Copyright in Characters: What Can I Use? Part II

First, thanks to everyone that read and commented on the original post! The comments were great and touched on a few subjects that weren’t discussed in the post, so I wrote this follow up post to expand on a few of the copyright issues that were brought up. I’ll also be posting Part III soon, which will cover trademark issues.

Copyright Law

Let’s first dig a little deeper into copyright law:

I explained in the previous post that copyright is a form of protection given to authors of “original works of authorship”. The author is typically the person that makes the work, but can also be an employer if the work is considered a “work made for hire”. I won’t discuss “works made for hire” in this article, but you can read more about that on the Copyright Office’s circular on works made for hire.

The works need to be “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” for copyright protection, which means that the work needs to be recorded somehow – essentially, something more than an idea. A painting satisfies the requirement, as does a video or audio recording, and so do video games (although video games have many different copyright involved).

Copyright is actually a bundle of rights that give the author of the work the exclusive rights to reproduce (i.e. make copies), prepare derivative works (i.e. make new works based on the original work), display, distribute, and perform the protected work. These rights are granted automatically to the author but registering the copyright has certain advantages, which are discussed in the Copyright Office’s circular on copyright basics.

Copyright, along with trademarks and patents, is a type of intellectual property. This means that the rights granted to an author are treated as property that can be transferred by the author in a number of ways, such as licensing and assignments. Also, each right is an individual right that can be transferred on its own.

For example, an artist can allow someone to show the artwork in a gallery (display the work) but not make prints of the work (reproduce). Or, keeping in line with characters, a game developer can allow a publishing company to distribute copies of the game, which include the individual copyright in the character itself, to different platforms such as Steam (reproduce and distribute), but not allow the publishing company to make new games based on the original game or change the character in some way (which would be making derivative works).

What doesn’t copyright protect?

Copyright is limited in its scope and specifically does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery”. Patent law typically covers these instead of copyright.

Copyright also doesn’t protect names, titles, or short phrases, which is explained in this Copyright Office circular. However, these can be protected as trademarks, which I’ll explain in Part III.

In the games and characters context, this means that things such as game rules, game mechanics, and basic plot are not protected by copyright. Nor does copyright protect the name of the game or character names. The Copyright Office has a helpful article on the subject that’s worth reading.

Copyright and Fair Use

We’ve covered what copyright protects and what it doesn’t, but sometimes works that are protected by copyright but can still be used in certain situations defined in the “fair use” doctrine.

Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits limited use of works protected by copyright without requiring permission from the copyright holder. However, fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, which means a jury in a federal lawsuit must answer the question as to whether the use is fair use (i.e. you’ve already been sued). That’s why I always recommend seeking a license first.

Fair use comes in many flavors. The most typical examples are commentary, criticism, and parody. To determine fair use, Courts look at the following factors:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In the character and game context, fair use is often used in order to make game commentary or critique videos. Some of the “Let’s Play” videos are good examples of this.

For the sake of keeping this article on the shorter side, I’ll refer you to this Stanford article for more examples and a good breakdown of what each of the fair use factors are supposed to mean.

De Miminis Use

In certain situations, you can also use copyright protected works in small portions without the author’s consent. This is because of a legal doctrine called “de minimis use”. De minimis use is tricky because, like fair use, there are no clear lines for when a use qualifies as de minimis and you also have to prove this in court.

The term “de minimis” is from a shortened Latin phrase that translates to “the law does not concern itself with trifles”, which essentially means in the legal context that not enough of the copyrighted work has been used to amount to copyright infringement.

This is different from fair use because de minimis use relates to uses that are so small that courts won’t bother with them, while fair use is intended to provide avenues for the public to use works in a way that would otherwise be considered copyright infringement.

In the character context, de miminis use might allow for a character to briefly appear in the background or be mentioned in a factual manner.

I hope that helps and, again, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions!

Read the original post, "Copyright in Characters: What Can I Use?"

Read the final post, which covers trademarks and characters.


Notice: This post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice based on a review of individual circumstances. Please contact an attorney regarding your particular legal issues.