Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Fri, 28 Sep 2018
Subject: Ghosts n Goblins
Original loading screen by me, modified version by Jerry Ellis
I got into a bit of a Twitter spat yesterday after I saw that someone had used one of my old loading screens (modified, with my signature removed and their name in massive letters) as the cover for a book they were planning to publish.
I was pretty annoyed and upset by this, and tweeted about it (click the link at the bottom to see my original tweet and replies). The author got back to me, apologised, and I asked him not to use a modified version of my work to sell his book, which he agreed to. Fine.
Looking at his Twitter feed, it seems that he's already published a book using a version of Steve Wahid's Commodore 64 Rambo loading screen modified in the same way.
This kind of thing seems pretty common in the 'retro games' publishing world, which is a fairly sizable chunk of the UK video games scene, and I feel pretty uncomfortable about it. There's too much here to talk about on Twitter, so I thought I'd try to explain my thinking in a blog post and cover all the points I can in one go.
Firstly, as far as I'm aware I don't own the copyright in the work under discussion, nor, in most cases, will the other artists who did the video game art that gets used to sell 'retro' products. Some do - some people created and published their own work and will retain ownership of it to this day - but a lot of the work was done by employees or freelancers who were paid by developers and publishers at the time for the rights to that work. I was paid for the work I did on Ghosts'n Goblins at the time by the programmer who hired me, that version of GnG was owned and published by Elite Systems, and ultimately the IP is owned by Capcom. I'm not claiming legal ownership of the work, or that my IP rights have been infringed. The same would be true of the Rambo loading screen, done by Steve Wahid while an employee of Ocean, with the Rambo IP licensed from whichever Hollywood movie company owns it.
I have two issues. The first is the morality of taking the work of others and using it as the basis on which to sell commercial products, and the second is the issue of modifying that work - not to create something new, like a collage or a remix, but to stamp the exploiter's name and product title all over that work - all without attempting to compensate or credit or request the blessing of the original creators.
Selling your writings about retro games is of course perfectly fine, as this is new, original work. But if you're essentially selling screenshots of retro games, then I think this is a bit problematic, as you're selling other people's work. You wouldn't get away with selling a book of images from 80s movies without paying for the rights to those images, and you wouldn't get away with selling a book of 80s album covers without paying for the rights to those images, so why should video games be any different? Just because most of the companies who published those games don't exist that makes it alright? Retro games are uniquely valueless and free to use in a way that other media isn't? The companies might be gone, but most of the artists are still around, and easy to get in touch with. You might not be legally obliged to, but I think morally you owe something to those artists whose work you're making money off. If you're using their work to make money, pay them.
If what you're selling is a book of new original writing, but it's just the cover that needs an image, then hire an artist to draw you a cover. Pay someone for the work! Don't take an existing piece of work, without paying for it, and slap your name and logo on the top.
How would you feel if someone took a page of your writing and published that, without paying or crediting you, in their 'big book of retro game writing' in 20 years time? I think you'd reasonably expect them to pay you for the page they were using, and most likely you'd expect them to ask permission from you in advance before they used your work. Why are old video games any different?
Offering royalties is bullshit. That's offloading all the risk onto the artist. If it makes you a load of money, they might get a bit. If it doesn't, they don't get anything. You still get to publish your book with their work either way. Fuck that. You're publishing the book, you take the risk. If you want to use an artist's work in your risky venture, pay them up front for the work you're using. If you can't afford to pay them up front, don't use their work.
Modifying the work - removing copyright messages and signatures - that's just wrong, unless it's being done with the blessing and collaboration of the rights holder and / or artist. Publishing the Ghosts'n Goblins loading screen in a book, ok, fine. I think the artist (or at least rights owner) should be paid, but still. Changing or modifying the work? That just shows no respect for the work itself or the creator. That's the sort of thing that I think you should only do if you get the original creator involved. If you hired Steve Wahid to alter his Rambo loading screen for you, if he was happy to do that, and you paid him, that would be fine. To take his work and erase bits of it, and draw your own bits on top, then use it to sell a book - I think that's morally wrong and incredibly disrespectful to the creator and the work.
Perhaps I'm wrong, and perhaps I'm being a bit oversensitive. I probably am in the wrong, legally, as nobody is obliged to pay me, or the other employed and freelance video game artists from the 80s, to reuse their work. But morally I believe we deserve to be paid for the use of our work in commercial enterprises, and if not, at least we deserve not to have our work scribbled over when being used to sell other people's books.
» First tweet in Twitter thread