I've been musing upon the legalities of mod production. It's a fun issue and, as I'm working on a mod right now, the topic is both relevant and important. I'd appreciate your educated thoughts/feedback here.
If you want to cut to my pressing, practical issue, skip to the last paragraph.
According to the Uniform Partnership Act, any peoples who work together on a "business for profit" without any other legally binding agreement are operating as a de facto partnership. It's been made clear that the project I'm on is not going to be monetized. Thus, we are operating in the gray space, I assume, as individuals. While this does simplify things in the event that a member, who may otherwise be a partner, leaves the project with malicious intent, operating as individuals has it's concerns as well. The one which I'm currently considering is copyrights.
The US Copyright Act provides that the copyright holder of an original work has the exclusive rights to authorize the production of derivative works. A derivative work is defined as work based upon, recasting, or reproducing an original. The author of a derivative work has rights only over the portion of the derivative work that is "distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work." Indeed, the principles of originality have been well established.
This has pretty significant implications. It begins with your concept artists. Lets say they create a modeling sheet for your characters. Then you have a 3d artist come in an create the character according to that modeling sheet. Plainly, the model is a derivative work of the modeling sheet. After all, that's the entire point of the modeling sheet, and concept art in general. Similarly, an artist who illustrates an area is an original author, and the level designer who creates that area in a 3d space has created a derivative work. While the concept artist does not actually own the copyright to the model or the level, the model or level would be infringing upon the copyright of the artist if the artist chose not to give his consent to its creation.
This raises an interesting, basic question: How is consent to the creation of a derivative work determined? Given the context of the artist's work, I imagine it could be argued that consent is implied. In either event, assuming there has been no formal agreement, can the artist rescind his consent at a later date and render the derivative work a copyright infringement?
However, a more interesting question comes to mind: What about the game mechanics itself? It's been established that a game system cannot be copyrighted because, so they say, the system is an idea. Only the expression of ideas may be copyrighted or viewed as original works. But what if your designers have developed important, core algorithms/equations for the game which the coders have simply implemented? Is the algorithm/equation considered an idea in and of itself, or is it an expression of the idea of their game mechanics? I suspect, since this hinges upon the creative, expressive (read: cultural) legitimacy of a video game, that this is pretty new legal territory. If the algorithms/equations are deemed to be expressions of an idea (copyrightable), is not the code a derivative work?
Thinking more broadly, consider the "design document." In game production we typically find that designers create a design document from which, literally, the game is meant to be created. As a document, isn't it an "expression" of the ideas of the designer? Or is it only an "expression" if the document itself is made to convey, experientially, what the game should ultimately be? I assume a rough prototype would suffice in this regard, though a case could likely be made for a script, given that a "faithful" film adaptation of a book is a derivative work of the book.
If a team is working from an expression of a game idea, be it a design doc or a rough prototype, doesn't the possibility exist for their work to be derivative? I imagine that the actual determination of whether an asset is a derivative work of the design document would have to be determined on a case by case basis by comparing what was expressed in the design document to what was produced. Nevertheless, assuming the game is being produced based upon an "expression" of the designer's ideas, the game as a whole should be considered a derivative work of the expression. ...There's a lot of gray space here.
So, musing aside, what's to be done? From where I'm sitting (the producer and game designer), it seems like the safe thing to do is to draw a document for everyone to sign. The document should give me an irrevocable, non-transferable license to use the assets my teammates submit, provided the assets aren't being monetized. I'm iffy on exclusivity. In this case, should money come into the picture, new licenses would need to be obtained for the use of each asset. (What a mess, sheesh.) Has anyone else been down this road? Why don't more people ask these questions? Advice?