whatever reason, they couldn’t agree on the terms of the contract and it was never signed.

So the game fell by the wayside.  That was until a couple of weeks ago when a remarkably similar game called USCSS Nostromo became available for pre-order from Wonderdice.  This was followed, later the same day, by a shocking revelation from the Société des Auteurs de Jeux (a union for French game designers) that the game was an almost exact copy of François Bachelart’s original design.

Wonderdice hadn’t come to any agreement with the designer; as far as anyone can tell, they just seem to have stolen the design.  You can read the rulebook (in French!) for the original Nostromo here and compare it (if you speak French) with the rulebook for the latest USCSS Nostromo game here.  My French isn’t great, but according to French speakers who have compared the two rulebooks, the games really are almost identical.

“What can be done?!” I hear you cry.  Well, the traditional advice in these matters is not to obtain a patent or trademark or other such legal protection, and not to keep all the details (like the rulebook) a closely-guarded secret, but rather to show your game to as many people as possible.

This might seem counterintuitive, but the problem is that you can’t protect the rules of your game.  Artwork is subject to copyright (as is any creative expression), but game mechanisms are too ubiquitous (and rightly so).

NSCSS Nostromo

The version from Wonderdice

If you could copyright (or patent) a game mechanism like deck-building or card drafting, there would only be one deck-builder and one card-drafting game and the boardgaming world would be all the poorer for it.

The idea behind showing your design to as many people as possible is that, in the event of an unscrupulous publisher stealing your design, lots of people will be able to back you up when you say, “Hey, that’s my design!”

This seems to be exactly what has happened in the case of Nostromo.  The Société des Auteurs de Jeux has rallied behind François Bachelart and made their feelings known far and wide.  Bruno Faidutti (a famous French designer) voiced his dismay on BoardGameGeek and the message seems to have been heard.

At the time of writing, Wonderdice’s website that was taking pre-orders (www.alientheboardgame.com) has been taken down.  I suspect the peer pressure and bad publicity was too much.  The whole situation is very sad, but it seems as if the community has prevailed.  I would be very surprised if the game ever goes to print now.

Have you ever come across a case like this before?  It is certainly the first time I have ever been aware of such blatant plagiarism in the boardgaming world.  I hope it is the last.

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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