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Plagiarism: is Britain in the grip of a copying epidemic?

By on June 20, 2008
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Britain has long been hailed as a creative powerhouse. Not just in games, but in all media, politicians routinely line up to praise the unique British talent for punching above our weight.

Yet in the past week, two plagiarism rows have erupted. Coldplay have been accused of stealing the main melody for the title track of their latest album from a little known US band called Creaky Boards. (Coldplay deny the accusations.)

And in games, an old-school point and click adventure called Lost in Limbo stands accused of having pinched its static images and backgrounds wholesale from popular games such as Oblivion, Thief, Diablo 2, Painkiller, Unreal Tournament 2003 and Silent Hill.

Homage is nothing new in media, from bands covering golden oldies to knowing references littered throughout cinema.

But plagiarism is quite different. It involves passing off other’s work as your own, and most intellectual property owners take a very dim view of it.

Publisher Tri Synergy has pulled its distribution of the game, created by Majestic Studios.

If Majestic has just taken textures, images and artwork wholesale from successful titles, that was a very foolish thing to do, and they will shortly be paying the commercial price.

The issue has got me thinking about the nature of plagiarism. Majestic came unstuck because they appear to have taken imagery directly from games, down to the placement of rugs, furniture and wall hangings. And it is easy to make a direct comparison between the two titles.

But how does that work in terms of gameplay, puzzle design, interface improvements and so on. Arguably these elements are more important to the success of a game than the graphics. So when GTA III created the free-roaming city, or SimCity the original sandbox game, and imitators emerged in their scores, is that plagiarism or homage?

And in the casual games space, how do the squillions of match-three games, or variants on copyrighted word games like Boggle and Scrabble, avoid the accusations of plagiarism? (I know the Hasbro went after Scrabulous on Facebook, but there are still others out there).

Is it simply the case the copying artwork is easy to prove, although less important to the overall game experience; whereas proving that a game mechanic has been copied is essentially impossible. Is it even possible to claim ownership of a game mechanic?

What this issue raises up to me, in fact, is not the issue of plagiarism in core games but the complete lack of originiality in casual games. I wonder if that will ever change?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • The problem clearly is not limited to the UK. It is clearly a global issue and one that is striking much of the world right now.

    For example, I routinely hear of plagiarism scandals both creatively and academically from India. I don’t think it is that India has an especially large problem with plagiarism per se, but as a nation and a culture they have been rocked by a lengthy series of plagiarism scandals. The same as the UK is now, the U.S. before that and so on.

    Plagiarism is a very strange problem in that there are few hard rules and the issues you raise are being sorted out. However, there is a good dialog going on, one which I think this post contributes to, and we are starting to get a “feel” for where the boundaries are as a global culture.

    It’s a slow, uneasy process but it is taking place right before our eyes and it is fascinating to watch.