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When is a Table not a Table: Videogames, IP and Authorship
by Andreas Walther on 02/07/14 12:49:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(This short essay is inspired by and a response to John Walker's editorial on why games should enter the public domain, which you can read over here and Steve Gaynor's response to it which you can read over there. So, I guess the following is an elaboration on a response to an editorial. This is writing Inception-style.)

In his editorial, John Walker makes the decisive if not radical claim that 

there is a material difference (literally) between a game and a table, a song and a car. One physically exists. The other doesn’t. One is a thing, the other is an idea.

So in John's mind, Steve Gaynor's Gone Home is a mere idea, ethereal and independent of its "creator". More than that, it sprang from a larger culture, and thus destined to return to it one day. Videogames, following this thinking, are really just temporary contractions within pop culture that are then to be consumed back into pop culture. In the wake of half a century of postmodernist thought, John has now essentially denied the notion of authorship (and as a consequence, ownership). He is wrong in doing so, in my opinion. While Steve has at length argued the ramifications for the economic side of game development, I want to focus here on the meaning of authorship and ideas. And it all begins with a simple question: When is a table not a table?

Let's proceed from John's assumption that (I'm paraphrasing) 'a table is a thing, whereas a game is an idea'.

He bases that claim on the fact that a table seems to exist in the physical world, is a physical object, is a thing you can move, touch, put a mug on. A game, on the surface, is intangible, ones and zeroes, ethereal. That's an understandable misconception, and one that I myself have been under for years.

The truth is:

The table is just as ethereal as the game. 

Why? (And what the fuck does this even mean?!)

Because we have always, since man could make things with his grubby, clumsy hands, been living in a world of ideas. Ideas about cars, spoons, art, love, hate, food and everything else. What defines the table? Its essential tableness, its tableosity, its toblerone. Whatever. When we say "table", we are talking about an idea.

Think of a table right now. 

Four legs, wooden top, it's abstract, an idea. This table is nothing really, froth at the beaches of our collective conscious ocean. 

Let's assume then the following syllogism: 

  • A table is not a table as long it is table-as-idea.
  • A game is not a game as long it is game-as-idea. 

There is no table until a carpenter (let's call him Mitch) decides to push this abstract thingy into reality. To breathe life into its platonic nothingness, and make it a thing.

With that decision he reaches for his tools and starts hammering away. And there's the rub. Even now it's not a table, it's as far from that abstract thing, that generalization, as can get. It's now his thing, a table that only Mitch could have made, unique, and possibly beautiful. It has transformed from table-as-idea into Mitch's table, standing in the corner of his workship, the varnish still wet. It's formed by his skill, by the things he loves, the way he carves and cuts, the wood he chooses and the varnish he applies. It's his invention, an eternity removed from the abstraction. 

The same goes for videogames. Game is an idea. It's nothing, a collection of notions about traversal in space, interactive narrative, mechanics and graphics. Game-as-idea is not Gone Home. Gone Home is a game, yes, but it's not an idea. It's a concretized vision whose concretization has been facilitated by many abstract ideas related to game-as-idea. It's a thing whose thing-ness is inexorably and specifically tied to Steve Gaynor*. To his vision: his artistic predilections, ethics, and rigor all have bled into Gone Home and make it not an idea, not an abstraction, but a very very specific thing. 

Now, echoing a discomfort already voiced by Walter Benjamin, we could wonder about how modern modes of (re)production may decimate a game's (Gone Home's in this case) thing-ness. It cannot. Because it's as real as Mitch's table, it's just less intuitive to realize this.

One, its existence in the physical space may be somewhat dissimulated due to the fact that it's "invisibly" existing in folders and subfolders, strange patterns on a hard drive. But it's there. You could point to it in the physical world. It's not a thought, it's not an idea, it's a concrete thing that happens to be bound to a still novel and para-magical medium. 

The only real difference between Mitch's table and Steve's Gone Home is time. A videogame, as it is bound to a digital medium, can near instantaneously be reproduced to any number one might imagine. It's almost independent of time, Steve is almost independent of it in the distribution of his work. Poor Mitch has to actually sit down again, cut the wood again, apply the varnish again, etc. to produce another copy of that first table. Steve has the advantage there. But's that all that differentiates them. 

Steve's (or anyone's) game is just as much a "thing" as Mitch's (or anyone's) table. Its point of origin which is its author and creator makes it unique and specific, and thus distinct from the mass of ideas (original or other) that served as instruments in its creation.

A videogame is never an idea, it's never an abstraction - it's specificity and reality, and it forever belongs to its specific author because it could have only come from him (or her). That's the definition of intellectual property.

________

* I am aware of the fact that Steve did not create Gone Home on his own, I'm using him as a stand-in for the team. Sorry, team.


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Comments


Matt Jahns
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tldr version: There is a powerful response to your argument, but Plato can help.

full version: You might be interested in metaphysics, since the problem you are tackling has been discussed by philosophers since the time of Socrates. More importantly, there is a potential response to your argument you should worry about. (Look ahead to the last paragraph for a preview.)

Your position is essentially what Plato argued for. He thought reality was made out of something called forms. What you call a "table-as-idea" is an example of a Platonic form. Where you and Plato part ways is in what you call real. Plato would say your table-as-idea is real, and Mitch's table is a fiction. You seem to be saying both are equally real.

Intuitively, your view seems much more reasonable than Plato's. The philosopher himself recognized this. But there is a reason why he took the position he did. Clearly, says Plato, belief and knowledge have different objects. Belief is fallible while knowledge is not. Why? Knowledge grasps what it is as it is, and nothing more or less. If you know what a thing is exactly as it is, you can speak of it without error.

You can probably see where this is going. We've established that belief and knowledge have different objects, and that knowledge grasps, only and entirely, the truth of the matter. So either belief strips truth away or adds on falsehoods. Which is it? It must be the latter. If belief stripped truth away, it would say too little. It would never be wrong, but it would fall silent when it should be able to speak. That is not what belief is like, though. Belief is never silent, but it is sometimes wrong. Therefore, it must add fictions to the truth.

Now to bring everything back home, we need only ask: what does belief have for its object? Is it tables-as-ideas or Mitch's table? Surely it is Mitch's table. A table-as-idea is more stripped down than Mitch's table. And since knowledge is more stripped down than belief, the right answer is clear.

That, according to Plato, ends the proof. The objects of belief include fictional material, and the objects of belief are things like Mitch's table. Therefore, Mitch's table must itself include something fictional. As strange as it sounds, Mitch's table is less than real but more than unreal.

Why would this matter for your argument? It protects you from a very damaging response. You are arguing that particulars make an idea into intellectual property. So let's say I took a game, and made every blue thing green. I now claim the result is my own property, because the particulars are different. This is obviously ridiculous. Plato has an answer for this tactic: I just replaced some of the games fictions with different fictions, leaving the reality of the game unchanged. The game is not my property until I change its reality.

Bob Fox
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The problem you and other IP people don't get is applying concepts like property to ideas are dangerous.

Take DRM and steam no one should need permission from the kings and princes of the corporate world to use games they paid for. The whole idea of licensing as a concept was done without understanding of the public to begin with. Many laws that were passed decades ago related to software and licensing were flawed from the outset since 90% of the general public has no clue how technology works. The laws that were passed were one-sided from the beginning. So your whole argument is reasoning from the wrong point in historical understanding of why it's dangerous to try to propertize ideas.

Take language for instance: If say our great great ancestors had endless copyright on words like dog and we all had to pay a tax in perpetuity to just use english everyday for fear of lawsuits from these little kings and princes of greed just because they 'claimed authorship' of the English language you end up infringing on the rights of others and their freedoms.

For instance current IP law infringes on a host peoples freedoms, DRM is definitely anti-freedom. IP and copyright are backhanded and underhanded ways to take away peoples freedoms under the moralistic shell game 'just making a living'.

Bad laws were made taking advantage of public ignorance, and all these discussions are from people too unintelligent and too uninformed historically to even have a valid opinion on the matter.

Amir Barak
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DRM has nothing to do with the legal aspect of IP rights; it's a mechanism (highly flawed) intended to manage the rights.

"propertize ideas" Games are not ideas, games are products, much like a table, the only difference is that they are digital products thus they are digital assets. You buy a table you sell it; you buy a game you sell it (I've never had issues with resale aspect of games as products). But nothing gives you the right to go into the carpenter's house, take another table and sell that. Why should you be able to take another copy of a game from the owner and sell it? Besides, how come most of the arguments against copyright laws have to do with money exactly? If people really care about a product enough to want to "fix" it, do it for free why do you want the right to resale it afterwards? (not you specifically).

In regards to your 'Dog' argument. You're confusing copyright and trademark so it's a position non sequitur.

I've not seen a single case so far (beyond the theoretical) of how current IP laws infringe on a "host of peoples freedoms". Care to elaborate?

"and all these discussions are from people too unintelligent and too uninformed historically to even have a valid opinion on the matter."
Ad-hominem arguments against YOUR opinion are not supportive of the cause you're championing; they simply present their arguers as comical.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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DRM is what we will see more of if we get rid of IP law :/. It is not law, but private-sector reaction (poorly planned, but that is an aside) to piracy and other means of people enjoying the fruits of their labor without paying. This elementary misunderstanding weakens the surrounding paragraphs. For what it's worth, I likely agree with you 100% about DRM.

Now, I want... I'll use the phrase "non-IP people" to be symmetric... I want non-IP people to explain how games (or movies or books or music) will be made if the authors have to compete with other, less talented and less-hard-working people, just copying their bits and reselling them in the same marketplace for cheaper. Although apparently making a living is a "moralistic shell game" to some, so I suppose for some reason to you people who bring joy through easily copied media don't deserve to feed and shelter themselves?...

Language evolves naturally among several people without much personal time or effort put into constructing its atoms (words), this is a horrible analogy. A game (or movie or book or music) is a sufficiently long sequence of components carefully selected such that the odds of another coming up with exactly the same sequence are so low that were it to appear to happen, it could safely be assumed that the second person was just copying and trying to make money without exerting effort to add anything new to society. I hope even non-IP people can understand the end game of allowing no-talent lazy individuals to profit off the work of others (though there is an argument there to be made about modern day management playing that role; I'll leave that for Dilbert comics).

Let me flip this around, Bob -- why do you feel entitled to enjoy the fruits of anothers' labor without compensating them? You complain about your freedoms being taken away because of IP and copyright. If these people didn't make the game in the first place, your "freedom" to play the game would also be taken away -- so does that mean that these people are cosmically mandated to make the game in the first place? If not, why are you intrinsically entitled to the results of their labor for no compensation after they decide to make the game?

E Zachary Knight
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Jeffrey,

"I want non-IP people to explain how games (or movies or books or music) will be made if the authors have to compete with other, less talented and less-hard-working people, just copying their bits and reselling them in the same marketplace for cheaper."

Pretty much exactly how they are doing it today in a world where piracy is a click of a mouse away.

"I hope even non-IP people can understand the end game of allowing no-talent lazy individuals to profit off the work of others"

Yes, because Disney is composed of nothing but lazy no-talent hacks.

"You complain about your freedoms being taken away because of IP and copyright."

I think invading my computer, installing software that actually harms my computer and privacy is a pretty bad infraction. Why do you feel copyright holders have the right to invade and harm other people's computers?

Ian Uniacke
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"Take DRM and steam no one should need permission from the kings and princes of the corporate world to use games they paid for."

This is exactly the same process for all property. When you own a property (eg land) all you have is a license from the king/queen (or equivalent) to use that property. It can be taken away from you at any time. What does it mean to OWN property? It means that the state agrees that the property is yours and thus agrees to enforce this license with their police/army etc.

"I think invading my computer, installing software that actually harms my computer and privacy is a pretty bad infraction."

This seems like a straw man argument. Because some DRM has been specifically designed to break laws (or at least perform unethical behaviour) does not mean that ALL DRM must do this.

E Zachary Knight
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Ian,

"This seems like a straw man argument. Because some DRM has been specifically designed to break laws (or at least perform unethical behaviour) does not mean that ALL DRM must do this."

In the last couple of years, both Steam and uPlay have been found to have severe security holes that would have allowed nefarious hackers the ability to install and run malicious code. I think that is a pretty big problem.

The fact that such DRM is required to play many of the most popular games makes the matter far worse. If the DRM was optional, it would not be as big a problem.

All software that you install could potentially open up you computer to hackers, but the vast majority of it is personally chosen and installed.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"Pretty much exactly how they are doing it today in a world where piracy is a click of a mouse away."

Are you implying that without IP laws we wouldn't have even more piracy (not just personal downloads, but fly-by-night companies selling copies (no copyright protection) using your company name and logo (no TM protection))? If so, I disagree, and wonder what other laws or moors you think are pointless just because they don't solve their respective problem completely.

"Yes, because Disney is composed of nothing but lazy no-talent hacks. "

I don't at all understand what you are implying here, sorry.

"I think invading my computer, installing software that actually harms my computer and privacy is a pretty bad infraction."

Great, I feel that way too! But what does private sector DRM have to do with common IP law?

"Why do you feel copyright holders have the right to invade and harm other people's computers?"

Why do you beat your wife? :/

Okay straw men aside, the invasion of computers is a problem with *DRM*, not copyright/trademark. I even made this loud and clear in the post you are replying to.

E Zachary Knight
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Jeffrey,

""Yes, because Disney is composed of nothing but lazy no-talent hacks. "

I don't at all understand what you are implying here, sorry."

Disney built their company upon the backs of other people's creations. Nearly everything that made them what they are today was based on public domain works of fiction.

"Great, I feel that way too! But what does private sector DRM have to do with common IP law?"

Copyright law grants copyright holders the right to install whatever "copyright protection", aka DRM, they want on your computer and it is against the law for you to remove it. That is what DRM has to do with copyright law. It is against the law for you to use your own computer how you want to use it because copyright holders have veto power over your personal choices. Without copyright law granting that power to copyright holders, we would be treating DRM like the malware it is rather than the exalted savior copyright holders want us to treat it as.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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So we should do away with whatever law says you can't remove DRM for personal use (I am taking you at your word for this, this seems to me to have more to do with EULAs than copyright but IANAL) but keep laws protecting small startups from other companies stealing (effortlessly copying) and selling their work because that destroys the incentive to produce digital works unless you are independently wealthy. Is this okay?

I myself think one should be able to modify their personal copy however they want (or even download a DRM-free pirated copy after buying a legitimate copy), but that one shouldn't be able to infinitely ctrl+c, ctrl+v the efforts of another and sell with the same company name to trick customers. So it is detrimental from my pov to carpet bomb all of IP law because of some abuse. Is there room for give and take here?

E Zachary Knight
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Jeffrey,

Who is talking about "carpet bombing all IP law"? This article's roots are in a discussion about the need for some kind of public domain for video games.

So yes, there is plenty of room for give and take for copyright law. Unfortunately, the only giving is to the major copyright industries as they take everything they can get. They refuse to do any giving of their own.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"Who is talking about 'carpet bombing all IP law'?"

Read Bob Fox's post again (I would quote specifics but I am on my phone and copy paste is a pain).

E Zachary Knight
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One of the problems here is that we are not talking about ideas in the same way. While you may be talking about the fruits of the idea, the actual ideas are very different.

Your carpenter has no right to prevent anyone else from making a table. In fact, anyone can copy the carpenter's complete table design once it is put on the market. No one would be able to stop that from happening. What the carpenter does have over the competition is authorship. They have the claim of being the originator of the table design and that can bring in further income as people with the money come to him to have new tables built.

With a game, yes the implementation of the game idea has protection under copyright. But the idea for the game has fewer protections. While the Gone Home creators have a right to protect their version of a mystery featuring a girl returning home, they do not have the right to prevent other people from building on that general idea. Same for a blue color laborer saving a magical kingdom. Would those works be considered derivative? Perhaps, but they could avoid claims of copyright infringement.

There is a long history of copyright rulings in the US that have established that as a fact.

But as John Walker expressed in his editorial and I expressed in my own article (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EZacharyKnight/20140204/210022/Ext
ended_Copyrights_In_Games_Means_A_Loss_Of_Culture_For_Gamers.php), a lot of gaming culture is being lost to time, or at the best being forced into the black market of piracy, by extended copyright terms. Who is really being harmed when a 20+ year old game is found on a torrent site? How much income is that game actually bringing the copyright holder today, assuming the copyright owner has actually made the effort of putting it on the market?

Peter Eisenmann
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quote:
In fact, anyone can copy the carpenter's complete table design once it is put on the market. No one would be able to stop that from happening.

In case the design is not totally banal, I very much doubt that!

SD Marlow
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edit: moved to correct area

Andreas Walther
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Exactly!

I think the mass of COD clones (Medal of Honor) or BioShock clones (Singularity) that are vastly inferior to the original product prove that it's practically impossible to really steal another one's product. Because it's so uniquely his (or her) creation, dependent on a billion of inspirations and predilections that you could never replicate the creative brainspace in order to replicate the product.

Andreas Walther
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It doesn't seem like we're talking about different ideas but two different things entirely. Actually, I think we're on the same table when it comes to authorship. You call it the "originator", I called it the "author", same thing really. I agree with you that the individual kernels of ideas that make up "Gone Home", like pure exploration as a gameplay mechanic, should not fall under copyright, I do believe that the final product belongs to the author until the author exists no more.
To be precise: I think "Gone Home" doesn't belong to the Fullbright Company but to Steve and his team. Once they die or choose to give up their copyright, it may return to the culture, copyright-free.

SD Marlow
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Way to obfuscate an already confusing issue.

Andreas Walther
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I'm sorry if you felt my essay was obfuscating, I actually tried to untangle the whole thing;).

SD Marlow
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It seems like you were saying that the table is just an idea until someone builds it. Call it the making or experience process. And a game, in digital form, is just this same open idea, waiting to be played. The act of playing the game is now the physical part. It's no different than a live play or concert, where the unique "interpretive" version is automatically copyrighted.

edit: moved from comment above

Matt Jahns
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There was no obfuscation at all. You should try reading the giants of philosophy on this subject - they are far more difficult to follow.

When it comes to metaphysics, if your argument is easy to follow then it is too simple to be right. It's just the nature of the subject.

Andreas Walther
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That was not exactly what I was saying, but I like your point. That a game is created in being played. However, that approach veers into art and reception theory, I think, i.e., the piece of art exists only when it is being received. Roland Barthes once said that a written work exists only when it's being read.

My point was simply that e.g. Gone Home is such a specific, unique assembly of abstract ideas and notions that it could only have been made by Steve and his team, and as a consequence should belong to him, because it IS him in a way.

Tee Parsley
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Whatever the discussion, it is all really about Disney trying to keep control of that damn Mouse (etc).

That's why things have gone from 20 years of control to near perpituity.

Michael Wenk
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Good article. I don't think it would be real good to change things, because likely what would happen is some people who pervert the whole process to gain themselves money and power.

Hakim Boukellif
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You're skipping a step; you're going straight from the abstract idea (the concept of a table) to the expression of a concrete idea (an actually existing, physical table), but there's still something in between. The design of a specific table (i.e. the concrete idea) is separate from the expression of that concrete idea (the physical table), and it's that concrete idea, not the expression of it, that copyright applies to. In game terms, the game Gone Home is an example of a concrete idea and the ones and zeroes that get distributed and allow people to actually play the game is an expression of that idea.

So no, comparing a game with a table is not apt at all. If a carpenter builds a bunch of tables of the same design and then sells them all, he no longer owns any of those tables. But despite this, being the "author", he can still prevent other people from building and selling tables that look exactly like it. That's what intellectual property is all about. That said, despite being called "intellectual property", the moment you make something you made available to the public you can no longer claim full ownership over the concrete idea behind it; it has become part of human culture. You can retain certain rights over it using copyright and patents, but over time the needs of society start to outweigh the needs of the author and those rights should start to dwindle.


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