This just came up on another blog, but I figured it was also relevant to what I do as well.
Congratulations! You have just finished your new book, one based around a role play character you love. Some of the elements were actually drawn from your campaign setting, and everything is just perfect. Yeah, perfect for a law suit. Sadly, most of the commonly known names for races and settings have already been staked out. In fact, the reason these names have such a powerful draw for writers is precisely because they are so well known.
I have stated before that my characters draw heavily on the White Wolf game system and the Dungeons and Dragons role play system for what they may be capable of. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of the first section in the first book, I did not even bother to change any of the skills or abilities from how they were listed or described in these game systems. As a piece of fan-fiction, this is overlooked most of the time. But, when it gets lifted out of the realm of personal enjoyment, or even fan fiction shared among friends, this can become an ugly beast indeed.
If your work has borrowed heavily from any other work – be it names, locations, or even character generation, be prepared to do some extra editing. Granted, if all you are using are racial names, that can be fairly easily side stepped – use your word processor’s “find/replace” feature after you are done. Find ALL of those pesky references to the races you “borrowed” and replace them with a new name you have come up with. (irritating, I know, but necessary!)
If you are borrowing culture from another work, this can get to be a bit trickier. Depending on who or what you are borrowing and from whom or what you have used, the likely hood of skimming by the edges of becoming noticed will vary. Two of the most fanatical sources of common new fantasy writer inspiration are Wizards of the Coast (Dungeons and Dragons) or White Wolf (Vampire: The Masquerade, Changeling: The Gathering, Can’t remember the werewolf system, but you get the idea.) These folks are out for blood. They may sanction your work if you can pitch it to them properly, but if you even think you may want to go that route – pitch it to them before you publish!!!
According to my editor – who has worked with pieces sanctioned by either WoTC or Blizzard, a first time offense will net you a hefty “cease and desist” order. Which will take your work off the market – permanently. It does not matter if you change what ever it was you borrowed from them or not. You will have to completely re-write your book(s) if you get slapped with this legality from them. (At least, this is the way it was explained to me.) If you manage to get a repeat offense, the kid gloves come off, and both companies will be out for blood. Mostly, yours. Their suit will consist of confiscating the proceeds of all sales of the offending book(s). Yes, I did say all, and that is what I meant. So, if you have had 100 sales at $3.00 or so, they will get the full $300, not just what you received in royalties.
If you are a bit more savvy, and have are influenced more from your reading list, just make sure what you are “borrowing” either directly, or close enough it can be easily identified with very little modification (again, my understanding of how much modification is necessary may be very far off) make sure to double check the copy write expiration on your source. Some works expire after only 50 years, others the estate keeps the copy right effective forever. Blizzard and WoTC are not the only ones I can think of who are zealously jealous of their concepts, I can also think of a few authors who feel the same way. (Most of them belong to my favorite author’s list too – funny how that works isn’t it?)
So, in closing, I will repeat again – if you are “borrowing from” or “heavily influenced by” another published piece of writing in the names of your races, locations, settings, or worlds, double check the legalities required to ensure you do not stray into the fringes of copy write infringement. No author or writer should ever have to face the intellectual property owner across the court room – in most cases, the original owner would win.
Being creative, and original will ensure you continue to prosper in your journey to fame and fortune. (Some time… before I die, right?) Have faith in yourself, and keep the mind stretched towards new possibilities!