How Can Game Developers Protect Their Ideas?
Many of my students — in fact, just about everyone who is thinking about or just getting in to game development — have some concern that their great ideas are going to get stolen by other game developers. So, what can you do to protect your ideas? Well, the answer is, you can’t. Ideas, as the saying goes, are a dime a dozen. They aren’t fully formed creative works and therefore aren’t offered intellectual property protection in the legal system.
Once your idea is actually implemented as a creative work or combination of creative works (as is the case with a video game), copyright is your protection against another developer using your code, artwork, audio, and story. You work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you create it, although you can gain additional protection by registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office (if you are a United States citizen, of course, but other countries have their own copyright office).
If you come up with an innovative game design, there is also the possibility of patenting it (such as are the rules for Magic: The Gathering which are patented). Patenting game rules does offer protection against other developers making a game having gameplay too similar to yours. However, that means that your game must have gameplay that is innovative and not similar to any game that came before it.
But protecting your idea or concept? A concept — that is, an idea that can be summed up in a few words or sentences — cannot be protected legally. It’s too easy to come up with an idea, and most ideas are really just variations of existing ideas. If you come up with an idea for Rocks vs. Vampires game in which you protect your house against invading vampires by putting together a rock garden, there is nothing preventing another developer from making a similar game, so long as they don’t use your exact code and assets. Nor can the makers of Plants vs. Zombies sue you (at least not successfully) just because your game was inspired by theirs.
So, don’t worry about people copying you. They will, and you will copy others, even if you don’t intend to. Instead, just be concerned about making a good game — a game distinguishes itself from the competition and the copycats. The unique vision and level of quality that you bring to your game’s design, programming, art, and audio, is your best insurance that players will choose to buy your game over a similar game.