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Controversy In The Classroom: Whose IP Is It Anyway?
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Controversy In The Classroom: Whose IP Is It Anyway?

November 13, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Graduates of schools that teach game development and design may have a leg up on others trying to break into the video game field... in many cases they created as classwork a game that could stir the interest of a studio or publisher.

But wait! Whose IP is that game anyway -- the student's or the college's?

At least one leader in the field -- Redmond, WA-based DigiPen Institute of Technology, which has produced  multiple award-winning games and the team that made Narbacular Drop and went on to create Portal for Valve -- says it's theirs.

While DigiPen is not alone in this rule, with major schools such as The Guildhall @ SMU also enforcing the rule, the majority of educators and others interviewed for this story took issue with that practice.

"I don't want to sound hokey, but this is a moral issue," says Vashon, WA-based Tom Buscaglia, who refers to himself as "The Game Attorney." "What you've got here is an institution that, while it claims to be there to teach and help unsophisticated students, is having them sign over ownership of their work. And that, to me, seems morally reprehensible which, frankly, is what's driving me to speak out -- my moral outrage."

What is also driving Buscaglia to speak out is that he represents Zach Aikman, president and co-founder of Seattle area-based studio Fishbeat, who is also a Spring 2008 DigiPen grad.

Aikman was one of four students at DigiPen who, for three semesters, developed a music-based shooting game for the PC called Synaesthete that won the best student game award at the 2008 Independent Games Festival, took second place in the 2007 Indie Game Showcase, and was a finalist in the Intel Game Demo Contest.


While Aikman and his team created the game with no intentions of publishing it -- since they were well aware that the school's policy was that it owned all IP developed there -- shortly after their game started winning awards, they began to be approached by publishers who believed the small casual game could easily be digitally distributed and sold for $5 or $10 a pop.

"We knew the school owned the copyright on all the art, the assets, and the code," recalls Aikman, "but you can't copyright play mechanics. So, after we graduated, we began talking about taking the game concept and starting from scratch with different code."

"We decided to incorporate, start a studio, and while we couldn't sell Synaesthete as it was, we hoped to use it to showcase our talents and try to talk some publishers into getting some funding to create something new."

What irks Aikman is that, after graduating, he and his team approached DigiPen, hoping it might change its policy and make an exception for the award-winning game, but the school wouldn't budge.

"They were dead set on not setting a precedent because, if they let us keep the IP, they were afraid other students would want the same. But I believe there's something wrong with the idea of DigiPen owning games it has no intention of doing anything with, while discouraging people like me who could really make use of our efforts and use it as a springboard to a career."

"It's like going to an art school and creating a painting while you're there. Does the school own the art that took so much of your time and effort? I don't see why the same thing shouldn't apply to games."

In another controversial IP ownership-related event in 2007, Slamdance Games Festival finalist Toblo withdrew its game from the event "on moral grounds" due to the removal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG from Slamdance's line-up. But DigiPen "overwrote our decision and readmitted Toblo to the Slamdance Festival", according to Toblo's creators, with its ability to do so technically due to its IP ownership of the game.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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