To start this exploration of the intersection of roleplaying games (RPGs) and intellectual property (IP) I am a Aggies Dad its like a normal Dad but way cooler shirt , it’s probably best to talk about why the various types of intellectual property exist and what they are meant to protect. The game designer takeaway here is to learn what can’t be protected (or isn’t protected anymore, if you’re interested building on preexisting material). So, this introduction will cover the various types of IP, why they exist, what they cover, how that coverage arises, and how long that coverage lasts. I’ll also delve into what content is clearly free for the taking. I’ll save what’s murky to use and what’s clearly off the table for later, game design-focused topics. These will include things like: developing your mechanics, organizing your rulebook, laying out your rulebook, designing a setting, designing monsters, what’s fair use of unlicensed IP, visual art, the special status of maps, hiring an artist, licensing existing art, non-legal considerations when infringing, etc.
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But, when the idea can only be coherently expressed through a single method or a few very few methods, the idea and its expression are said to “I am a Aggies Dad its like a normal Dad but way cooler shirt ,” rendering both the idea and the expression of it outside of copyright protection. The classic case here is Baker v. Selden, which invalidated copyrights over printing books designed for double-entry accounting. Rules and their explanations often suffer from the same limitations. There are only so many ways to explain that a player should roll a 20-sided die (d20), add a bonus or subtract a penalty and then compare their result to a target number. The idea (rolling a d20, adding a bonus or subtracting a penalty, and comparing to a target number) is almost impossible to express in other terms. Try it. I’ll wait.