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There are a lot of great franchises which don't have tabletop RPGs for them and I've seen that GURPS can handle, or give a valiant attempt at least basically anything, and I've seen for example emulations of Exalted done with GURPS.

Are there any legal issues with putting out GURPS fan books set in these franchises if I made it abundantly clear I do not intend to profit from them and will stop if a official RPG is put out by Steve Jackson Games?

The two franchises I'm thinking about are:

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/4000/… –  mxyzplk Dec 30 '12 at 16:37

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up vote 24 down vote accepted

In terms of the GURPS part, assuming this is not for sale and just posted publicly on the Web, your use would be dictated by the Steve Jackson Games Online Policy. This allows you to make adventures and stuff but not things that require a restatement of the GURPS rules - so you'd want to be careful that your "fan book" doesn't do that.

In addition, the online policy warns you about the second problem -

Post GURPS rules for a book, movie or TV show?

Be careful here. Even if what you do is completely within these guidelines and does not infringe Steve Jackson Games, you're probably infringing the copyright of the creator of the book/movie/TV show. They have the right to decide what use gets made of their intellectual property, too. The better known the property, the more likely you are to get a letter from a lawyer. But even with something obscure, courtesy dictates that you get the permission of the creator first. Then, if you have any doubts about your use of OUR material, ask us.

Making a fan book for those video game properties is technically not legal. However, many netbooks exist out there in the wide world because of a mix of flying under the radar/no one caring.

Super Legal Answer:

I am not a lawyer, hire one to advise you! The most "correct" answer from the point of view of a cover-your-ass legalistic society. They'll just tell you not to do it, though. "Fun versus a minute amount of legal risk? What is this 'fun'? Don't do it or you may end up in PMITA federal prison. That'll be $500." Save the money and just don't do it if you're risk averse.

Semi Legal Answer:

Contact both SJG and the game IP owners asking for permission to do this. Of course, it'll be hard to actually contact anyone about those old games, and the routine answer is "no" for more of those CYA legal reasons above. Sadly most media companies haven't figured out yet that stuff like this just helps to increase the buzz around and value of their brands.

The Most Common Answer:

Do it, but be prepared to take it down if any of the parties involved demand you do. Some may. Carries marginal risk of a vengeful company trying to ruin your life even if you take it down, which best as I know has never happened over a free fan book.

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The Tolkien Estate and Tolkien Enterprises (aka Saul Zaentz Co) have both gone after fan-done Tolkien stuff in the past. The Estate only did so once I'm aware of, and that was over including extensive quotes from the Simarillion. Tolkien Ent. are the ones who sued TSR over Hobbits and Ents in the original edition of D&D - but ignored Hobbits in T&T. They also send out lots of C&D letters. –  aramis Dec 31 '12 at 5:21
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Sure, you may get C&D'ed, but if you then take down that's pretty much always the end of it. –  mxyzplk Jan 4 '13 at 21:59
    
Also, check to see if the owner of the property has a fan policy. Many do along the same lines as the SJG policy. Some companies have friendly policies about fanfic and guides seeing them as free advertising while others are more strict. For example, Palladium, out of fear of a copyright claim of their property by another company, forbids forbids fan cites from offering conversions of other properties to Palladium rules or converting Palladium settings to other rules. –  HerbN Apr 17 at 19:58

My simple advice is to contact SJG and ask them, they're likely to have a lot more experience in this area than you are and if you get an all clear from them then it very much simplifies your life.

One thing to keep in mind is that it's not just SJG that you have to be happy with but also the copyright holders for the two licenses (WB 3 and HoM&M). If you can get everyone to give you the all-clear then that is you sorted. Short of that - it's a bit of a legal minefield. Here SJG should be fairly simple as they have a licensing scheme already (for the "Powered by GURPS" label).

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I should add - the advice above assumes that you're going to be at least semi-public with your material. If it's just for your own group and you're happy that it's never going to go public then there's no need to go getting permission from anyone. –  Gaxx Dec 30 '12 at 17:43
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Steve Jackson Games won't necessarily be able to guarantee that what you intend to do is legal on their end in advance. That would require a license agreement. Short of that, they can predict based on the information you provide whether the work would infringe, but the final work might infringe even if they previously said that they believe it would not. –  dhasenan Dec 31 '12 at 7:19
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@dhasenan SJG also makes it clear that they don't evaluate fan works because of the time it entails. (And, from a few forum posts, liability, as well.) Check the end of their online policy... sjgames.com/general/online_policy.html –  aramis Jan 1 '13 at 3:57
    
Exactly. Everyone says "contact us," and if you contact them they say "no" or "go away we won't/can't tell you if it's OK ahead of time." –  mxyzplk Jan 1 '13 at 23:10

I focused on copyright and cyberlaw when I obtained my JD, but I never took the bar because I knew I didn't want to practice law. So this is backround material, not legal advice, and I am not a lawyer.

There are two legal areas to pay attention to here: trademark and copyright. Trademark was created to protect businesses from fraudsters trying to masquerade as them: "Hey, trust us, there's an Apple logo on that phone, so it must be made by Apple, right?" Businesses don't want their credibility tarnished by interlopers who might reasonably be mistaken for the real brand by the buying public.

Copyright is afforded to a work as soon as it is created (meaning as soon as you write it down on paper or save it to your hard drive, for example, it is covered), and it is a negative right; it's purpose is to allow creators to decide who may use their works. As an aside, Creative Commons licensing functions because of copyright. The owner of a work can elect to allow any and all comers to use their material under a CC license, but only because they have the power to exclude use.

Generally speaking if you create a work that leverages trademarked names and incorporates copyright protected material (such as character names and plot elements from a published work), you're going to have to get permission from the trademark and copyright owners. Sometimes that's the same party, and sometimes it isn't.

Some heavy hitters turn the other cheek to certain forms of fan-created materials because they realize it helps maintain interest in their primary properties. For example, Paramount for a long time didn't hassle Star Trek fan film developers. I don't know if this is still true. Generally speaking, if fan fiction has a neutral or positive effect on the revenue-generating capability of the trademarked property, many rights owners will not hassle fans who create their own stuff.

It gets a bit trickier when they perceive that a fan-created work might impinge on their ability to make money off their property. For example, if you made your own free Heroes of Might and Magic video game, the rights owners would almost certainly come at you fast and hard, even if you weren't making money from it. First, trademark law actually mandates that they do so, in order to ensure that consumers aren't confused as to who puts out Heroes of Might and Magic materials. Second, your offering is now potentially an alternative to their own, meaning that some would-be purchasers could decide to just download your game instead of buying the official one.

The fact that you're thinking of making a tabletop RPG based on a video game franchise is likely immaterial from a legal standpoint. They certainly have the right to come after you. As a practical matter, a legal team will usually first send you a polite (or not so polite) note asking you to cease making your publication available. If you decline to do so and they feel you are diluting their brand or impeding their ability to make money from their works, they will come after you.

As @mxyzplk noted, the Steve Jackson Games policy is pretty reasonable and straightforward. That said, I'd send them a note telling them what you intend to do, in order to get them to bless their end of it.

I'd also contact the publishers for both the Warlord Battlecry and Heroes of Might and Magic franchises. Don't just send a note to the legal department. Try to find someone who is involved in game production - the higher up the food chain, the better. In most organizations the job of the legal department (or of the legal counsel on retainer) is to aggressively minimize risk. Anything new looks like risk to many attorneys, because they are trained to evaluate situations that way. So if you can get someone to bring the matter to the legal folks as your champion, after you've had a chance to lay out your idea to someone who will understand your intent and realize that it's a good thing, you're much more likely to get approval from them.

There are many reasons why fan-created works fly under the radar and are not pursued by owners of licensed properties. Most of it is simple cost-benefit analysis. The cost of hunting down fans, the negative publicity it elicits, and the fact that fans aren't even making revenue off it makes the benefit of keeping full control not worth the price.

I went into all this detail because I think that while the rights holders might never go after you if you created supplements using GURPS mechanics, this is also an opportunity to talk with the right people at these companies and help them understand that you want to do something that could benefit them. They may have fan contribution policies that don't easily accommodate something like the projects you had in mind, or they may have policies that do. Regardless, it seems that you'd have to put a fair amount of work into these projects. Knowing that you have buy-in from the rights holders would give you peace of mind, I'd think.

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Thank you this is a very detailed post and I'd like to thank you for taking the time to write this up. –  George Bora Dec 31 '12 at 16:56
    
You're most welcome. I hope it's helpful for you. –  Erik Schmidt Dec 31 '12 at 17:27

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