Board games are a beloved pastime for many people, and it’s no surprise that many game enthusiasts are interested in creating their own games. However, one major obstacle that often arises when trying to create a board game is copyright.
Many popular board games are protected by copyright laws, which means that game creators cannot use the same game mechanics or designs without permission from the copyright holder.
But is it possible to create board games without copyright?
In this post, we’ll discuss so-called “copyright-free” board games and whether they’re possible.
What are “copyright-free” board games?
Copyright-free board games are games that are not protected by copyright laws, which means that anyone can create, modify, or distribute them without permission from the original creator or copyright holder.
It’s not really a “technical” term, but it’s one that makes sense when describing the general idea.
There are several ways that a game can become copyright-free, including:
The copyright has expired
Copyright protection typically lasts for a certain number of years after the creator’s death or after the game was first published. Once the copyright has expired, the game enters the public domain and can be freely used by anyone.
Luckily, I’ve created a public domain online calculator that you can use to figure out if something is in the public domain or not.
The creator has released the game under a permissive license
Some game creators choose to release their games under a permissive license, such as the Creative Commons Attribution license. This allows others to use and modify the game as long as they give proper credit to the original creator.
There are a ton of different kinds of permissive licenses, some which only require attribution, others which require redistribution for free. Check out this tool to see some of the most common types of licenses.
The game is a clone of a copyright-protected game
While this may seem counterintuitive, many games have been created that are very similar to popular copyrighted games but have enough differences to avoid infringing on the copyright.
These games can be legally produced and sold as long as they don’t use any copyrighted materials or game mechanics. It’s important to understand the distinction between idea and expression in copyright law, and what is and is not protected in a board game, before relying on this. Check out my post here for more information on the limits of board game copyright and a great court case discussing it.
Examples of copyright-free board games
There are many examples of copyright-free board games that can be freely used and modified by game creators. Here are just a few:
Chess is a classic board game that has been played for centuries and is not protected by copyright. While there are many variations and versions of the game, the basic rules and mechanics remain the same.
It’s possible that the sculptural elements of a chess set, like the specific sculpture of the King, Queen, and Knight pieces, could be copyrightable though, if they are substantially original.
Go is a strategic board game that originated in China and is often considered more complex than chess. Like chess, though, it is old enough to also not be protected by copyright and has a large and dedicated following worldwide.
“Open Source” board games
Many board game enthusiasts have created their own games and released them under permissive licenses or as clones of popular games.
These games can be found on websites such as BoardGameGeek and can be freely downloaded and played – check out this Geeklist of public domain games here.
Frequently Asked Questions about board games and copyright:
What is the public domain, and how does it relate to board game copyright?
The public domain is a term used to describe creative works that are no longer protected by copyright law. This means that anyone can use, modify, or distribute these works without needing permission from the original creator or copyright holder.
For board games, this means that games that are in the public domain can be freely used and modified by game designers without worrying about infringing on copyright.
Can I create a board game based on a copyrighted game?
Creating a board game based on a copyrighted game is a legal gray area. While it’s possible to create a game that is similar to a copyrighted game, there is a risk of infringing on the copyright if the protected elements of the game are too similar.
This can be tricky to parse, and isn’t always an exact science. It’s always best to consult with a lawyer before creating a game based on a copyrighted game.
Can I create a board game based on a book or movie?
Creating a board game based on a book or movie is possible, but it’s important to ensure that the game does not infringe on any copyright or trademark protections.
This can be done by obtaining permission from the copyright or trademark holder or by creating a game that is different enough from the original work to avoid infringing on copyright.
Again, though, “different enough” is a gray area that can get you into a lot of trouble. Best to talk with a lawyer first!
How do copyright laws affect board game designers and publishers?
Copyright laws can have a significant impact on board game designers and publishers.
For designers, it can limit their ability to create games that are similar to popular copyrighted games.
For publishers, it can impact their ability to produce and distribute games without obtaining proper licenses or permissions. It’s important for game designers and publishers to understand copyright laws and to seek legal advice when necessary.