Borrowing ideas — at what point does it become theft?



  • So, I like to think I'm a pretty honest person, at least insofar as I try not to engage in activities that I know will make other people feel robbed or supplanted. I've been MU* ing on and off for just over half of my life, and RPing in general (starting with tabletop D&D) since I was 9. Throughout I've found things I like about this hobby/community, things I don't, and eventually become disenchanted with mostly every game I've played. They all had flaws, all had things I felt could be done better, which I think is a normal expectation to have out of anything. But eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I'll never be satisfied with these half-perfect games, and that what I need is to create my own idea of exactly what an ideal MU* should be, for myself.

    This isn't the first time I've ruminated on this, and it's actually why I originally sought to become staff on several games I've played. I've learned a lot, gotten ideas here and there, some of them being about how my game should be done differently to any other game before, but also some more humble moments of, 'Hey, I like that. This idea here that this person has implemented, it's a good one. It solves a lot of the problems I've seen other games have.' Some of these ideas from other games I'd like to use.

    As a more innocent example: event scheduling, which is common to MUSHes. MUDs don't have this because they do everything spontaneously, but I actually think that telling casuals, 'Hey, I know you can't afford to spend all day loitering on this game waiting for something to happen, but if you log in at this hour on this day, we're gonna have some guaranteed fun for you to participate in.' That's great. Much better than wiling hours away on MUDs waiting for something to happen or pointlessly hoping that players will be more proactive when they mostly just aren't wired that way.

    Less innocent example: I really liked HavenRPG's dream-oriented RP. Some of my best scenes on that game (which, being obsessive, I tend to log so that I can review objectively years later) involved the creation of nightmares for other players to experience using my evil supernatural character, invading their dreams to convey a message, and generally being able to create this fun surreal playground for absurd RP that obviously can't/shouldn't happen when the characters are awake. That's something I'd definitely like to implement if I ever made my own game.

    With a collection of less innocent 'borrowed ideas' from various games though, I start to wonder at which point my intentions would be crossing a line. I've heard the sayings that ideas are cheap and that there's no such thing as a truly original work, but at the same time, I myself can't help but feel irritated when someone else borrows my ideas and receives credit for it, intentionally or otherwise. I'm sure we all have that friend who repeats jokes you yourself were the one to tell them years ago, because our brains are stupid and people can actually forget that the source of something they thought was original was actually gotten elsewhere. This can happen on a more serious, consequential scale, and since I don't like it when I'm on the receiving end of it, I'm wary of putting anyone else in that same position.

    Preempting an unintended line to this discussion, because I know we have some actual lawyers here — sup @Ganymede — my question isn't about what's legally considered theft of intellectual property, but rather how people feel about the line ethically, emotionally or practically. If someone was going to use ideas you know you came up with (especially if they themselves could still recall where they got the idea from), what would you expect from them? I know that I'd probably like to list credit where it's due with some kind of acknowledgements page, such as 'thanks to HavenRPG for inspiring idea X, Legend of the Green Dragon for inspiring idea Y, and @SkinnyThicket for the innovative mapping/exploration system', but I'm interested to hear thoughts from developers/players here about the practice of idea-borrowing in general.



  • I think it depends on what you're borrowing, ultimately.

    The kinds of ideas you're describing? I think the vast majority of the hobby loves to see a good idea spread further -- and a lot of people post code, systems, policies, etc. to be openly shared or used by whoever wishes to make use of it. There's also the obvious advice: if you want to use a concept in use on a specific game, ask the staff there if they mind. I know everything I have up in dev I am more than happy to let anyone grab and use with my blessing and best wishes -- and most games I've seen go up lately are precisely the same way about their OOC content (house rules, policies, code).

    I know I credit everything I've borrowed, and I ask -- even people I've been told I need not bother asking or crediting (again, because I ask every time anyway) I still ask and still credit. While most folks won't ask for credit -- I don't, and don't know anyone who does -- I like to include the credit anyway.

    It's the IC content that I think gives people pause re: borrowing. Using a code framework, or a game system, or an effective house rule for an existing system, or a policy file, or a wiki thing, etc. is one thing -- it's OOC content. While there's creativity required, it's not the same animal as a setting, a character, a unique custom faction, etc. that is a part of that other world's unique story. Folks are (understandably, I'd think) less forgiving there.

    I wouldn't even call the 'dream RP' example 'less innocent' -- or even an idea unique to Haven, unless they had a very specific sort of setup to bolster it. (I had a game in the early '00s that had this as a central theme, for instance, and I wasn't alone in that at the time.) Most games I've been on over the years have had characters roleplaying dreams/etc. to some extent or another; I've seen STs send out dreams as prequels to plots, and so on, as well.

    Now, if they have, for instance, a specific faction that can go into someone's dreams and tinker with a set of uniquely written powers and history and so on, and you copy that verbatim (or even just with the serial numbers filed off), that gets much less innocent, yeah, as it's not just using the general idea of 'I'd like to promote the idea of people being allowed to play impossible or absurd things in a dreamscape as an option for the playerbase because it can be a lot of fun', but part of that world's unique story.

    Not entirely sure if the difference is clear, as it's 7am and I'm on the wrong end of it and out of coffee, but hopefully that distinction makes sense.


  • Politics

    @Kestrel said in Borrowing ideas — at what point does it become theft?:

    I know that I'd probably like to list credit where it's due with some kind of acknowledgements page, such as 'thanks to HavenRPG for inspiring idea X, Legend of the Green Dragon for inspiring idea Y, and @SkinnyThicket for the innovative mapping/exploration system', but I'm interested to hear thoughts from developers/players here about the practice of idea-borrowing in general.

    If you are directly taking an idea, code, or system from another game, you should probably ask for permission. For example, if I swipe @surreality's wiki stuff, I should probably ask first. Credit should always be given where credit is due, so I appreciate it when game developers give shout-outs to inspiration; WoD books generally do this.

    I don't mind people using or implementing my ideas because that's all they are -- ideas. I've got a lot of them. If I get props for it, that's fantastic. If people claim that the idea is completely novel, I'm happy to point out where I mentioned it and when, if I believe I came up with it first. The latter instance rarely comes up.


  • Admin


  • Pitcrew

    For me, I would look at four areas in order to make this decision:

    1. Is it widely adopted and/or generally expected on a game? (jobs/scheduling events)
    2. Is it non-specific and/or general? (dream RP)
    3. Do I intend to modify the concept/system to fit my own intentions? (combat systems, etc.)
    4. Has the original creator put it up for public use? (lots of code)

    If you can answer yes to at least one of those questions, I'd say go for it. Notice that #3 is talking about concepts and not code. In general, I think that even if you're gonna modify the code, if it's not freely or widely available, you should probably talk to the original creator and give them a heads up.



  • @Kestrel Actual lines of code and actual writing, that's about all I'd think you should be worried about. Especially mu related. Being inspired by others' ideas and successes (and mistakes) is how progress is made.


  • Admin

    @lordbelh And improved. World of Warcraft 'borrowed' a ton of ideas about its theme from Warhammer and blatantly stole from games like EverQuest and Ultima Online, but it also improved on those concepts so that when it came out it was an epiphany on what MMORPGs could be.



  • In the art world, the standard has come to... If it's only about 75% of the original left, it's new art. This leaves Duchamps LHOOQ as an original artwork ( it's the mona lisa with a penciled on mustache and if the letters are read in French translates to roughly 'she has a nice ass' ... From 1919, the first graffiti mustache don't know who has the first eye patch).

    If the code is posted for public, have at it. Otherwise ask, folks are kind enough to share usually when you attribute to them.

    As for ideas, as said, if it's not serial numbers shaved off, should be fine. IE don't take middle earth and just change the names. But take changing ages, magic, evil super races making mind controlling artifacts, all good. Maybe ditch pages on end of describing mountains cause just as boring now as the first read.


  • Pitcrew

    For me I would say as long as you put your own spin on it you are on the good side.
    Take the Dream Combat thing for example, if you add it thinking hey I want this to be s much like it was on Haven as possible, that I might side eye. However if your thought process is, hey I liked this there and would like to use something along lose lines for my game but modified to better fit with he settings and systems I am using; that is perfectly fine. After all the base idea in this case, the idea or tormenting another in a dream is literally millennia old.
    For actual bits of code and text taken directly I agree completely with the general consensus of get permission and give credit.
    I also agree with Gany that it is a good thing to openly declare what you have been inspired by because it both gives proper credit and lets people know what type of game to expect.


  • Admin

    How about this:

    Years (and years and years) ago there was an once-great, dominant MUD which at the time had gotten a bad reputation due to its very iffy staff management - it had turned into one of those early 'dictatorship' games. However people weren't leaving although they were mostly unhappy there since they had established RP, friends playing etc... sound familiar yet?

    So anyway, we were working at the time on a rival MUD - it wasn't going to be as feature rich as the first one which had years of development on us, we knew that. But since we were launching in the same theme (based on certain books) I pitched the idea we could honor people's ranks, backgrounds and stations if they were coming in from that other MUD.

    It crippled that first game for a while... it didn't last but we absorbed a huge chunk of their playerbase for months.

    Was it theft? Was it even borrowing? YOU decide.


  • Pitcrew

    @Arkandel
    I would call that an attempted game coup since the goal seems to have been less to create a new game but to have the first game with better leadership and moving to a different game was the tool used to try and accomplish that goal.


  • Admin

    @ThatGuyThere Well, in the example above it wasn't the case; we had been in development for a few months and used a different codebase, for instance, plus the theme looked very much alike because both MUDs were based on the same book series. It's not like we launched with the intent to be a clone of that first game.

    But the point is still taken. The games looked alike after dozens of characters crossed over carrying all their IC baggage along.



  • @Arkandel said in Borrowing ideas — at what point does it become theft?:

    How about this:

    Years (and years and years) ago there was an once-great, dominant MUD which at the time had gotten a bad reputation due to its very iffy staff management - it had turned into one of those early 'dictatorship' games. However people weren't leaving although they were mostly unhappy there since they had established RP, friends playing etc... sound familiar yet?

    So anyway, we were working at the time on a rival MUD - it wasn't going to be as feature rich as the first one which had years of development on us, we knew that. But since we were launching in the same theme (based on certain books) I pitched the idea we could honor people's ranks, backgrounds and stations if they were coming in from that other MUD.

    It crippled that first game for a while... it didn't last but we absorbed a huge chunk of their playerbase for months.

    Was it theft? Was it even borrowing? YOU decide.

    Yeah, kind of. I'd call that sketchy behaviour at the very least. The part where you made a game based on the same books, not so much, but the bolded part definitely makes it an obvious middle-finger to the first game, rather than an innocent, 'I'm going to do something similar but different'. Because you are, there, essentially trying to supplant the first game by incentivising specifically that game's established players with something that's 'the same, but better'.

    Side note, I'm surprised to learn that that dream/nightmare RP of the style I described in the OP is apparently something people considered generic. I haven't encountered it in other games, but I suspect that I inhabit a different subset of the hobby to most of the posters on MSB. (e.g., I have never played a WoD-based anything.)



  • @Kestrel said in Borrowing ideas — at what point does it become theft?:

    Side note, I'm surprised to learn that that dream/nightmare RP of the style I described in the OP is apparently something people considered generic. I haven't encountered it in other games, but I suspect that I inhabit a different subset of the hobby to most of the posters on MSB. (e.g., I have never played a WoD-based anything.)

    WoD (and I think a lot of modern horror settings) have dream-related powers to do this. I know the one I've been picking at for ages does; the game I ran on a stripped down version of the setting and mechanics way back was actually set in that reality's 'dream world', just in a particularly stabilized pocket thereof, where crazy things could happen.

    One of the pairs of world-canon characters from that setting -- now I'm getting all wistful -- were millenia-old servants of some of the world's gods, of a sort. They were in direct opposition, and one of them finally managed to confine the other to the extent that, with hundreds of years of isolation, the confined one learned enough dream magic to leap into the head of his jailer with the intent of messing with her until she was too broken to keep up with the terms of his confinement, offed herself somehow, or just gave up. Didn't work. Too quickly, though she had no idea who 'that person in the dreams' was (having forgotten his actual face forever ago), they actually started to understand each other too damned well, decided they didn't want to do this dance any more, and yet, couldn't abandon their roles, either; they were unalterably locked into those until one of the gods was dead or the gods themselves were rendered irrelevant. (At which point, they actively worked together toward the latter end, aggressively, because 'Can we be done already?')

    It's definitely out there, and definitely being done lots of places. If they had special code to enable it, that might be unique to them -- we just had, well, the grid. We would have needed special rooms for the real world, for instance, rather than a dreamspace. I've seen temprooms used a lot for dreams, however, over the past few years -- so it does happen.


  • Pitcrew

    I generally agree with @surreality and others -- I think that if you're borrowing ideas for systems or ways to approach bits of theme: give credit where credit is due, and you should be fine. If you're talking about the systems themselves ("dreams work like X, Y, and Z" as opposed to "dream RP is an important theme"), characters, locations, or code... talk to the creator first.


  • Admin

    @Seraphim73 In some cases giving proper credit might be tricky. For example I really like the +events command and interface - it's straight-forward, easy to use... but if I re-implemented it for a game how do I figure out who made it originally?


  • Pitcrew

    @Arkandel In that case I would give credit to where you found the one you liked -- or where they give credit (if they do). Sure, you might miss, and at some point someone might contact you to say "actually, I did the events system that X game uses," and then you can just update it.



  • For Me, This Is Where I Stand:

    • Source Code: If it's on a public git or is marked expressly open source, it's fair game but its also good manners to credit the dev. As many of the tools that exist in games now are improvements off the source to either work in the game code structure or just work for how you want it, it's always nice to show off your work but credit the originating dev as well. That said if its not open source, don't use it without permission.

    • Wiki Code: If its something very signature, ask and credit. If its basic code that you can find on any number of public resources, then it's fair game. I don't think there's particularly anything wrong with taking basic code that's open source and changing it your needs, especially if the signature holder doesn't want to share but I would avoid putting yourself in a situation where it appears you just c/p'ed the code.

    • Plots & Rules: A lot of plots or rules are version of retread from another game or idea. There are fresh takes on ideas but there are not that many new ideas under the sun at some point when it comes to story and most rule sets on games are not re-inventing the wheel. That said, it's not cool to copy and run plot verbatim without permission.

    • Flagrant Plagiarism In General: Open source doesn't really fit into this dynamic because the whole point of open source is that you put the code out there for general public use. You basically give up control as to what happens next but the social contract with it is the person taking isn't a total garbage fire with it. Wholesale stealing of entire wikis, characters, closed source code and flatfiles - don't be that guy..


  • Coder

    I'll mimic @Ganymede, @GangOfDolls, and @surreality and @Seraphim73 and @Lisse24:

    1. Work out if you need permission: Directly using someone else's work.
    2. Ask.
    3. If you can't ask, give as close credit as you can.
    4. If they say no, start from scratch with the same goal in mind and be respectful that this is what you're doing.

    I don't think there's any social calculus involved.


  • Politics Banned

    Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.


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