Gamers turning to public domain to find the next big trend
This year is a big one for securing key characters, including Steamboat Willie.
NEW YORK -- A "game jam" is an online competition for people who make games, whether tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or video games like Minecraft or Call of Duty. But most game jam submissions are a lot smaller than those titles. Teams are often small, and they usually only have a few weeks to develop their games.
“You see a lot of first-time game designers, because it’s a very approachable way of designing your first game, because the expectations are very low," Randy Lubin, who has helped organize game jams for a few years, tells ABC Audio. "Because it’s just something that’s being produced over the course of a weekend, or maybe a week or so, nobody’s expecting the highest quality, highest caliber game content.”
Still, the smaller scale hasn’t impacted the popularity of game jams.
"These have gotten immensely popular in the last half decade if not longer, with there being dedicated sites online just to game jams,” says Lubin.
Video games can be based on all kinds of things, from Pokémon to Spider-Man. But small game developers, like those who participate in jams, often don't have the money to license those properties from the copyright owners. That's why some are turning to the public domain, a set of laws that designate when movies, artwork, music, and books become free to use.
“If you locked up works indefinitely, then you are preventing the opportunity for others to build on those works to create new works, which is something that we as a society see to be beneficial,” says Aaron Moss, a copyright attorney based in Los Angeles.
Certain versions of Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Winnie the Pooh and more are currently available to artists because of the public domain, giving rise to a fresh crop of movies, music, writing, and, of course, games.
Lubin is one of the organizers behind Gaming Like It's 1928, alongside co-organizers Leigh Beadon and Mike Masnick. It's a game jam that requires participants to create games incorporating works that have recently entered the public domain.
Characters like Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, even Winnie the Pooh have all entered the public domain in recent years. But Masnick says this year promises to be a big one.
“1928 has been on the radar of copyright folks for a long time,” he says.
That’s because Steamboat Willie came out that year -- the animated, black and white Disney short film that marks the classic cartoon debut of Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse is more than just the mascot of Disney, the parent company of ABC News. It’s also a character that’s been the subject of years of lobbying and negotiation. Masnick says Disney has retained the rights of the Steamboat Willie cartoon up to this year through a law known as the Copyright Term Extension Act.
"In fact, people kind of jokingly, or condescendingly, referred to the last Copyright Term Extension Act as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” says Masnick.
But as of January 1, Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain. However, game designers and other artists don't have free rein on the Mickey Mouse character.
“When you have a character like Mickey Mouse, that has changed over time, later works in which the character has appeared may and still are protected by copyright,” says Moss.
Steamboat Willie features the original design of Mickey Mouse, which means that iteration of the character is free to use. But the later Fantasia cartoon, for example, features an updated look for Mickey. That version is still owned by Disney - and therefore still subject to the same penalties.
“If there are damages that make it worthwhile for the copyright owner to file a lawsuit, [they] could theoretically file a lawsuit,” says Moss.
Regarding Steamboat Willie entering the public domain, Disney told ABC Audio in a statement that "people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products. That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires." The statement goes on to say, "We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey."
But the Gaming Like It’s 1928 crew says fights over copyright are not something they’ve had to deal with.
“Not yet! You know, my fingers are crossed,” says Beadon.
“We are always watching for that and wondering if it will happen," says Masnick, adding, "we try to be pretty clear with the folks who are entering the game jam about the limitations. And to make sure that they do their best to understand what is allowed and what is not. But to date, we have not had any copyright holders complain.”
What’s more, Beadon says the hype around Steamboat Willie this year may end up being overblown.
“We do expect a lot of games using Mickey Mouse, but sometimes we’re surprised," he says. "We expected to get almost all games using Winnie The Pooh when he entered the public domain, but there were fewer than we thought.”
Already, Mickey has appeared in one of the Game Jam submissions. But there’s also more obscure works, like "Author Tycoon," a game where players are tasked with selling books and short stories from 1928. There's also “In Old Arizona,” a tabletop game based on a movie from that year.
“We all love that, when someone finds an obscure, really out there work," says Beadon. "You can go to the Internet Archive or somewhere like that and search for works published in 1928 and find, like, scientific studies, and municipal journals of sewage design. And you never know when one of these might yield some really interesting diagram or some really interesting something that you can use to make a game.”
In fact, Lubin says they even have a category dedicated to the super obscure.
“One of our favorite sub-prizes, sub-awards, is for 'Deep Cut.' Which is something that nobody ever - or nobody living - has probably ever heard of,” says Lubin.
They also award prizes for best visuals, and best tabletop game.
Gaming Like It’s 1928 stops taking submissions at the end of this month. Winners will be announced in mid-February. But Lubin says whichever entries take home prizes, the game jam has a promising future, as works from the 1930s begin entering the public domain.
“Some of the more famous Charlie Chaplin movies, 'Gone With The Wind,' 'The Wizard Of Oz,' and so I think that will enable new and different types of remixing original content into games. That’ll be really exciting,” says Lubin.
Hear the full story on the Perspective podcast:
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