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Navigating the Grey Zone: Developers’ Views on Imitation and Inspiration in the Game Sector

Mon, May 29, 9:30 to 10:45, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 3, Aqua 310AB


This paper addresses the tension between inspiration and imitation in the games sector, based on semi-structured interviews with 20 German game practitioners. Developing new games necessarily involves adopting existing elements, but at the same time, there have been conflicts on alleged copying all throughout the young industry’s history. Given the ambiguous copyright situation, legal regulations do not provide clear guidelines. Therefore, this study positions itself in the field of empirical copyright research by looking at developers’ norms and views, with the central question: How do game developers delineate legitimate inspiration from cloning?
The findings show that developers disapprove of the wholesale copying of either one of the three main components of digital games, i.e. the audiovisual elements, the programming code as well as the game’s rule-set, even though the latter is not protected by copyright. However, as soon as a component is slightly altered, a complex mix of game features and external circumstances guides their view, which does not always result in an unambiguous judgement. Despite the uncertainty and varying opinions, game developers do not want more legal protection, in fear of it backfiring on their own freedom to reuse existing game mechanics. In order to further interpret and contextualize the data, a broader theoretical framework is needed.