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(TFT) Who owns ideas?

J. McGuire at wtsoft@io.com on 7/15/98 11:41 PM said:

>IMO, that's excessive. Life *or* fifty years, whichever is longer, might be
>fair, but half a century after the creator is dead is a bit extreme.

Spider Robinson (author of a story, "Melancholy Elephants", about the 
dangers of protecting creative ideas in perpetuity) would likely agree 
with you. On the other hand, if I were the heirs of (for example) Isaac 
Asimov, I might take a different view. The whole thing beats me.

Considering how long people are living in countries where people have 
time for such things as writing and reading fiction, a 50-year copyright 
might have an author's early works become public domain about the same 
time as he reached the peak of his career. Asimov is a great example, 
again. Should he have lost the right to profit from sales of some of the 
stories in "I, Robot" about the same time he was publishing his last 
works? Should Janet Asimov have stopped getting the royalty checks from 
the Foundation books as soon as the Good Doctor left us? That's a tough 

On the other hand, if copyright was "life plus 10" instead of "life plus 
50", it would allow an estate to collect on the inevitable run on a 
popular author's material right after his death, but release that 
material within the reasonable lifetime of people who read it soon after 
publication. That might be better. It might not, too. Should John 
Lennon's music now be in the public domain? Like I say, it beats me.

None of this helps, though, in the case of Metagaming and The Fantasy 
Trip. Steve Jackson is very much alive, but doesn't control the rights, 
having apparently signed them over to Howard Thompson. (At least, that's 
how I understand it.) Does the copyright die 50 years after Steve goes to 
check out the *real* rules for In Nomine with the angels? Does it go 
bye-bye if Howard Thompson kicks the bucket? (What if he has already and 
we don't know it?) Since Metagaming has no corporate existence any more, 
does Melee become public domain 50 years after Metagaming ceased to be? 
Can a corporate entity be an "author", and if so what determines the date 
of it's death? I don't have any idea.

Worse yet, what constitutes a violation of copyright? The strict 
interpretation has it that you have to duplicate the actual words of the 
original. Under that interpretation, one could put TFT back into print by 
paraphrasing the rulebook, using the same systems and concepts exactly. 
But George Harrison lost a copyright infringement suit based on the fact 
that "My Sweet Lord" has essentially the same note pattern as "He's So 
Fine". No one really alleges that Harrison sat down with a copy of the 
sheet music for "He's So Fine" and copied it deliberately. The likelihood 
is that Harrison HAD heard the song, and the tune MAY have come back to 
him and been used without his realizing it was already a popular melody. 
We'll never know for sure. A number of authors have sued successfully 
based on movies being created that (according to the authors) were based 
on *ideas* from their books. Under strict copyright law, *ideas" cannot 
be copyrighted, but these suits have been upheld. (Harlan Ellison has won 
a couple...)

And look at the WotC patent on collectible card games for an example of 
how BROAD legal protection can be. True, a patent is specific protection 
for *ideas*, as opposed to a copyright's protection on *words*, but how 
broad can an idea be? Arthur C. Clarke was the first to record the basic 
principles for operation of a geosynchronous communications satellite. If 
he'd patented it instead of writing a copyrighted story, would we have 
been paying him for everything from Telstar to cellular phones? 

It's a real problem, and I don't pretend to be smart enough to solve it. 
But I'd sure like to have some real clue to how it *can* be solved, 
because it profoundly affects all of us who are original creators of 
anything, every day of our creative lives.

Guy McLimore / guymc@evansville.net
MC+ Creations Game Design and Consulting
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