Let me begin with a couple of caveats and personal opinions about eBooks (or however we’re supposed to spell it) and the PDF market. With stuff that I publish, I take a pretty relaxed attitudes towards pirates, because I understand that not every download equals a lost sale. If someone wants to read something I wrote badly enough to steal it, hey, they wanted to read it. If they like it, hopefully they’ll come back around and pay for it, or buy something else I write in the future.
With roleplaying game PDFs, I cut and paste the heck out of them. In the Pathfinder campaign I’m currently playing in, I copied all of my character’s feats and spells into an OpenOffice doc, with a notation on what book and page number the entry came from, and print it along with my character sheet. It helps me keep track of what my guy can do, without flipping through huge physical books or scrolling through multiple PDFs.
That said, those things refer to personal use. An individual downloading a copy of a book from a torrent site so he can read it is one thing. I legally purchased the PDFs I copy from, and the copying I do it for my own use only (okay, I provide a copy of my character’s feats and spells to the gamemaster, but still, I think that’s a fair use). We can go around and around on legality and ethics and ultimately agree to disagree, I’m sure. There’s one place where I very clearly draw the line, however, and that’s representing stuff as your own work and selling it.
Allow me to clarify again. I have great admiration for a number of retro-clones. The difference between producing a retro-clone and plagiarism is that the law states that only the expression of an idea can gain copyright protection, not the idea itself. If you say the same thing using completely different words, you’re covered. The other difference is that the games they’re cloning are out of print, and in some cases the publishers are long gone leaving the rights to the game in question. If the game was currently in print, the people making retro-clones wouldn’t do it. Once again, we can argue legality and ethics, but I’m still building to my point here.
There are authors and game designers who very clearly state that they were inspired by other games, and give credit where it’s due. Again, they explain the mechanics they’ve been inspired by in their own words, and incorporate them into a final game that’s substantially different from the source of their inspiration. The resemblance may be clear, but the game doesn’t play the same.
Over the past few days, I discovered that a relatively small RPG publisher was taking other small publishers’ work, changing a few words, adding some new material, and selling it as original work. I read a lot of roleplaying game material, more than gets remarked upon here. I start to recognize certain key words and concepts. When I read something and think, “that sounds familiar”, I often go to the original work and compare them. A couple of days ago, I found a game that had entire paragraphs, copied word for word. Yesterday, I found another game from that same publisher, copying almost verbatim from yet another publisher.
I contacted the publisher in question via email, and have yet to receive any sort of response. I contacted the original authors. I contacted the vendor who was selling the games with questionable content. As of today, the games are unavailable, the questionable publisher’s website and Facebook page is gone, and the issue seems to be resolved.
This seems to be happening in the eBook market as well. People are scraping content, doing a find-and-replace on names, and selling the knockoff cheaper than the original.
There are two questions that this incident raises for me. The first is, why don’t more reviewers catch this stuff? In the first case, I had received a review copy of the original game, and then a review copy of the cut-and-pasted clone less than a month later. It seemed obvious to me. Of course, with the amount of new gaming material coming out every day and the volume of stuff reviewers have access to, maybe it was a long shot that I happened to look at both games.
The second is, why isn’t there any process in place to catch this? Certainly, there’s more material being added to online stores every day than vendors could be expected to read. Yet, in the school I’m attending right now we have to submit our papers electronically, and they’re run through a filter. They get processed through a service called TurnItIn. When I upload a paper, I get what’s called an Originality Report. My paper is compared to every other paper that’s be handed in to the school, as well as every paper submitted to all schools using the service. The process takes between 3 and 8 minutes, in my experience. I get back a percentage telling me how much my paper is like other papers, and major reference sources including professional journals, encyclopedias, and websites. I also get a PDF copy of my report with exact words and phrases appearing in other papers highlighted. Fortunately for me, this is always just a matter of people quoting the same references or citing the same research material. What it will show, however, is if I simply cut and pasted from Wikipedia or the Wall Street Journal or some other student’s paper.
Imagine if PDF and eReader vendors had something like this. A publisher uploads a game for sale, they get an Originality Report showing they’re original, or it highlights the Open Game License or other material carried over from their own game line or a licensed system. They have to accept the Report before finalizing the product for sale. At this point, someone outright plagiarizing will hopefully know they’re going to get caught, and stand down. If the publisher proceeds, the vendor gets sent a copy of the Originality Report, so they can check out anything with a suspiciously high percentage.
Hot coffee is hot, and stealing is stealing.