Proudly presents…

How to Licence your Indie Game

with ♥ from Froge


Developers: if you want your game to earn a loyal fanbase without lifting a finger, be seen by more fans who will give you free publicity, and partake in the cutting – edge technique of video game licensing, then this is the guide for you. It will teach you about copyright and tell you why you can do without it. It will discuss the good and the bad, and show you that a game without it is not only easier to develop for, but is also more successful, builds a better reputation, and is seen by more people for years longer than a game handcuffed under copyright.

To the fans who have been with me over the past year of my exploits, from when I was a rambunctious security blogger, to an aggravated writer, all the way through art curator and now into a games reviewer, it is an open secret how much the copyright monopoly gets on my nerves, and how much I’ve earned by throwing it away. Today, I wish to cast that aside and discuss just the facts about video game licensing. In talking about the practicalities, one learns more than if they were stuck in an echo chamber.

A brief primer to copyright

Copyright isn’t actually a right; it’s a government – sanctioned monopoly allowing you to stop people from sharing your work. It’s for this reason it’s most often called the copyright monopoly by a minority of free culture activists — and that’s free as in freedom. It is automatically applied to every work when it’s created, so you don’t have to explicitly state something as under copyright — indeed, messages such as “please don’t expose my work to more people” are unnecessary — and any work without a licence is still under copyright.

Copyright is given to artists for as long as they live, plus 50 years in most countries and 70 in the United States. When you die, the copyright goes to your heirs by default, so they are allowed to exploit your work in any way they please for decades after. There is no way to opt out of this system; it is forced on you your entire life, even for things you haven’t published, meaning the actual control over your work is flimsy at best.

Because enforcing copyright takes up an extraordinary amount of time for an individual, and costs extraordinary amounts of money should you hire an attorney, abandoning the idea is a simple and hassle – free way to save money and time that could be spend on developing more games. In addition, it is impossible to enforce in the age of the Internet; the continued success of The Pirate Bay is inalienable proof that copyright is, at best, wishful thinking. As it is a top 100 website, this shows the vast majority of Internet users are supportive of free culture, allowing works that they enjoy to be shared with their friends and family.

While you can’t get rid of copyright, you can licence it to allow your fans to use your work in ways that save you the paperwork of giving permission to each and every individual who wants to share it. Because the vast majority of works are non – free, as in copyrighted and without freedom, creating a work of art that is considered to be free culture, as in free of copyright and therefore has freedom, increases the longevity of your product by allowing your fans to share it, cementing your reputation as a developer who cares about their audience and has their best interests at heart. Let’s talk about licensing.

A brief primer to licenses

Navigating the legal landscape is very tricky, and takes up a lot of time. All you need to know is that licensing your work is as easy as linking to a compatible licence. You’ve probably heard of the big ones, like the FreeBSD licence, the MIT licence, the Apache licence, the GNU GPL, and the various Creative Commons licenses. The gist of it is that not all licenses are created equal. For instance, Creative Commons licenses, with the exception of CC0, are designed for artistic works, not pieces of software. Therefore I’ll focus on the rest.

Copyleft, called Sharealike by Creative Commons, gives fans the right to share copies, so long as those copies are afforded the same right. The GNU GPL, short for the GNU General Public Licence, is the most famous and extensively – used example, and has been in use for twenty – eight years. This is a licence you use if you want to make sure free culture remains free, but even then, the burden of enforcing the licence remains on you. It should be noted the GPL is a very cumbersome document; very few people have read it from start to finish, making other options attractive.

Permissive licensing is a licence with very few restrictions, and does not restrict those who get copies of a work from their friends. Most of these licenses only require attribution, and are simple to understand even to non – lawyers. The most popular of these is the MIT “Expat” licence, and the simplest would have to be the ISC licence. Their ease – of – adoption makes them a very attractive choice for developers, and allow fans to understand their rights instead of being hidden behind confusing legal jargon.

The public domain is the area for everything that isn’t under copyright, or for works that have cast off their copyright. It allows anybody to share work totally free of restrictions, and removes any responsibility you have in regards to the work, saving you time and money. The reason most books can be published, the classics like the the majority of books in the Vancouver Sun collection and the Great Books of the Western World, is because their authors have been dead long enough for copyright to lapse. While you can’t force public domain, you can use a licence such as CC0 in order to grant the equivalent rights.

Licenses can be judged from most – free to least – free, with the typical “all rights reserved” notice being the least free, and the obscure CC0 licence being the most free. Naturally, the more free, the better it is for you and your audience. Work under copyright is invariably less popular than work that is licensed permissively, because copyrighted works have their copies artificially limited, and as a result audiences cannot preserve them for the future. To release a work to the public and expect the public to indulge in it? It’s only fair to donate your work to them, as well. You can’t call yourself an artist unless you’re willing to treat your audience right.

How to licence your games

It’s actually a very simple thing to do. There’s no legal process involved, and the simplest licence can be something like Beerware, saying “As long as you retain this notice you can do whatever you want with this stuff.” It is, however, universally recommended to use a formal licence, to ensure there is no ambiguity in what you intend. Not only must you use a licence if you want your work to be free, but writing your own licence as is popular, leads to situations where even when you know that you want to give your audience the right to indulge in your work, they don’t. An example situation would be writing “you can use this work in other games,” but this statement still doesn’t allow for modification or distribution, because it’s not explicitly granted as required under copyright law.

Actually using a licence is as simple as declaring that the work is under the licence. For instance, saying the work is licensed under the MIT licence, on your website, would be a good enough indicator. It is also recommended, to remove any doubts for the audience, to include a copy of the licence with your game, under a file titled “copying.txt” containing the full text; and it is indeed legal to copy a licence. This is important in the MIT example, for the university called MIT has actually released a few different licenses, and it’s necessary to choose the one you intend — usually the “Expat” licence.


Having laid out all the practicalities in front of you, on this blog that exists because of the free – software Neocities, on the Internet that exists because of open standards and an infrastructure that would not exist if it was encumbered by legal restrictions, I am grateful to even discuss them with you, because having them exist at all is a sign that our culture is getting more and more free each and every day.

For those of you who enjoyed the education: thanks. For those who didn’t, Froge help you.