Video Game Schools Claim Ownership Of Games Created By Students

from the your-first-lesson-in-copyright... dept

An anonymous reader submitted an interesting article about a growing controversy among students at various video game universities, over who owns the copyrights to the games developed by students. The well known DigiPen Institute, for example, makes it clear that all work created by students is actually owned by DigiPen, and this is upsetting some students. Even though DigiPen makes this clear (and even tells students not to submit anything they “hold dear”), it seems troubling for a variety of reasons. It makes little sense for DigiPen to retain the copyrights here. It is quite different than when someone is working for a commercial company and developing games for them as an employee. With DigiPen, these are students who are paying to learn to create video games. As someone notes, if you paint a painting in art school, the copyright doesn’t belong to the art school.

DigiPen’s reasoning does not make much sense, either, claiming that it needs to do this to “avoid misunderstandings” between DigiPen and the gaming industry. However, it does not explain what those misunderstandings would have been. The whole thing seems questionable, and as some folks note in the article, diminishes DigiPen’s reputation. First of all, it likely does (as it should) scare off some of the better prospective students, who fear having DigiPen “own” their creations. Secondly, the way the program is structured, it makes it that much harder to learn if the school itself is telling students not to actually make use of their best ideas.

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Companies: digipen

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Comments on “Video Game Schools Claim Ownership Of Games Created By Students”

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hegemon13 says:

Not unusual

It is not troubling at all. It is pretty common for universities to own the patents on inventions that students create for projects. At the University of Nebraska, where I went to school, a student created a new device for open heart surgery that allowed for a significantly smaller opening. Now, if he were independent, he could have sold or licensed the patent to a medical equipment manufacturer for a lot of money. But, because he created it as part of a student project, the University owned the patent. He received nothing but a good grade, a resume-builder, and some local academic speaking engagements.

Brad says:

Not unusual

Sorry, but there are some severe differences here.

First off, when a student works at a university research lab, they are effectively employees of the university. You are using their labs, their tools, and their resources. They are paying you, and so they get first claim to any IP you generate. It is not the same if you submit an assignment to a class.

These are not students working as employees of a research lab. These are student assignments. Claiming ownership of them is disingenuous at best, and troubling at worst. What happens if you turn in a short story to your creative writing teacher? Do they get to turn around and sell it to the movie industry? Of course not. Video games are no different than any other creative student work. They are not research material.

I used to work for the Univ. of California (SB) in a Chemical Engineering research lab, so my experience comes from that. They were quite explicit about what was and was not owned by the university. And where I a regular student and NOT a researcher, they would have had no such claim.

SteveD says:

Re: Not unusual

It likely changes from University to University, and I’ve been on both sides, both professional and student (and currently both at the same time).

When I submitted the dissertation for my MA the University were quite clear I wouldn’t be able to further reproduce or publish it without consent, as they’d own the copyright.

Caleb says:

Re: Not unusual

Something to think about is the cost of software for the university (disclaimer, I graduated from DigiPen a couple years ago and was even employed by them over the summers teaching high school workshops and such). The educational discount on Visual Studio is rather large and I’m sure there’s an analogy there between these pieces of software and the labs, tools, and resources you invoke from a research lab.

But, having seen it from the inside, I can honestly say there is a ridiculous amount of “concern” over IP and infringing on ANYONE in ANY WAY and that mindset seems to dovetail quite nicely into the idea of ownership over anything a student creates…

Caleb says:

Re: Re: Not unusual

Whoops, perhaps a clarification is in order there…

The cost of Visual Studio is rather large and it’s provided on every machine. The educational version is quite a bit more reasonable. One of the things they are afraid of is the perceived (real or not) ramifications of anyone making any money off of a product developed under educationally licensed software.

Also, DigiPen is providing hardware as well as software and the whole school is pretty much a lab environment so I fail to see much differentiation from the research lab mentioned previously.

Greg says:

Re: Not unusual

are using their labs, their tools, and their resources

So… aren’t the students that write the video games using school equipment? In which case, your argument makes it a moot point, and anything done on school equipment becomes school property.

Otherwise, I would agree, if I create something, *I* own it, not the school. But I would try to do most of my work on my own system, or just go to a different school that wouldn’t try to claim ownership.

Steve says:

My 2 Cents

As an alum of Digipen (2004), I’ve wrestled with this issue too. The policy as I understood it was that we could not use any art or code in our projects that the school couldn’t claim ownership of. Sigh, programmer art is the worst. The school now archives and distributes all my old student projects from their website, and it’s my guess that they needed to claim ownership of it to avoid all the headaches that could result from a student who wanted to make an exception to this policy. As far as I know the school has never published any of the games for profit and I’m very OK with them owning the rights to my student projects as long as they give it away for free and put my name on it, as they do. The school doesn’t have the kind of endowments that many other universities enjoy and it overall very chep for the excelent education that one gets there. Let them have the licenses and quit bitching I say! They do a lot for getting the students some industry connections and real jobs.

Steve says:

Well, if the students have a problem with it they don’t have to enroll. They could go to a school where they keep there game to sell themselves, and instead pay higher tuition. I don’t know why it is troubling that a school tries to make money. This is what America is about, opportunity. The students are receiving payment for their games in the form of opportunity, contacts within their future industry, and knowledge.

It’s not like they are being duped into it or forced to do it. Another great thing about America, choice. They can choose a different school if they want.

Michael B says:

This Ain't GPL, Folks

While giving students’ code away for free may be well and good, the fact of the matter is that they are basically taking intellectual property from a student without remuneration. The student is paying DigiPen to have their work not only possibly exploited, but it sounds like they are barred in perpetuity from using their code or ideas in future work, regardless of whether it’s related to DigiPen or not. In short, the IP is being held hostage. The act of DigiPen not using the code to produce commercial games is a vague argument; there seems to be no reciprocal agreement that DigiPen certifies to the student that this will never happen. So, 5 years hence, if DigiPen decides to sell a student’s creative efforts, there is nothing the student can do. Someone (DigiPen and whomever they sell the code to) can make millions, while the student twiddles their thumbs.

PinballLez says:

At the university I went to, for my undergraduate thesis, I was made to put a disclaimer in saying that the university retained the copyright to my thesis, which I disagreed with, considering I was paying to do the subject, for which the thesis was a piece of assessment. I attempted to change the disclaimer so that I retained the copyright, however I was asked to change it back so the university retained the copyright. I agreed as it was my second last semester before graduating, and I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardise me graduating.

However, looking back, I should have been able to retain the copyright. I used the university library, and at some point university computers to prepare the thesis, but through my course fees, I was paying to use the universities library, and computers.

Jeffry Houser (profile) says:

It was the same in Computer Science; at All Universities

When I went to school for computer science; this type of thing came up a lot. Common belief was that if you were a student, the school owned the rights to stuff you wrote, even if it was on your own time, in your own place, on your own equipment, and had no relation to school assignments. It was definitely a tricky issue for those working full time jobs and getting a degree at night. As long as you were a student they could lay claim.

Absolutely Ridiculous / troublesome. It sounds like DigiPen is just following the ‘industry standard’ for this sort of thing.

I never quite understood it; and do not agree with it. But, it sounds like a pretty good business model from a business owner perspective. I think I’m going to patent it.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: It was the same in Computer Science; at All Universities

> Common belief was that if you were a student,
> the school owned the rights to stuff you wrote,
> even if it was on your own time, in your own
> place, on your own equipment, and had no relation
> to school assignments. It was definitely a tricky
> issue for those working full time jobs and
> getting a degree at night. As long as you were
> a student they could lay claim.

They could lay all the claims they like. Doesn’t mean they’re valid or that a court will enforce them.

The idea that a university owns every thought that goes through my head for the four years I’m enrolled there is beyond ridiculous, especially if the don’t have a specific contract with my signature on it that says I agree to it. And no, handbook manuals and school policies do not count as binding contracts.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am a current student at DigiPen, and it’s interesting to see this story come out now, considering our semester projects are due very soon. Just like the article said, our professors are ramming into our heads that DigiPen owns all of our work. At a picnic near the start of the year, Mr. Comair went absolutely nuts with threats regarding copyright ownership. Despite these threats, I still plan on submitting something I want to keep myself 😛 After all, why would I want to work on something else?

Anonymous Coward says:

It would be quite interesting to see the actual “contracts” between the school and each of its students.

Assuming that “work for hire” does not apply (likely the case for one attending the school who is merely a student), a claim by the school that it holds copyright must be shown via a written assignment from the student to the school that also meets all legal requirements for a contract. Simply saying “We have a policy” is interesting, but irrelevant.

Woody Green says:

Common school rule

All students should look in their handbooks. Anything you hand in as an assignment (homework, thesis, program, etc…) becomes property of the school. Contrary to a previous post, at least at the university I attended, only that which you did as part of your school work (or job if you were employed by the school) or that done on behalf of the school by you is owned by them. I would imagine that a court would not enforce anything done not related to your attending the school itself.

Many schools use this very same rule to prevent you from reusing your own work in multiple classes. To turn it in twice (different assignments/classes) is plagiarism (against the schools copyrighted work). If someone else uses your homework, the school considers it plagiarism against their copyright.

Right or wrong, for better or worse, those are the rules and are made known to you when you sign up (read those silly papers and handbooks they give you). You can always go somewhere else (vote with your dollars and feet).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Common school rule

“All students should look in their handbooks.”

Handbooks are not contracts. Neither are school policies. The schools need a signed contract in hand, and that contract must meet all legal requirements to be enforceable. One interesting case would be where the student is below the age of “majority”. In some jurisdictions such contracts can be terminated sua sponte by the “minor”.

“Anything you hand in as an assignment (homework, thesis, program, etc…) becomes property of the school.”

Perhaps the documents themselves, but that is an issue totally separate from copyright law.

“…if you were employed by the school…”. Different rules pertain to “employees”, but the question to be answered is whether or not a student is in fact an employee. The burden is on the school to demonstrate the student’s status as an employee, which is no easy matter and subject to more exceptions than I can begin to count.

“Right or wrong, for better or worse, those are the rules and are made known to you when you sign up (read those silly papers and handbooks they give you).”

These are interesting pieces of paper, but of no moment unless somewhere the school can present an actual contract that is fully compliant with state law. Barring a contract, the school is on this (if non-existent) legal ground.

Remember, under US copoyright law there are essentially two ways to transfer copyright from the author to a third party, namely a contract or under “work for hire” that pertains to an employee.

Patent law has somewhat different legal requirements, but there are many permutations that call into question whether or not a school can claim ownership of inventions, and one particularly thorny problem facing such schools is if the work is done by a non-employee student performing under a federal funding agreement.

To say “Contrary to the previous post” is terribly misleading since in many, if not most, instances the school faces a very difficult hurdle it has to clear if it hopes to have any chance of successfully asserting ownership of patents and copyrights associated with student work.

Remember, here the issue concerns the typical student, and not an employee of the school, and in such circumstances the law generally defaults in favor of the original author and original inventor.

Ralph says:

This might hold back the good work

Telling studends never to submit anything they “hold dear”, might make them think twice about submitting the best they can do. If one of their creations happens to be a really innovative game, they might be better off submitting one of their less interesting creations and keeping the good game for their first startup or selling it through the internet.

Andy says:

A Sensible Policy

From my large public university’s policies:

“The University does not assert rights in student work, unless the student is also an employee of the University and the work is prepared in the context of that employment.”

Granted, they do have different policies regarding research, but at the very least I get to own anything I write as part of my undergraduate coursework. Yay for a sensible policy!

Josh Rutz says:

Work Around

Hiya, I’m a junior at DigiPen. So i know the strictness of the copyright policies they have.

Essentially, there’s a class called GAM that students take every year. It’s a year long class where students get into a team of 3-5 people and make a game over the course of the year with the teachers acting as ‘The Publisher’.

It’s a good system for learning, but terrible if you wanna try to distribute or sell it. So don’t put good ideas into your GAM project is the crucial :

THE WORKAROUND!!! =D I’m gonna be making a game Senior year that i think can attract some attention. So for my GAM project, i’ll be turning in tic-tac-toe or something small. While me and my teammates work on the real game mostly.

Digipen’s cool with it. So we’re cool with it. 🙂 It sucks i can’t get credit for it, but i’d rather retain rights than get an A.

That’s my two cents.

Nathan says:

Educational Liscenses

This is pretty much a year late, but I just found it. Wow. I’m suprised nobody’s brought up that Digipen uses educational licenses for most of their software. Under the license agreement that the school (and you, if you decide to purchase an educational license yourself) agree to, you are not allowed to use what you create with said software for commercial purposes.

Digipen retains the rights to software and art created by its students to prevent them from trying to sell it. At first glance that seems pretty harsh. But consider this, even if Digipen did not retain the copyrights, the student is still legally not supposed to sell it. If you do, and if it is discovered, you put yourself in the direct sights of legal action by the software company whose software you used to create the product.

Digipen is not being evil and unreasonable, it’s actually trying to protect its students from legal action. There is no provision in Digipen’s student agreement that prevents students from buying professional licenses and working on their own projects at home. I should know, I happen to attend. There are no provisions preventing you from using your work in portfolios while seeking jobs. As a matter of fact, Digipen actually actively assists students in getting internships, and the last time I checked our job placement rate was over 90%.

This whole thing is a lot of hot air about nothing. Key point: even if Digipen did not hold the copyrights you still couldn’t sell it, and you’d be possibly royally screwed if you tried.

Anonymous Coward says:

As a current student AT Digipen, my comment is this.

They aren’t doing it to steal work from students, it is done to protect not only Digipen but the Students as well. If someone else steals a students work or idea, a student would not be able to “go after” them in court etc. Digipen will and has.

It also get’s students used to how it is in the industry, if you work for Lucasarts and you come up with a game idea while at work it belongs to Lucasarts, not you.

And seriously, you shouldn’t be worried about the stuff you create while at school, if that’s the best you can do and you can’t excel to do better than you have bigger issues than who owns the copyright to last weeks assignment.

dpstudent says:

I’m a current dp student. They are pretty lax about IP, but if you think you have an idea that’s a money-maker, it may be better to keep it to yourself. But maybe not…

The flipside of that is: Students created a game called Narbacular Drop. It later became the basis for Portal. Then students made a game called Tag. This became the basis for new ideas brought forth in Portal 2. So, if those students never developed their game concepts because they thought their ideas had value, Valve would never have found these people.

dpstudentalso says:

I realize this is an old post, but it is still linked on wikipedia for some reason so I would like to respond.

Perhaps it is hard to understand if you haven’t been through DigiPen, but in most cases students really do not have enough time to create a profitable game to turn in while studying there. My understanding is that the rule makes it easier for students to collaborate freely within the school and have their work protected from other students who may try to claim the work as their own. All the games made at DigiPen are free to download if you want proof that there is not many profitable games. While studying you are able to demonstrate your ability with the game projects and be recognized for your potential. However, anything you make as a student, you are going to want to remake in a much better way after you graduate and have time to be working full-time on the game.

Some students will disagree with my opinion on this, but of all the complaining I hear around DigiPen, I actually don’t hear many complaints about this issue.

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