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Gamedevelopment

Understanding Licenses, or, “Can I Use This Asset In My Game?”

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Asset licensing is serious business. In a multi-billion dollar industry where thousands of hands come together under a single banner to create a single product, there should be no doubt as to who owns the art, code, and sounds associated with a game. But what about smaller developers that have to rely on externally licensed game assets? 

Being an independent developer, you cannot afford to take any legal risks with licensed content. The rising popularity of asset stores and open source libraries has created an even larger need for a better understanding of game asset licensing. In this article, we take a look at the basics of copyright licensing for independent game developers.

Disclaimer

I want to preface this article by stating that I am not a lawyer, I did not go to law school, and this is not legal advice. If you are seriously concerned about any licensing issues that may affect your game, then you should contact a legal professional. This article can only get you acquainted with the basics of licensing and is not meant to serve as a comprehensive legal resource.

You should always seek independent financial advice and thoroughly read terms and conditions relating to any insurance, tax, legal, or financial issue, service, or product. This article is intended as a guide only.

Can You Use This Asset in Your Game?

There are many intricacies involved with copyright licensing, but you can ask yourself a few important questions at the start before diving into the complexities of individual license requirements:

1. Did You Retrieve This Asset From a Reputable Source?

A reputable source will provide you with the proper licensing and attribution info for your asset as well as general information and FAQs regarding asset licensing. Examples of reputable sources include OpenGameArt.org, the Unity Asset Store, and Envato Market. Examples of non-reputable sources include Google image search and random forum posts.

1a. No, I Retrieved This Asset From a Non-Reputable Source

If the asset you want to use was not retrieved from a reputable source, then you should check to see whether that same asset is available from one of the many reputable asset sources available. You should also try to contact the creator of the asset directly, if you cannot verify the legitimacy of the asset. 

If you are unable to verify the license of this asset, then you cannot legally use it in your game.

1b. Yes, I Retrieved This Asset From a Reputable Source

Continue to the next question.

2. Was a License Provided With the Asset?

A reputable source will usually provide you with the proper licensing information for the asset. The type of license supplied will determine how you are allowed to use the asset.

2a. No, a License Was Not Provided With the Asset

Contact the creator of the asset and/or the host of the asset for licensing information. If your are unable to obtain licensing information, then you cannot legally use the asset in your game.

2b. Yes, a License Was Provided With the Asset

You can legally use this asset in your game as long as you follow the individual terms of the licensing agreement. Continue reading for information on the types of licenses your are most likely to encounter.

Copyright: The Basics

Copyright is a bundle of rights that govern intellectual property. As an example, a spaceship sprite drawn by an artist on your favorite asset store is the intellectual property of that artist. That sprite is legally protected by copyright law. Through a public licensing agreement, that artist can grant non-exclusive permissions that will allow you to use that sprite in your creation (a derivative work). 

Non-exclusive public license agreements do not require a written contract, but the licenses are still protected under copyright law. By using the asset, you are thereby agreeing to the licensing agreement terms.

Creative Commons (CC) Licenses

By using assets from asset stores or an online asset library, you will mostly be subject to a particular form of public copyright license known as a Creative Commons (CC) license. Creative Commons is the most common type of non-exclusive public license and can never be revoked by the creator. CC licenses consist of a combination of different conditions:

Attribution (BY) – You can use this asset (or a version of it that you have modified) in your game if you give proper credit to the creator/licensor. Proper credit in this case is defined by the creator/licensor.

Share-Alike (SA) – You can use this asset (or a version of it that you have modified) in your game, but your game must be released under a similar license to the asset in question.

Non-Commercial (NC) – You can use this asset (or a version of it that you have modified) in your game, but only in completely non-commercial situations.

No Derivative Works (ND) – You can use this asset in your game, but only if the original work is not modified in any way.

An example of a CC license utilizing a combination of these conditions would be a CC BY-NC license, where the creator of the asset requires proper credit and the derivative work may not be used to generate a profit.

Visit the official Creative Commons website for a complete overview of CC licenses.

The Importance of Attribution

If your CC licensed asset requires attribution, you are required to give proper credit to the creator/licensor somewhere in your game. The creator/licensor gets to determine how the asset is credited, and you will be in violation of the license agreement if you do not adhere to the requirements. 

When obtaining licensed content from an asset store or library, you will be provided with the details of the license. These details should also include the attribution requirements. If the attribution requirements are not provided with a CC-BY licensed asset, it is up to you to contact the creator/licensor for clarification. If you have exhausted all efforts to attain the original attribution requirements for an asset, you can follow the official Creative Commons best practices for attribution guidelines.

Software Licenses

Aside from licensing art and music, you may also be interested in licensing actual code/software for your game. For software licenses, you will be subject to any number of software licenses, including these free licenses.

GNU General Public License 3.0 (GPL)

The GPL is a free software license that grants users the right to modify and share the original work with a few important requirements. If you release a game that contains any contented licensed by the GPL, then you must also release the source code for your game and provide users with a copy of the GNU GPL license terms and copyright notice.

There are three major versions of the GPL license. Be sure to verify the particular conditions of your license.

Official GPL website

MIT License

This is a free software license used in Mono development libraries, jQuery, Ruby on Rails, Lua, Node.js, and Expat, among others. Software and code licensed under the MIT license can be reused if a copy of the MIT license terms and copyright notice are included with the end product. The MIT license is GPL-compatible.

Official MIT License website

Apache License

Version 2.0 of the Apache license is a GPL-compatible software license, much like the MIT license, that requires the inclusion of the copyright notice and a specific disclaimer.

Official Apache License website

WTFPL

The WTFPL is a license that was created as an alternative to other software licenses. Under this license, you are allowed to "Do what the F you want to" with the licensed content. This is the least restrictive license available; any assets licensed under WTFPL can be used in any way and attribution is not required.

Official WTFPL website

Copyright and Licensing: What’s the Big Deal?

License Violations: The Law

To put it simply: violating copyright law can cripple your project and ruin your game development career. Even the smallest copyright violation can have serious consequences. Both accidental and intentional violations are subject to the same penalties, so ignorance of the law is no excuse inside the courtroom. The legal penalties for copyright infringement are numerous:

  • Up to 5 years imprisonment
  • Criminal fines of up to $250,000 per offense
  • Up to $150,000 fine for each work infringed
  • An injunction to prevent the sale and distribution of your game 
  • Payment of all attorney fees and court costs, and for damages and lost profits

License Violations: The Ethics

By violating copyright law and licensing agreements, you are effectively stealing from other creators. You are benefiting from the hard work of others without providing proper credit, and this can have serious consequences for your reputation as a game developer. The speed and coverage of social networks can bring unwanted negative attention to you, your team, and your entire project.

Conclusion

At first glance, the legal mumbo-jumbo surrounding copyright licensing can seem overwhelming. Keep in mind that these public licenses were created as a way to help artists and developers, and the content creators are doing you a huge favor by making this content readily available without complicated contracts. 

Take the time to read and understand your licenses and don’t forget to contact the content creators once your game is complete. In the same way that you want people to play your game, the artists that create publicly licensed content like to know when their creations are featured. Maintaining a safe and friendly relationship between developers, artists, and the law will help to ensure that the game development community can continue to grow and improve in the years to come.

Resources

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