One of the things buddying designers often think about when preparing to present their prototype to a publisher is how to protect their idea from theft. That is a fair question, but asking it on forums or Facebook is often the point when tragedy strikes. Let me tell you why.
Let’s lay down some groundwork: I’m no lawyer, and I don’t know the ins and outs of intellectual property law in your country. That’s okay, though, because I’m not going to talk about law. I’m here to simply tell you why nobody is stealing your game for reasons that barely brush against laws and regulations.
No ethics, just greed
I think we need to get one more thing out of the way, before I can actually talk more about some of the reasons publishers don’t just steal prototypes, and that is a matter of ethics. I know that many people don’t do bad things simply because they’re decent people, but for the time being, I will assume that this is not the case here.
What I will assume, however, is that publishers are pragmatic. Theoretically, you don’t need to be a decent person to run a business, but you do need a healthy dose of pragmatism to keep it running for more than a year.
Submit to your publisher
So, you came up with an idea for a game. You’ve built the prototype, and now you’re (literally or figuratively) on our doorstep, ready to sweep us of our feet. If it’s a bad game, we won’t want to publish it, so there will definitely be no stealing. If it’s good, we have two options.
Option one is really simple: we sign the contract and get busy developing, commissioning artwork and testing. Assuming the game is solid, we will make some money, and you will make some money – and that will be the end of it (unless we publish and expansion).
Option two is equally simple – at least in the beginning. We simply steal your game, we publish it, and we do not share profit. We make a bit more money, but you probably don’t take thievery laying down, and at least take to the social media and have your story heard.
Shortly after, we still have the extra cash, but we also have a group of (justified) haters, who are in the right calling us thieves, we probably have your lawyer to deal with, and a list of partners that suddenly starts growing thin. Being associated with thieves is bad for business. Ending up with stock purchased legally, and yet unsellable due to a court order is even worse.
In short, we ruin or seriously damage our business just to make some more money. Not even that much more money, as we probably publish more than one game per year. And it’s also possible that we’ll lose in court, and will have to pay much more than we’ve made. That’s why, we’re not stealing your game.
My game is special
It’s nothing personal, but your game probably isn’t as special as Codenames or Ticket to Ride (when first published). Among thousands of games and expansions that are produced every year, only one in every two-three years becomes a money-maker people could lose their mind about. And for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that it’s your game.
If we steal your design, everything will work the same way, the only difference being that more people will get to know about the whole kerfuffle. Being afraid of colossal loses, every partner and distributor denounces an evil, thieving publisher, possibly publically, as it’s good PR. You probably get a few extra bucks from a GoFundMe campaign, and maybe you even get a lawyer who will work pro bono to score a few points with the geekdom.
On the other hand, if we just publish your game, none of the above happen. Instead, a lot of money is made both for you and for us, and after your wonder outsells Carcasonne we decide to make an expansion. Happily, you deliver Cities of Princes, Dragons and Nordic Countries, and we all profit again. It’s much better than getting into all that trouble, and that’s another reason why we’re not stealing your game.
Put the NDA away
Why am I telling you all this? Is it because I want to lull you into lowering your guard? Not at all. In fact, I do encourage you to be reasonably careful when doing something for the first time. If in doubt, ask other people, maybe contact an actual designer, or go to a lawyer with a contract draft, after your game is picked up.
What I don’t want you to do, is listen to bad advice, some of the worst being: “Don’t show your game to anyone who hasn’t signed an NDA”. Why? Because a game needs to grow through testing and feedback, and by denying your prototype this, you make a lesser product. And because no publisher will risk signing an NDA just to discover, that the game being presented to him is very similar to something they’ve had in development for the last year – which (with all the board game cross-pollination happening these days) can happen.
Simply put, I want you to know that (with a minimum of reason), you are safe to show a publisher your game – and being paranoid about your prototype will do it more harm than good. So, now you can focus on designing something great, without fear of being conned, because, really, we’re not stealing your game.
We may publish it instead.