Original content versus fan content

With studios and publishers flinging infringement notices around about fan-based role-playing environments online, it’s worth looking at the situation from another perspective.

After all, why not just create new, original theme properties rather than basing role-play environments on popular books, movies and television shows? Why do so when official gaming environments already exist in some cases?

Well, there’s a number of reasons. Creating a fleshed-out themed environment that isn’t just a rehash of something that already exists, is actually really hard. It’s time-consuming, requires any would-be gamer to learn a lot about your specific property (which means endless amounts of documentation, lore and history needs to be written), and you generally start out without any real support. How does a gamer even know they’ll like your theme – as a non-profit effort, your advertising options are limited, and you may never attract a large enough following to make all of the effort worthwhile.

By contrast, plugging into an existing theme is easy. There’s always a wealth of pre-existing material to work from. DVDs, books, movies, fan-fiction and more. Everyone already knows whether the theme is to their taste, all the information they could wish for is widely available, and the only matter for their consideration is whether they like or dislike the software on which the environment is running, the rules and the management. Even grabbing the smallest fraction of an established fan-base can make you a huge hit in role-play circles.

When it is embraced, it can work very well indeed. I used to participate in a particular Star Trek MUSH online. Among the players were a handful of members of the crew, cast and writers for the series. It was fascinating seeing story elements from that game appearing later in later seasons of the canon television series.

That’s perhaps an almost ideal symbiosis, but all of that was happening without the knowledge of the rights-holders who probably would have shut the arrangement down punitively, had they become aware of it.

These days there’s now a Star Trek Online MMOG, but dozens of Star Trek role-play environments still exist online, and new ones still get created. Why is that?

It’s because the ‘official’ environments don’t offer the role-playing versatility and opportunities that many online, fan-created role-playing environments do. You can take your pick of game-systems. You can even find environments without any coded game-systems, simply relying on the creativity and fair-play of participants – essentially limiting play only to what players are jointly willing to agree to.

White Wolf’s World of Darkness is perhaps the single most popular role-play setting online over the last couple of decades. That property has become a part of CCP, the makers of EVE Online who are now working it up into an MMOG.

What will happen to the hundreds of role-play environments online that operate under the World of Darkness rules and/or setting? Will CCP’s lawyers come after them as the game gets closer to release? Will they only get shut down if the World of Darkness MMOG fails to attract enough usage? World of Darkness games are – traditionally – rather light on scripted game-mechanics, and trend towards humans creating their own stories and performing their own dispute-resolution, aided by administrators – a model which I do not see CCP necessarily indulging in.

A World of Darkness MMOG might simply not appeal to the tens of thousands of WoD gamers already playing in virtual environments today, and that could well put CCP on some awkward public-relations ground if it chooses to protect its rights – rights for which many millions of dollars have been spent already.


  1. The issue isnt “fan based” work for “entertainment”..its never been. Its only when fans start “selling” and in fact “competing” with the licensed product, that the Owners get involved and shut them dowm. The “free to copy” and sell ethos of SL has been getting away with allowing this for way too long, and its not surprising that with a licensed BSG getting a MMO soon that they, the owners are being asked to close down these commercial endevours in SL.

  2. The issue isnt “fan based” work for “entertainment”..its never been. Its only when fans start “selling” and in fact “competing” with the licensed product, that the Owners get involved and shut them dowm. The “free to copy” and sell ethos of SL has been getting away with allowing this for way too long, and its not surprising that with a licensed BSG getting a MMO soon that they, the owners are being asked to close down these commercial endevours in SL.

  3. It doesn’t matter if the fans are profiting from it or not, to most companies. Many would say that it is worse when it is free. What they object to, in the main, is the distribution. Personal use exemptions in copyright generally mean that you can go build replica vipers in your backyard, if you so desire – or wherever. As soon as you start allowing others access to what you’ve made or start giving it to people, you’ve overstepped that line.

    The first commandment of intellectual property seems to be: Thou shalt not display or distribute that which draws interest away from officially licensed properties and merchandise.

  4. the largets owners of the type of “fan crazy” properties we’re talking about are usually now “savy” to the PR of fans. They wont act unless online content of their IP is beign SOLD for profit or generating profits via advertising.

    Lucas Arts, CBS, etc pretty much now have this “policy”. BUT LL and some folks using SL took advantage of this…and extended it to other companies IP… So in the end, this is all expected,

    As to the “free” issue bing now worse, well this is only now becoming an issue with these IP owners in the last few years, as tools and “online” entertainment is becoming of interest to them. And both basement dwellers and VC funded compaines like Bigpoint, can create and distribute Unity3d based games on the IPS… infact.. Bigpoints MAIN SCIFI Game that got them noticed and profit drriven for years…(then they raised VC money) had used scifi 3d spaceship models that they themselves “copybotted” per say from the internet. Im sure the original designers/model makers of those designs/datasets never got paid by Bigpoint.

    The scams and theivery on the web 2.0 is rampant. Ask yourself how much Stardolls “paid” brad and anglina to use their likenesses for online toys for years.. today VC funded, Star dolls makes “legal” deals… but they were bootleggers and thieves just a few years ago. the method is to grow rich fast, pay off settlements later… ethics dont exist and the world is in the cylon crap trap because of it.

    as for LL’s methods… well the” best” that can be said is that they pay for “original?” IP like Insilicos sims, and therefore compete against any legal IP owners inside their own walled money making system.

    the first commandment should be though dont steal…or as later updated to “do unto others asn you would have them do unto you….”

    well so much for that idea when you convince yourselve your a avatar or meta.– an epic fail of an idea imo.

  5. Ann Otoole InSL says

    Take out the clan names, clan symbols, and any other white wolf game identifiable words and you have vampires role playing and WoD won’t have any claim. The difference between WoD and BSG/Star Trek/Dune/(insert movie/game here) is that White Wolf doesn’t have a claim on the basic premise of vampires. On the other hand most of the others are based almost entirely upon copyrighted content.

    WoD has a potential issue looming in which should they decide to throw lawyers because they think nobody will resist and wind up giving people a bad impression then they will have a problem. In addition they never once went after all the board/card game developers out there making one-offs and selling them for profit for years so the precedent is already set that they do not defend IP and have openly encouraged it for years as can be witnessed at the many DnD type cons around the world for years and years. What WoD needs to do is concentrate on delivering a compelling product. And I have my doubts they will succeed given the years lead others already have in 3D environments that have openly run for years.

    There is a movie called Gor. I guess they could try to shut down the Gorean universe as well because they made one of the worst movies of all time that is such a failure it ranks in the comedic travesty collector niche.

  6. You are *so* right, Tats. You have described the whole issue in absolutely accurate terms.

    The problem here is that 99.99% of all content-creating companies in the entertainment industry think like that. 0.01% might actually allow fan art, or even be supportive of it, and these few examples have been used to promote the concept that a company that makes their fans happy will not lose money — in fact, they might have far more loyal fans, or, at least, far more happy fans in any case. These few examples are often promoted and well-researched and used as case studies on how to be supportive of the fan community, and give fans of other environments the false notion that “fan art” is universally accepted and somehow “protected”, when it’s nothing even close to that. Just because there are a handful of good examples in the industry, it doesn’t mean that the overwhelming majority of companies are even willing to listen to the “crazy idea” that fan art is good for business…

  7. Lowell Cremorne says

    A promising trend is the one exhibited by Bioware with the upcoming Star Wars MMO (Star Wars The Old Republic), with a big encouragement of fan content creation. Here’s hoping it continues.

  8. Hmmmm…. you might find this article at WIRED interesting. It seems the way fan-produced manga is handled in Japan is in sharp contrast to the way fan-produced stuff related to franchise fiction is handled here in the West. Really eye opening, the difference.



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