One of the strangest ideas I have come across these days is the idea that everything must be created from scratch, that it is somehow 'wrong' to use pre-existing work from somewhere else. In recent years, a number of pre-packaged 'low barrier to entry' engines have gained a certain amount of acceptance; people will happily use UDK and Unity for their games. This is a good start.
But what about game-assets?
Somehow, nobody wants to use assets that come from another source. Every texture needs to be one shipped as standard in the engine, bought in a content-pack or else made from scratch for the purpose.
Yes, there is the perception that it can have legal issues attached. This is actually a valid concern, but often taken to an extreme because people don't get the licensing terms. So... I think I'll introduce you to the Creative Commons Licence, something that makes this easier to understand.
(Please note; I am not a lawyer, so consider this a call-to-arms rather than useful advice and always get a good lawyer involved in any game development project. Jas Purewal, of Gamer/Law, for example)
Let's start with my favourite Creative Commons licence...
Attribution Licence (CC BY)
This is the greatest of all licences for a developer. Someone out there said 'you can use my work if you put my name (and maybe web-link) in the credits' and made no other demands. You can add a funny hat, rework the rig, reskin, use it as the base for a different model or just plonk it into your game.
More than this, making a new file based on the original means that (assuming you credit the original creator for their work) your new asset belongs to you and cannot be used by anyone else without permission.
Models are not the only thing that can be CC BY though; many musicians will use this licence for their work to help get their name out. These songs get remixed, arranged for different instruments or used in a game as they are. In return, the artist gets to go 'dude, I am in a game!'
As a creator, this one can be a little scary, as you lost creative control of your work when you released it under the licence, but it can be the most rewarding when you see what people do with your creations.
Read more about CC BY
Attribution, No Derivatives (CC BY-ND)
Like the previous licence, this one is great for developers. It is essentially the previous licence with one addition; you mustn't change the asset. No editing, no remixing, no re-skinning. The creator said you can use their model for any purpose as long as they get their name in the credits (maybe a link to their website too) and you leave it in it's original state.
Most of the time, this means you can make a .OGG into an MP3 or a Maya file into a direct X format, but the point is that the creator will be able to point at your game and say 'that is mine, I made this' if they want without any reservations.
As a creator, this can help get your work out there without worrying about how someone might 'ruin' it.
Read more about CC BY-ND
Attribution, Share Alike (CC BY-SA)
This licence is a little different to the previous ones. It allows you to use the asset however you want and remix or modify as necessary, but as well as giving credit to the original owner, you must also allow others to do the same thing with your new asset. The Share Alike group of licences is the one where you don't really control your work any more.
As a game developer, this is not as bad as it sounds. If you take a horse model and make it into a pegasus or a unicorn, that fantasy animal can be used in anyone else's game (as long as they give you and the original owner credit), but that doesn't mean that they can use anything else from your game except that one file.
As a creator, this is the licence that forces people to play fair. This one says 'use my stuff, but let other people use yours too' and can lead to some interesting collaborations. For example, this is the licence that Wikipedia entries use; you can edit any Wikipedia entry you want, but the price for this is that anyone else can edit yours.
Read more about CC BY-SA
Attribution, Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC)
As you might have guessed, this is the first of the three licenses that does not allow you to make any money from selling them. Anything under a Creative Commons licence without 'Non-Commercial' is fair game for professional developers, while this one is not.
This is, with the simple stipulations that you may not sell it or take credit for the original work, still quite permissive. You can modify the assets, refuse to share them, even sue people who steal them. The one thing you can't do is to sell them.
Why would a professional be interested in this then? Place-holders, I would answer. If you need to populate a game with music, models and textures, CC BY-SA assets let you mock up much of the game straight away. They can also be used for technology demos, proofs of concept, etc. Many things a developer does do not involve making money directly, so why not save yourself some time by not asking your team for place-holder assets?
This licence is also popular with fan-site kits; you can put out lots of promotional materials under a CC BY-NC licence and let your fans make websites advertising your games. They get your blessing, you get free advertising; its a win-win situation.
Read more about CC BY-NC
Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)
By this point, I am sure you can work this one out. You can't sell it, you can't edit it and you can't pretend you made it. This is actually quite restrictive, but still useful for place-holder art and background music in videos.
One use of this license might be to allow fan-sites to use music or videos that have been pre-selected. By restricting their ability to edit these works, you prevent misrepresentation and yet allow them to make videos with your music or embed the video in their site.
Read more about CC BY-NC-ND
Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA)
This one is quite possibly not one you'll see very often unless you make a whole game based on the licence. You can't take credit for the original work, you can't sell it and you can't stop other people using it, but you are free to edit and remix to your heart's content.
Quite simply, it's not one I would personally know what to do with, but I can see how it would be useful. Some videos are released under this license, often promoting the software or studios involved, but the most applicable games projects would be Game-Jam entries or other competition games.
Read more about CC BY-NC-SA
In conclusion, the Creative Commons licences are actually quite interesting for indie developers as they open many doors and work very well alongside the current range of games engines available to the modern developer. They can seriously lower the already-low barrier to entry into professional development and facilitate creative works that just wouldn't have been conceivable in the days when we thought of copyright as something to be defended with all our might.
Proper use of the CC licences can only be a good thing for us all.