Is my work derivative or original?

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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Is my work derivative or original?

Post by pelinorerevived »


I am a keen fan of role-playing games and in particular of Dungeons and Dragons.

In the years 1984 to 1987, material was published in two magazines (Imagine published by TSR UK Ltd and GMPubs published by Paul Cockburn - GMPubs carried on the publication of articles by the same authors after Imagine ceased publication). The material described a fictional game world that served as the background for games played by the readers of those magazines. The material included maps, place names, character names and other background information such as a fictional history for the world and information about different religions.

Both publications are out of print and are very difficult to obtain in their original form, although I do have complete collections of each publication.

I still use the information from these magazines to play games. In order to do so I take the information from the magazine articles and weave it into my scenarios. As far as I know, this is permitted as personal use and was in fact the original intention for use of the articles.

I would like to share my scenarios with other players on the internet. However, as the original background material is difficult to obtain, it may be necessary for me to describe some of the fictional people, places and religions as well as to outline some of the background history that was presented in the magazines.

If I do this I will not be copying "word for word" the articles as they are written, but to use my own words in order to describe what was originally presented and also to add my own material (such as adding 25 years of history, new places, new people and new religions). I will, however, have to use the same "proper names" that appeared in the magazines.

Now, my question: does the treatment of the original work that I have described above qualify as "derivative work"?
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Post by AndyJ »

Hi pelinorerevived,
As I think you are already aware, copyright is more about protecting the form in which an idea is recorded rather than the underlying idea itself. So I think that extending a scenario of a game which someone else has created should be OK if you genuinely move the 'story' forward. The main area of danger of infringement lies in the extent to which you have to re-tell the original story/scenario in your own words. If you are able to assume that your fellow gamers already know pretty much all of the previously published material, you would be on safer ground. Re-using the individual names of characters or places from the original probably would not in itself infringe copyright but if you have to use a great many references back, that aggregation could amount to a substantial amount in terms of the quality of the previous articles, even though you have put this background in your own words.
Probably the key to this is the attitude of the original author and the publishers. If they wanted the stories to be used as the background to extended game-playing as you suggest then that indicates they may be happy for you to go ahead. However if this had been something put out by a big games manufacturer or mainstream publisher I would expect them to challenge your project, because of their perceived need to protect their overall intellectual property, including branding and future rights (for example say your version really took off and Pixar wanted to make an animated film based on your game, the original publishers would become mighty interested).
Clearly if you can contact either the original author or the publishers to get permission, this would be much more prudent, before you embark on a lot of extra work. As you mention, if you do this for your own private use then there is absolutely no issue to worry about, and the problem - if there is one - will only arise if you want to publish your work.
There have been a number of cases over allegations of non-literal copying, for example involving the Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter stories as well as some TV game show formats, but previous decisions by the courts have gone different ways so it is hard to be sure where the current line between freedom of expression and infringement lies, legally speaking.
As you say, I think it would be fair to characterise your project as a derivative work, although that word doesn't actually have any legal meaning as such.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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