Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who owns student work--the school or the student?

This is a comment I made on a Gamasutra article about schools claiming to own student work (click the title of this post):

Many people misunderstand copyright. I've had to research copyright law extensively because of games and articles I've had published, but I am not a lawyer. For a more authoritative opinion (which matches mine, as it happens) read what Jim Charne, the lawyer who writes the legal advice column for IGDA, has to say. See for his take on this question, which in my words is "these schools have no basis in copyright law for claiming any ownership, and I don't understand why they'd even think of trying." The notion that a school owns the copyright because their equipment/software was used is ridiculous, in my view. The idea that students attend a school to find cut-rate ways to make games is laughable. Doesn't attending school cost the students a lot of money?

All of my game-related work other than teaching has been on a freelance basis, and in my view no self-respecting freelance author/creator EVER allows his IP to be transferred permanently to someone else unless there is absolutely no alternative--or the lump-sum payment is ridiculously high. "Assurances" often don't matter when money is actually on the line.

I strongly advise prospective students to avoid any school that claims to own the student's work. Always carefully read what you're asked to sign, but better yet, ascertain beforehand what the school's policy is and don't attend one with a doubtful policy. Anytime you attend a school that is owned by one or several individuals, you need to be especially careful, about *everything*. If you sign away your rights, it's your fault.

However, there is a reason for a school to be cautious. Publishers routinely require creators, who pitch a game to the publisher, to sign an agreement protecting the publisher if the publisher should later publish a game that might be construed as similar in any way. This protects the publisher from frivolous lawsuits by game creators who don't understand that game ideas cannot be protected by copyright in any case. ( While a school doesn't publish games, there might be occasions when a student or former student would sue a school for use of his or her game for other purposes. So the school would be wise to require students to sign a document equivalent in some ways to the document creators must sign before submitting a game/game concept to a publisher. That is what the IDGA should work on.

Nonetheless, like Tom Buscaglia I feel IP ownership is a moral issue, and my gut feeling is that most of these schools are just hoping to steal something from their students, to gain control of something they didn't earn by their own efforts. Digi-pen overriding the creators of Toblo appears to be just one of those cases.

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