While game modifications are generally looked at as derivative and infringing works, an academic paper argues that it would be fair to apply a licensing provision currently used in the music business to the mod community in order to advance the genre.
Cover Songs And Donkey Kong: The Rationale Behind Compulsory Licensing Of Musical Compositions Can Inform A Fairer Treatment Of User-Modified Videogame (PDF) was penned by John Baldrica, an attorney, and is published on the North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology website.
Baldrica believes that a compulsory “mechanical” license provision of the Copyright Act, which allows musicians to record cover songs as long as they pay a “statutorily determined royalty” to the original song’s copyright holder, would do wonders for the mod market. Such movement would “feed the professional talent pool” in addition to granting the “freedom to produce the kind of new and creative works that the copyright system was intended to promote.”
The author notes that under the U.S. Copyright Act currently, “the creator of an original copyrightable piece of expression is given the exclusive right to authorize any derivative works,” meaning that game developers can effectively kill a modification to their game anytime they want to.
The problems are; what exactly defines a derivative work and who owns the new modded material that has been created?
…such analysis has been inconsistent in key cases involving modification of videogames. As discussed, treating a mod as nothing more than an alteration of the underlying copyrighted videogame would cause mods to fall under the doctrine of derivative works. It would also strip modders of copyright protection and subject them to liability if the modifications were unauthorized by the original copyright holder.
The compulsory licensing scheme for music has been called “instrumental in the development of the recording industry.” The author goes on to draw a series of parallels between the early days of the music business and the current state of computer software, calling the similarities “striking,” and furthering his belief that “mods’ similarities to musical recordings should merit analogous treatment under a similar statutory licensing regime.”
Unfortunately, Baldrica does not see any changes being made in the near future to the current system for two reasons: “a lack of political will from those outside of the videogame industry and a vested business interest in the status quo from those within.”
Expanding on the first reason, Baldrica writes:
Yet, unlike its concern for the promotion of musical recordings in the first years of the twentieth century, Congress does not appear inclined to grant statutory protections to promote development of videogames in the first years of the twenty-first.
And more on the second reason:
…the game developers and game publishing industry are reluctant to abandon a scheme in which they already enjoy substantial benefits and negotiation power.