Intellectual property and paid game mods

Questions about intellectual property always come back to one word: access. Who controls access, how access is mediated, and what does access mean in a particular field? In game studies, discussions about access and intellectual property are often concerned with the availability of game development tools. Companies that make game development kits often give their software away for free in order for users to experiment, but require that users purchase a license should they decided to sell any game that is built. Modding games has always raised questions of ownership and labor as well. Many companies will release modding toolkits for the games so that players can experiment with changes to the game and alter it in myriad ways. Game studies scholarship has noted the problematic nature of this relationship, citing issues of unpaid labor by a game company under the guises of “freedom” and “play.” Modders are rarely paid for their work, do not own the intellectual rights to their work, and increase the value and longevity of the original property of the game developer.

In 2015, Valve, the owner of the Steam game distribution platform, attempted to introduce paid mods through their service in order to "allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full-time if they wanted to, and to encourage developers to provide better support to their mod communities." The backlash from the community was immediate, and Valve quickly dumped the paid mods feature from its service. Prior to this announcement, modding was seen as a hobby by the community, but forcing users to pay for the mods introduced a sharp divide in players/modders dichotomy. A major concern was over the intellectual property of this practice. Stealing someone’s mod and putting your name on it has always been a concern for modders. There was fear that this practice could ramp up with the monetary gains to be had in the new mod commissary. And with no ownership of the mods (since the game developers retain all IP rights), the modders would have no recourse for legal action.

While they were unsuccessful during this iteration, paid mods will undoubtedly make their way into the online game marketplace. The question will be what rights will modders retain after their mod is sold? Is it the responsibility of the modder or the game developer to ensure that the game continues to work after installing the mod? Will the modder retain 100% of the profits or will some of them go towards the developer or online marketplace? Although the modder uses artifacts created by the game developer, there is an argument to be made that they arrange those artifacts in a unique way. Determining how modders will retain IP rights of modifications in a paid modding space will ensure that their labor is not erased or ignored by the shifting marketplace.


Ivan's picture
By Ivan

I agree that companies have exploited the free labor of those that create mods. While this allows the games to live longer and have new content available to the user, it does pose some Intellectual Property (IP) risks as you have explained. I was an individual that was part of the Playstation Portable (PSP) hacking and homebrew scene. While involved in that scene at its infancy, I saw how the community did some internal policing in regards to who made what and who gets the credit. Granted, not every community has the resources or the population to do their own policing and disciplining, so I can see a benefit in these creators using GNU General Public License. The GNU General Public License (GPL) allows an individual to freely distribute, research, and modify it so as long as they give the creator the credit of what they made. Obviously, a company that forces those that mod to buy a license are constrained. This also ignores the fact that people who mod without permission, do not use their full name and instead some alias, preventing them from receiving any credit outside their niche. 

However, I feel that the issue comes into this is the red tape. Depending on how the mod is made and what code is used/method of creating it, I feel that it is difficult to get a GPL because it may infringe on the rights of the creator of the game being modded. So if the modders are to make any headway, laws and the licensing procedures need to be clearer.

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