Thoughts on Copyright: Stumbling Toward an Ethic

I feel like this whenever I discuss ethics. "Ian Malcom: From Chaos" by John Larriva.

I feel like this whenever I discuss ethics. "Ian Malcom: From Chaos" by John Larriva.

So this happened with the ENnies.

Some guy made and sold an rpg with clearly copyrighted content. The ENnies decided to disqualify the entry. Fair enough. I am not really interested in the actual happenings. However, it got me thinking about my ethical obligations: I am interested in building an ethical framework for use of copyrighted content in blogs.

Before we begin: don't worry all you potential contenders, the ENnies won't disqualify your blog because you use copyrighted content. Probably because few blogs could pass muster*. 

How it is now:
As far as I understand copyright law, when you make a thing, whether it be a painting, digital art, or a written piece, you are its owner. You can use it however you want, and in general no one else can use it without your permission.

But we do anyway. In regards to digital art, internet culture is such that we demand to use other people's property on our blogs. Whether it is a picture from the 2nd edition Monster Manual, something off of someone's personal site, or art off of DeviantArt, when the picture fits, we use it.

Why in Rpgs?
I imagine that part of the reason that the use of copyrighted material in RPGs is that it is part of a remix culture. For example, I don't know of a single DM that has ever really ran a module as written. DMs basically have to take the scenario and then rebuild it to something that is useable for their players. We are constantly constructing, tearing down, and reshaping material. The OGL (and SRDs that were released by other gaming systems), where the game mechanics were basically released to the world, continued this trend. Anyone could produce content without paying a licensing fee...

My guess is that because of our remix culture, we don't strongly consider copyrights unless we are directly selling something.

The problem
Some of us (hopefully) make money off our blog content. Some of that content (i.e. the nice big picture an article's title) is probably not licensed. How do we pay respect to unlicensed content that we use? Are (non-monetized) Fan Sites different from those that have ads or amazon links?

A potential solution for a fansite
I run a fansite. I don't directly make any cash through advertising. I link to my single commercial module which is "pay what you want". And, I'll be the first to admit this, I do not get permission or a license for every piece of artwork that goes on this website. I feel that I still respect the art that is posted. Here are a couple of rules that I have developed when using someone else's property:

  1. Anything that is in a commercial work (including "pay what you want") should be licensed. If you're selling it, you should be compensating the artist or using royalty free content. On my commercial module, the artist gets 40%, the graphic artist and editor currently gets 20% of net. It's really fun to write checks to your friends for their great art.
  2. Anything that you put on your blog should show the source. Best practices include an artist's name, link to their website, and if you know it's been published, note the book. At the bare minimum you should include a link to where you found it
  3. This includes everything. If a blog article inspired you, put a link to it. If you post a still of a movie or TV show, you should include a link to the show's site.
  4. Respect the wishes of the property owner. If you post a picture on your website of someone else's work, you are probably violating copyright. Our use doesn't fall under "fair use". So be gracious and respectful. If there is a statement on the artist's site, saying "don't copy this" then don't. If someone send you an email and asks you to take down a picture, then do it.
  5. Be a Fan. Celebrate all of the art that gives life to our games. Do a blog post on the best artists you found. If you get a chance, buy a print or two.

This isn't perfect
It is clear that this ethic isn't legally sound, nor is it necessarily a good fit for everyone. I am sure there are artists out there that would (rightfully so?) put this ethic in the same place as thievery, but it's a start. It's better than just dumping an image on your blog and walking away. You are at least giving some credit where credit is due.

What do you think? Is the fact that I use unlicensed pictures horrible? Is my ethic any improvement over the internet as a whole?


* Mine sure as hell couldn't. Maybe I am wrong and it's just me? Rpg bloggers, do you license all of your picture content or use only creative commons material?