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Ok so I went through 11 pages on here and have done a decent amount of Google searching, but found nothing specific to my question. I'm working on a game based on a movie. For the purpose of this I'm going to use a different movie as my example. Let’s say I'm making a game based on "Driving Miss Daisy" (because why not?).

Now I've seen plenty of questions about taking an "idea" to a company (both game and rights holders) and trying to get funding but I have no reputation and this is a side project at this point so that's probably not a good idea. But let’s say I work on my "Driving Miss Daisy" game for a year or so and at some point call it "finished". It has good art, co-op, a campaign, and achievements (because, why not?) all made 100% by me and me alone. Does anyone know the process or the likelihood of me going to Warner Bros. and their games division with some kind of deal splitting profits if they allow the release or help with it etc etc.

Even if I hear "There’s no way, ‘Driving Miss Daisy: the Game’, while awesome, will never see the light of day", I'll probably keep working. I just wanted an idea of what kind of outcome could come from this and this is a different situation than I've generally seen asked. Like I said, most are about getting money for the development itself or trying to re-release old games that have been abandoned.

Thank you to anyone who might have information about this.

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Probably not the best place for this type of question. While it is slightly related to game development, it's actually a legal question and a "studio practices" question that game developers aren't best at answering. –  Byte56 Jul 11 at 20:05
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“Let’s say I'm making a game based on ‘Driving Miss Daisy’” — I say abandon whatever you’re actually working on, and make the Driving Miss Daisy game. –  Paul D. Waite Jul 12 at 10:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The likelihood of this approach producing the results you want is effectively zero.

First, if you have built your prototype using the actual IP, then you have almost certainly committed (in most jurisdictions) copyright infringement or some similar IP law violation -- it doesn't matter that you have kept the project private. It's unlikely that the IP holder will appreciate that, and will likely simply issue a cease & desist (many forms of IP law mandate that the IP holder take the requisite action to protect their IP or they lose the right to do so; so it's not necessarily out of malice).

But that assumes they even look at it. Most game companies will refuse to look at / open unsolicited game submissions in order to protect themselves from potential litigation in the future. Some variant of this holds for other media companies. It's very hard to find the right contacts to get a proposal heard; this is generally not how most games get made. Game studios have their own talent and massive pool of ideas, and non-game companies tend to be the ones who want to do the approaching, and have their own list of people they like to work with. "Knowing somebody" really helps.

That isn't to say that it's impossible -- there are cases where this has worked. But it's extremely unlikely and a huge risk for you in terms of your opportunity cost. If they see it and say "no" they will almost certainly do so in a way that legally required you to abandon your work.

My advice to you would be to build the game you want without invoking somebody else's IP at all. Then establish contacts with business representatives of the company holding the IP and pitch the project. You still have a very slim chance of getting anywhere, unless the company is small and/or you are already an established developer with a track record, but at least yo won't have anything they can take away from you, and if they never even want to talk to you you can still apply your own IP to the game and ship it.

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Thanks for all the info. Its good to hear from someone who works in the industry and their take on the matter. –  Matt Griffin Jul 11 at 22:47
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"... almost certainly committed (in most jurisdictions) copyright infringement or some similar IP law violation -- it doesn't matter that you have kept the project private." - can you provide a reference for that? That sounds quite unbelievable; as long as you don't publish anything of it, in most jurisdictions (even those that do not have a general fair use regulation) there should be absolutely no problem drawing or otherwise using characters or anything else from copyrighted works for your own amusement. Things may at earliest be different when showing the work to a company. –  O. R. Mapper Jul 12 at 8:21
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Copyright in the US for example is, among other things, the right to use and determine who may adapt a work. It isn't (only) to do with distribution or making a profit. You use or adapt a work when you do it privately, it's just impossible for anybody to know. I don't know if there are court cases establishing any precedent on that matter however -- the intent of what I wrote was supposed to be taken under the "once you show it to a company" scenario like you said. –  Josh Petrie Jul 12 at 14:42
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(Also for things like trademarks there is the obligation to defend on the part of the trademark holder; the holder can waive that if your infringement is inconsequential but if they don't it doesn't necessarily matter if you were working privately -- they will still take action.) –  Josh Petrie Jul 12 at 14:46

People I have worked with have done this before.

First time: programmer who worked for me made a PC version of a board game (I made some art for it just because it was a fun little project). This was 25 years ago. He approached the rights holders, a large toy company. They had no idea what to do with the game, and after a few months of considering it they told us to drop it. A few years later they made PC games from several of their board game properties and gave them away; their games were about the same quality as ours, and they paid someone else to make them.

Second time: 18 years ago, several of my students make a prototype of a game to be given away for free with "Happy Meals". They tried for a year to contact McDonalds and make a presentation. They finally determined that to get a meeting with someone who could make a decision was going to cost 60-100K in agent fees, and the project died.

Third time: big-budget movie game, company negotiated the rights with the mega-studio, sinks 4 million into production, then after a few month's work a lawyer shows up and explains that a certain crucial IP belongs not to the studio, but to his client, who designed the IP for the studio but only gave them the movie rights; he retained all other media rights. Designer wants money and what turns into totally unworkable artistic control; project is eventually cancelled, despite the fact that the game was looking great up until then.

My advice: don't sink much time into a project that you don't have iron-clad rights to. Either make a simple/small prototype and pitch it, or make the game without the IP, and pitch it somewhere along the way (but be prepared to leave the IP out and continue).

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To add to Josh Petrie's answer when you want to use someone's copyright you have to negotiate with them, if you already have your game you can't really go back and will have to take whatever deal they offer you and they know this. This makes first making a game and then getting copyright a great way to lose any potential income/be forced to ask money for it to pay for the rights to the game.

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I can only pick one to mark as correct but I'm up voting yours for the additional info. Thanks! –  Matt Griffin Jul 11 at 22:46

I have spoke to the "right people" at a couple of studios that own IP for large/successful IP typically in the TV/film space, and asked them if they want to use their IP in one of our super, cool, amazing, etc. projects - a great opportunity for them I thought. Their response has been go off and make the game with our own IP, when it has been a proven success they will consider putting their IP in it.

Essentially a better business model for them is to pick a game with a proven financially successful track record and have a branded version of that made, it is a much easier sale internally (often the people making the calls are more interested in facts and figures and bottom lines than qualities that are hard to define and maybe personal). While I would like them to say yes to me, if I was in their shoes I would do the same thing unless the studio with the proposal had a very good track record of making profitable games.

That said, I wish you the best of luck, my experience is limited to responses from a couple of studios, if you excite the right person at the right company maybe you will find success.

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