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If college students made the next Angry Birds, who would own the IP?

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Pop quiz: If a college student creates the next Angry Birds as a class project, who owns that intellectual property? The student? The entire class? The university? IP ownership for the college projects may sound inconsequential, but in an environment where indie games can become unexpected million dollar hits, video game educators are rushing to protect students and their creations. At the GDC 2016 panel "Who Owns What and Why?" a mix of professors and directors from collegiate game design programs provided one simple answer to the big questions — followed, naturally, by many complex caveats.

First, the simple solution: when one student makes a game, they own that game. That’s direct enough. However, many student games, particularly in classroom settings, aren’t made by just one student. College games are often created by teams of people with varying levels of creative input, experience, and investment. And that’s when things get messy.

Each of the panelists offered a slightly different solution for this sort of scenario:

Odds are a student won't make the next Angry Birds

Ira Fray, an associate professor at Hampshire College, helped create the university’s IP policy for games, which sidesteps some of the larger questions that come with the possibility of a game evolving into a multi-million dollar product. At Hampshire, every team member is a shared owner, and software is released open-source for educational purposes and available for free.

Fray acknowledged open-source isn’t universally popular. "The fear is, what if you make the next Angry Birds," says Fray. "That won’t happen. But even if you do, you’ll be rewarded in other ways" such as positive press, future contracts, and investment for future incubator projects.

The University of Southern California, meanwhile, takes a more consumer-ready approach. In the past decade at USC, student games have already morphed into a handful professional studios and commercial products. Tracy Fullerton, Director of USC Games, requires students to be communicative both with peers and staff members. Students in the program sign a Contribution Agreement, which doesn’t solidify all final details about IP ownership but begins the conversation. The agreement is meant to help students through potential future problems, like issues of unequal involvement, by having them consider creative input and workload. It also addresses issues like liability, by requesting students confirm that their work is original and not lifted.

Students are encouraged to communicate IP concerns early and often

After the Contribution Agreement, USC students have a number of supplementary steps on the path to assessing the IP ownership amongst a game design team. The games program offers an entrepreneurial track, a communication line to law school students in the IP clinic, and an opportunity to publish the game, if it’s selected, through the USC Games Publishing label. USC’s multi-tiered process sounds like small steps in a safe space towards a tricky and less forgiving marketplace.

But the USC method could produce its own tension, or take a considerable amount of time from developers who would rather be making their games. Drew Davidson, the director at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, knows how troublesome focusing too much on future profits and ownership percentages can be. He warns that exhaustive logistics behind navigating IP ownership can cripple the creative process early on, shifting students focus from making something to dividing pieces of a future pie. Scenarios can play out in which one person feels like they’re working harder than others or have made greater sacrifices, and suddenly development breaks down.

Say the issues are resolved amongst students amicably and fairly — even more hurdles await. Andy Phelps, Director at RIT’s Magic Center, notes that even if all students could easily work out ownership, there would still be issues with the school’s role in a creative project. University contracts may claim ownership of all or a portion of the property rights of certain creations made by its faculty or staff, or it may simply be concerned by the issue of liability from a student created game. For those reasons, Phelps worked to create a standalone studio, allowing them to sidestep many of the issues that come with university policy that was made long before schools had game design programs.

Universities have created studios to sidestep policy

The most unexpected method came from Dartmouth Humanities Professor, Mary Flanagan. "I think," said Flanagan, "if there’s no policy you can maybe get away with more." For Flanagan, she worries about losing IP ownership not just for students but for herself, pointing to universities’ interest in the patents created by employees — a way computer engineering programs often work. But Flanagan gives studio art as the better example for protecting work within collegiate institutions. Some universities — particularly engineering-focused programs — get ownership of technological patents, but comparing a game to a novel or a work of studio art, or making it open-source, is a way to possibly make the game unpatentable.

Flanagan tries to get the ownership of her game’s IP early documented by the dean or other heads of the school, and also keeps her work separate from the school by creating games under her own company. There’s a balance, as she puts it, asking for permission sometimes, and taking risks the other. And she warns that not only can overthinking IP can halt creativity, but it can set false expectations with universities, who will think video games are often worth millions.

None of the educators acted as if they had the perfect answer, and each commented on the value of having a forum to learn from one another. "People ask for the process," says Phelps. "But the process is different every time."