View Full Version : Map Symbol Copyright Question

10-17-2009, 11:01 PM
I had a question from someone using my software product (Hexographer) if they could use it to create maps for a planned published product.

I didn't copy any images when I created the default map symbol set, but I was certainly trying to match a specific map style--the TSR Mystara hex maps on the late 80s/early 90s. So I looked at those very closely as I drew these. I also found other similar maps online and looked at those to find clarifications or improvements and incorporated some of those ideas.

I want to put my versions of these in the public domain for any purpose (even if people don't buy the software) but obviously I don't want to do that if I can't legally. Doing so also allows others to use the software and publish their maps without concern.

Anyway, I'm looking at a couple of the TSR maps in the same style and I do see differences with all of the map symbols I'm able to compare at the moment. But I wonder if the differences are too subtle...? Or if even though there are differences, because so many of the symbols are similar is it an issue for concern? Or are there only so many ways to draw an hill symbol (as an example) and the differences are enough due to the idea that there aren't that many ways to vary it? I've also seen some similar icons as part of other non-game related mapping standards/resources, for what its worth.

What do you think? Here's a link to the software's website for comparison purposes: http://www.inkwellideas.com/roleplaying_tools/hexographer/

If you created these symbols for a major game publisher and 20-ish years later others still thought of them fondly and created similar symbols, would that bother you? (Even though the game publisher owns the copyright.)

I'd love to be told I'm overthinking this or overly concerned. But I'd also like to know if map artists think there is something to worry about. I've got a couple of feelers out to copyright lawyers, but I don't know if they would be well-qualified to say if the map symbols are too similar (which is more of an artistic judgement) and I think the prevailing opinion of this community would be helpful.

10-18-2009, 12:14 AM
Where are you located?

There are others on the board who have better informed opinions than me.

My guess, and its only a guess, is that you are alright.

In your shoes, I'd collect old gaming maps. Make sure that none of your symbols are trademarks and make a habit of collecting similar images when you find them. Keep information on the authorship of your collection.

I don't think the old school hex map is a commercial bonanza and I don't think TSR could claim a whole heap of uniqueness.

The problem of course is that there are few clear hard and fast rules. Lawyer letters are more scary to the poor and profitless than they are to established companies. I'd love to see a map collection of purely public domain stuff.


Who thinks your program rocks btw....

Mark Oliva
10-18-2009, 12:57 AM
I'll start with an obligatory reminder that I am not an attorney.

However, I have to discuss what we're doing regularly with an attorney. His advice to is basically the following:

1) Courts in different countries (and also laws in different countries) deal differently with copyright issues, so it's best to learn how these issues are handled by the courts and laws in your jurisdiction. He has told us, as an example, that an action by a court in the U.S. against us here in Germany would be ineffective if it was based upon copyright law or case law in the U.S. that is inconsistent with law or case law here.

2) In general, he said, copyright violation assertions can succeed for individual images only if they are duplicates of copyrighted material.

3) However, he said (as attorneys always do), if one produces a collection of images that almost precisely duplicates the style of someone else's copyrighted images, it is possible that the original copyright holder can successfully argue in court that your work is not original but derivative and therefore a copyright violation.

Now, don't take that as legal advice, because it isn't legal advice. It could however serve as a good starting point for your own pondering upon how you want to proceed.

If it looks to you like an assertion of copyright violation might succeed in your case, it would be wise to consult a local attorney with copyright knowledge to advise you on how these things are handled in your legal jurisdiction. I say "attorney with copyright knowledge" because there are attorneys with no experience whatsoever in copyright matters who will be glad to take your money in return for ill-based advice.

10-18-2009, 03:55 AM
I, too, have no legal training, but Mark's advice reflects the situation I'd expect in England, too.

If your work is not a direct copy, but in a similar style to someone else's work, you should be ok, but if you have a collection of images that closely match someone else's collection, image for image, they may have a case.

If your collection spans the style of multiple 'originals' OTOH, the case any one of them might bring is weakened, probably to the point where they wouldn't bother.

Unless you have multiple collections. You could have problems if you include a TSR-like collection and a separate GDW-like collection, etc.

If your images are generic enough to be labeled as simply 'old-school', you should be fine.


Depending where you live.

Hope that helps. :)

10-18-2009, 06:59 PM
Again, not legal advice here but my opinion...

If to a reasonable person your icons appear to be based on the TSR set then they could be deemed as derivative in which case you would be in breech of copyright. TSRs symbols presumably were not trademarked or registered for that purpose. If you can find those symbols in maps prior to those used in the first TSR maps then your ok with TSR and maybe not ok with the prior creator. If just one or two are similar but not exact and the rest are different then its likely that you would get away with that on the grounds that it was coincidental. Like two books using the word "and" - it just wouldn't wash at all. Or if the symbol is so general or obvious then you could argue that TSR never made any creative input into it anyway. But if as your saying that you studied the symbols and made a similar set then your not really in the clear.

I don't know your product well but you could try to contact them and get an ok on it cos they just might not care. Or else they might want a cut on a sale price for the symbol use. All said and done it usually follows the path of most profit so if they are not making any money form these symbols themselves any more then they might not care. If they are and think it will harm their trade then they might well care.

Ultimately, if Wizards (who I thought bought out TSR) started suing everyone in the area of their game then the fan base might collapse. TSR used to be known as "They Sue Regularly" and they didn't win any friends. A lot of people moved away from them as a result. I think Wizards have done much better with the OGL and so on.

They have to get more people playing with their products not sue the fans for a few bucks - unlike the music industry for example - so as you can see, nothing is black and white.

10-19-2009, 11:36 AM
Thanks for the compliments on the software! Although many of the maps here are more artistic...

Anyway, thank you all for the feedback on my concern. (If anyone else is interested and has an opinion or some IANAL advice, please post.) I'm leaning towards revising the symbols I'm using. I have an idea that I think people who like the Mystara maps will like. It will allow the symbols to be differ moreso and will innovate the symbols in an interesting way. (Necessity is the mother of invention, right?)

But I'm also not sure TSR/Wizards would consider this is infringing or worth their time. (I think Wizards/Hasbro legal has other battles to fight... everything from knock-off -opoly games to uploaded game books on websites/torrents to someone creating synonyms for their 4th edition game's "powers"...) Still, better safe than sorry.

I've got one request posted elsewhere looking for artistic (paid) help on these symbols--I'm sure there are others who are better artists than I am. And I'm sure someone else may have other ideas for a style of icons people who like these old school maps will like while not being so close to the originals. I think I'll post a similar request here in the appropriate forum shortly.