Saturday, September 13, 2008

Choosing a School: Ownership

Question: Who owns the IP rights to games that are created by students?

What to look for: Ideally, the students should own all copyright and other intellectual property ownership of the projects they create while they are students.

What to do: Decide if this matters to you. Some people don't care, because they aren't planning on selling anything they make as a student anyway. Some people care, but they're willing to compromise on this (maybe by just not using their favorite game ideas until after they graduate) in order to go to a school that is otherwise their choice. For some people, this is a deal-killer.

What to watch out for: Some schools explicitly state that they own all rights to all student work. Probably the most notorious example of this was Team Toblo (a good story to read for why IP ownership might matter to you as a student). Other schools do not have an official policy at all, which is a signal that they haven't thought about it yet in spite of it being a legal and PR minefield. In these cases, proceed with caution, because the rights may be legally unclear and the last thing you need as a student is to get involved in a legal battle. Still other schools have restrictions: they own the rights to anything you create using university resources (such as computer labs or printers), but a project you make on your own with your own equipment is 100% yours, so there's a way to own your work if it matters to you. Mainly, the important thing is to be aware of the official policy before it becomes an issue... and if you think the policy is suboptimal and you plan on attending anyway, consider taking it upon yourself to push for policy change.

Update 11/13/2008: The monthly IGDA column on legal issues gives some insight into IP ownership rights of student work:
Thanks, Jim!

Update 11/14/2008: It appears this is becoming a much larger discussion. A recent Gamasutra article highlights the problem. This blog post is quoted and linked to in the article, alongside quotes from Tom Buscaglia, Brenda Brathwaite and Susan Gold... so I'm in good company. Maybe this will eventually become a big enough issue that the "we own your IP" schools will consider policy changes, and the schools without an official policy will get off their behinds and make their policy explicit.


Adrian Lopez said...

I agree with most of your post, but take issue with one particular point:

"Other schools do not have an official policy at all, which is a signal that they haven't thought about it yet in spite of it being a legal and PR minefield. In these cases, proceed with caution, because the rights may be legally unclear and the last thing you need as a student is to get involved in a legal battle."

I seriously doubt this is correct, at least in the United States. Copyright in a work belongs to the author unless it's either transfered in writing or explicitly commissioned as a Work for Hire. Because the students are not university employees, they and not the school are the legal authors of any original works they create, so the copyright goes to them.

Having said that, the truth is that the law is not enough to stop schools from trying to cause trouble. I quit school for several years after a heated argument with a professor over the ownership of my final degree project. I did finish eventually, but the experience has left me soured.

Matthew Oztalay said...

Ownership was the primary reason that Digipen had fallen out of my top list of choices for college. I have no problem with my present college displaying my work, but now owning the IP rights to my work is just ridiculous.

Lewis said...

I can understand a game company claiming ownership of (game) works of employees, because the employees are paid, and because of the danger that employees will work on their own stuff while on the job. But a student who isn't paid? Does a school own the works of an instructor? Well, if an instructor writes a book, the school doesn't own it; and I'd think the same is true if the instructor designed a game. Does a school own a program a programmer writes while employed by the school? No. Or an artwork? No. So why a game? And why people who aren't even employees?

So schools can claim ownership, though I doubt there's any strength to that at all if the student hasn't signed something to that effect. And even if the student has signed something, I doubt it would stand up in court. It is indeed a case of schools trying to claim ownership and hopeing no one will contest it.

But the point is, if a school tries to claim ownership of your work while you're a student, you shouldn't be going there.

Lewis said...

I should say I have encountered the notion that a game produced by an instructor is owned by the school. But it came from another instructor who not only had no clue about games, but was terrifically unproductive. Another case of the unproductive wanting for free the works of the productive, I guess (much like many who think that music should be free).

Ian Schreiber said...

I should clarify, because I'm sure you're right that if the school doesn't claim copyright then it defaults to the student. What I mean is that if there's no policy today, and a student makes a great work and then a policy suddenly materializes in response... well, certainly the school should have no legal ground to stand on, but it could still make the student's life a total mess while it all gets sorted out.

Lewis: To me, it's irrelevant whether ownership claims stand up in court. Being an undergrad student (especially in games) is stressful enough on its own. If you're involved in a litigation battle, that's a whole other stress added to your life that makes it much harder to concentrate on your actual studies. And if that legal battle is with the school you're attending... well, it'd kind of be like suing your employer while working for them at the same time. Sure, you may win in court, but that's nothing to what you've lost in stress and time.

Voice said...

On the copyright front, transferring a copyright requires a specific, written conveyance.

If DigiPen simply announces at their orientation that they own everything a student submits, they're *wrong*.

If there is a document signed by the student acknowledging that DigiPen owns any work that they submit, they're *probably* right. (Depending on the wording, it may fail the *specific* requirement.)