Banner showing three books

Is it OK to steal art for your prototype?

MicroWars - all graphics by me, or licensed.
MicroWars – all graphics by me, or licensed.

There’s an interesting discussion over in the Board Game Geek Board Game Designers Art & Graphics forum about whether it’s ethical to use someone else’s art in your prototypes.

It’s not legal, that’s fairly clear. Generally speaking you’re not allowed to use any part of someone else’s copyrighted works without explicit permission. But since copyright and IP law differs from country to country you’re operating in a gray area. For example in the US, where copyright law focuses almost solely on ownership and economic gain, you might get away with using someone else’s art as fair use. In Europe, in contract, you wouldn’t, no matter that you didn’t make any financial gain nor impacted on the artist’s financial gain. In Europe your copyright is protected no matter what and your right to be named the creator of the art is firm (although we don’t have quite as rabid copyright legislation nor as high punishments as in the States, but that’s changing).

But let’s talk about it in moral terms: is it right to take someone else’s creations in order to prettify our own?
It’s not something that’s absolutely necessary. We could have prototypes without any art, just some drawn lines to show areas or tracks, with added text or color coding. Yet playing such a prototype isn’t as satisfactory as playing a pretty one, and it certainly won’t get you the blind playtesters you’d want.

So we steal. We take the art of other’s and say “it’s no big deal”. But when matters go the other way, when someone takes our stuff, some of us go bananas. “Someone stealing my game/idea” is one of many beginning designers’ greatest fears (even though neither ideas nor rules aren’t protected by copyright and worthless of themselves).

But lets get back to the ethical issue. Is it right? Let make a thought experiment. Let’s pretend it’s about music:

If you sing a popular song, is that unethical? You are stealing the artist’s work and by law you should be paying royalties to the artist (actually to the writer or copyright owner if the writer’s sold it, but let’s stick with artist) for singing their song. It should be right that an artist can live from the proceeds of their art and if you sing their songs you’re depriving them of livelihood. Yet, that is a silly example, nobody pays for humming in the shower.

But let’s assume that you go out to the pub and sing the song along with your buddies. Maybe it’s BBQ night at the beach and one of you’ve got a guitar and you sing the song with music for all to enjoy. Now you’re performing. Should you be paying the artist royalties for using their? Most people don’t, and see nothing wrong with it. After all, it’s for a select group of friends.

But you get better at it. You go play in a club on open mic night. You get applause and maybe a free entrance and free drinks for your singing. Should you be paying royalties now? Is it still all right to use the artist’s work without compensation? Most garage bands don’t pay royalties for the covers they play and most people don’t see anything wrong with this.

But then you want to make a record. Something for your friends and fans. You hire a studio, get a decent technician to mix it up and then you sell it to your friends – but only in order to recoup your outlays and maybe get a little extra to buy that new amp you’ve been wanting. Is it still all right? If it’s on a small scale, strictly limited? Most people would probably think that it’s your singing that’s doing the trick, and it’s you that’s making the art (like you’re making the game even though you’re using someone else’s images). It’s not like you’re pirating someone else’s finished CD and selling that. You’ve input your own work here. Most people would still think that this is all right, especially if the aren’t involved in the content creation industry.

But lets take another analogy. You’re an artist, a photographer. You see a mural, a beautiful, emotionally moving image on a grand scale. You take a picture of it, print it and display it in your gallery (let’s say you’re a professional). Is it still all right? The picture is your art, the subject of it would be nothing, just some pain on a wall, if you hadn’t come along. You’re the artist here, you’re the one looking at the light, the composition, the position of the camera and enhancing the work. Maybe there’s even someone standing in front of the wall. You’ve added value to the art, right? You’ve made the graffiti into “Kunst”.

Lets turn this around. You’re an artist, a painter. You’ve gone on vacation and you walk into a gallery. There you see a poster of the gallery’s recent exhibits. In amongst the different photographs and statues you see a photo of your painting. $20 says the poster’s price tag. Is it still all right? If not, who’s to blame? The photographer who took the image? The curator who made the poster? The clerk who sold it?

It’s only a small part of the total poster and it hasn’t lost you any profit – it’s not as if you’re selling your mural. Legally the photographer might be in the clear, as might the curator and most probably the clerk. But morally, are you a tiny bit outraged? So is it right?

Say you’re an artist. You go to a friends house. He’s got a new game, something that he printed from the Internet. It’s good he says, real fun to play. You sit down at the table and there, splashed across the game board, is your art.

Is it still all right to use someone else’s art?

Think about it.

Personally I have no problems with someone else using one of my texts or photos (I make a living as a journalist/copywriter) in their prototype. If it’s a print-n-play I’m still mostly all right with it, although I’d have liked to have me credited as an artist in there. Doing a small print run homebrew game and selling it to cover printing costs, well, I wouldn’t expect money but I’d definitely want credit, and probably an artist’s copy. Anything beyond that I’d be uncomfortable with.

So I apply the golden rule. I occasionally use other people’s art in the prototypes I use with my local playtesting group. But for the one PnP I’ve put up for general distribution (Microwars here on the Geek) I’ve bought the art (it’s a royalty free package that comes with Dungeon Designer, except for the front piece which is open source). That covers the legal aspects but, more importantly, makes me feel that I’m doing the right thing.

But that’s me. You go and find your own golden rule, where your morals tell you it’s time to stop. When you do, feel free to tell me where that is, and why.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover

Leave the first comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.