Copyright protects intellectual property dealing with literary and artistic works. You cannot copyright an idea, only the execution of an idea. Meaning you must have a tangible form of expression. In the United States, copyright is handled by the US Copyright Office. For board gaming, you’ll want to copyright your rulebook.
Copyright law says that a work’s creator is its author (copyright holder). There is only one exception to this rule: work-for-hire. It basically says: if you commission someone to create the work, you own the work even though someone else made it. This only arises in two scenarios:
1) Work created by independent contractors. In this case, the work must be specially ordered, meaning that the contractor must be paid to create something new.
2) Work prepared by an employee that is within their scope of employment. Any work created by an employee that is within their scope of employment is considered work-for-hire.
Copyright is technically established upon creation of the work, but you’ll still want to register your copyrighted creation with the government. Registering your work for copyright has several benefits:
- Gives a documented date of ownership, should someone claim they came up with the creation before you did.
- Establishes a public record of your ownership. This way you can prove you are the right’s holder when dealing with other businesses.
- You can’t sue for infringing your copyright unless you have an actual registered copyright with the government.
- Being registered before suing someone for infringement allows you to receive both actual damages and statutory damages (instead of just actual). Actual damages is when you recover income you can actually prove you lost out on, whereas statuary damages are more like receiving compensation just because you’ve been wrong. For instance, if you caught someone illegally selling a copy of your board game, actual damages would be the price of the board game, so like $50. But one could assume this criminal sold a bunch of copies before getting caught, so statuary damages would be like $5000 even though you can’t prove anything. You would also be able to recoup any attorney fees you racked up.
Wait until you have the finalized rulebook that you will be publishing. You’ll need to create an account at the US Copyright Office’s website (www.copyright.gov). Then you can register your work using the Standard Application for $55 (there’s a cheaper application for $35, but only certain projects apply). Most questions in the process are self-explanatory, but:
- When choosing Type of Work, select: literary.
- The Authors section can be confusing. You’re able to add multiple authors should the project be a group effort. But the most important thing is making sure you select to protect both the Text and Artwork. Your artist was most likely a work-for-hire, so you (the employer) actually own the artwork.
After submission, you’ll receive a Certificate of Registration in the mail. Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. If a company is the author (because an employee did the creating) or if you did a work-for-hire, your protection lasts 95 years from date of publication. United States copyright law offers the longest protection in world, by far.
The United States has good relations with most countries, and will honor each other’s copyrights.
Your rights also include what is known as derivative works. If your rulebook is translated into another language, if you make an expansion, if you spinoff your work in any way, you are still protected. No one has the right to do any of that but you.