It’s the oldest argument when it comes to copyright: what promotes creative works more, strict protections for creators or liberal abilities to create and adapt associated works? These arguments are often made as a matter of theory, with some creators saying copyright protections allow for investment in creating art, whereas those who might create other things based off of those creations (fan-art/films/fiction, mashup artists, samplers, etc.) would tell you about all the art we’ve lost due to over-reaching protections.
Well, now we have a case where the question isn’t one of theory, but of reality. The Gen Con EN World RPG Awards are given out for various categories to the best tabletop games every year. This year, one game was nominated in three separate categories. A game that was clearly a copyright infringer.
Today, one of the few awards in tabletop roleplaying games announced its 2015 award nominees. There are some really good games that are in the running for ENnies awards, but as I went over the list a different story emerged. The judges at the ENnies awards managed to not once, not twice but three times nominate Mass Effect: The Fate RPG. It is up for Best Electronic Book, Best Free Product and Product of The Year.
The game was made without the permission of Electronic Arts or Bioware, who developed the original Mass Effect games. The creator of the game, Don Mappin, is well known in tabletop circles and has published games with mainstream publishers in the past. For this game, which he released for free and which has been downloaded heavily, he simply published it himself. He also contends that he hasn’t violated the rules of the contest, which apparently didn’t mention requiring the games to be licensed. Instead, they only required the games to be good.
The work is a labor of love and it has been downloaded extensively since its release last year. I am very public and open that it is an unlicensed product, made available free of charge and that no remuneration is to be made from its distribution. The Fate core OGL is adhered to (to the best of my ability) as well as content from Brennan Taylor of Galileo Games and their Bulldogs! product, with permission.
I don’t believe that I have violated any aspect of the rules for the ENnies and would hope that my work could be considered. Nor do I believe that I am “stealing” (my words) a slot for Best Product if, in the eyes of the judges, my work was, in fact, superior enough to merit inclusion over other publishers. Conspiracy theories and such aside, I am simply an industry veteran choosing to give back to the hobby I love. I hope you’ll consider my work–and its merits–in that vein.
Now, a work freely given away that is as transformative as this could be a test for whether a copyright claim would be valid, but let’s not bother with that. In the current climate of copyright in our legal system, it would probably be found to be infringing, and it likely is infringing on trademark grounds as well. Fine, we’ll stipulate that. But let’s also consider the fact that the game has since been removed from the contest nominations and the whole backlash has caused Mapping to pull the game off his site for download.
In light of the forthcoming announcement of disqualification, I will also be removing the files of my own accord. My thanks to the personnel of ENWorld and the ENnies for their assistance.
And, just like that, poof, the tabletop game is gone. Save for anyone able to get a copy before this whole episode started, it might as well never have existed. An award-nominee of a game, just gone. A labor of love, as the fan-creator puts it, a labor that was plenty creative in its own rights, into the ether. One wonders how many games never even get to this point before dying on the vine, shriveled up by an over-protective copyright system that, at least some of the time, hinders the very creativity it purports to promote.