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On using retro game artwork in commercial projects

Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Fri, 28 Sep 2018
Subject: Ghosts n Goblins

Ste Pickford

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.


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Hi Ste,

Thanks very much for taking the time to write this blog entry. For anyone who is reading about this for the first time, I’m Jerry Ellis, the author of the books in question, and I’d like to respond to Ste’s excellent and valid comments in this format, as it will enable me to clarify a few things that it wasn’t possible to do on Twitter yesterday - I hope that’s okay.

First, let me take care of the single most important thing here once more, and that is to apologise to Ste, and indeed to anybody else who has found themselves upset, angered or inconvenienced in any way over my attempted use of Ste’s Ghosts ’n Goblins loading screen. I didn’t realise it before, but I certainly do now, that it was completely wrong to do so, and I will absolutely guarantee that I will not be going ahead with this cover, nor with any similar cover style, either for this book or for any of my future projects.

Next, I just would like to explain one or two other aspects of this, which will hopefully shed more light on why I chose to go ahead with this idea in the first place (and also go some way towards reassuring people that I’m really not out to undermine, exploit, steal from or in any way upset anybody, be they from the games industry back in the day, or any other background!)

When I wrote my first book, The 8-Bit Book - 1981 to 199x, back in 2008, I had some ideas for future books that I really wanted to tackle one day, namely The Book of the Game of the Film and Arcade Imperfect. It took me a long time to get around to doing it, but finally around four years ago I was able to get started. Right from the beginning, I envisaged the Rambo pic that ended up on the cover of TBOTGOTF, not because I thought it would help me sell thousands of copies, but because that was one of my absolute favourite games when I was 11 years old, and the thought of seeing it revived and displayed proudly on the front of a book of this kind excited me.

I spent so much time - so, so much time - working on the cover, trying to get it to look just right, and I was so proud of the way it turned out. But I never, ever, in a million years imagined that anyone would think for a moment that the main picture itself was my own work, or that I was even attempting so suggest it might be. The use of the Rambo and Ocean font styles to show the title of the book and the ‘by Jerry Ellis’ part was purely my way of staying true to those designs, and it never for a second occurred to me that anyone would think that by writing ‘by Jerry Ellis’ anyone would assume anything other than that I was referring only to the book itself. In fact, more than a year since I first showed the completed image to anyone, not one person has suggested as much, at least not until yesterday. Incidentally, I understand now why some people thought I was trying to do that yesterday; a couple of weeks ago someone on Twitter asked if I’d designed the covers, and I said that I had, and that I’d also mocked up an idea with a Space Harrier theme; but I totally, 100% assumed he meant had I done the work on modifying the images myself, rather than had I designed those loading screens myself back in the ‘80s! In fact I’m still absolutely certain about this, and perhaps the poster in question will be able to confirm this. Either way, I never imagined anyone could possibly think that I had designed the loading screens that were, and still are, so utterly familiar and beloved by anyone with even a passing interest in 8-bit computer games, or that I would even have the nerve to want to pretend that I had. But if I misjudged this in any way, I apologise sincerely, repeatedly and unreservedly.

This next point is important. Once I’d finished the Rambo-styled cover for TBOTGOTF, I did attempt to get approval before using it. I was a bit foggy about this yesterday as it was all a bit chaotic, but after casting my mind back (and checking through my e-mails, forum discussions and Messenger communications very carefully) I recalled that I was actually unable to find any contact details for Mr. Wahid, and so I contacted a number of well-known and knowledgable people from the industry to ask their opinions and advice, including one high-profile former Ocean Software employee. All of them - without exception - assured me that the image I’d come up with should be absolutely fine to use, and not to worry about it as it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s so important that people recognise and understand this, as I want everyone to know that I consider myself to be a careful and honest person, and that I would never risk my integrity (or indeed any more serious repercussions) by doing something even slightly risky. So it was with the blessing and encouragement of these people that I proceeded. Also very important: I’m definitely not trying to pass the buck here, not one little bit - I just need people to be able to see this from the perspective I had on it last year, and to know that having checked with authorities (whose knowledge I knew to be far greater than my own) that I felt certain that I was not doing anything wrong or exploitative.

With regard to the financial side of things, let me just say that I would have absolutely no problem whatsoever paying for any image to be used in this way. I asked Ste immediately yesterday when all of this blew up if I could possibly pay him to use the image, but I completely respect that fact that he still decided he would rather I didn’t go ahead with it, irrespective of whether or not a payment could be made, and that’s completely fine by me.

I have this morning contacted an artist to ask if I can commission three images to be used as covers for my books; one for Arcade Imperfect, one to replace the existing cover for The Book of the Game of the Film (from this moment I will never print another copy of this book with the Rambo cover), and one for any possible future reprints of my first book, The 8-Bit Book - 1981 to 199x. I have absolutely no hesitation paying for this, just as I would have had absolutely no hesitation paying to use the loading screens in question, had I known it was expected or even that it was possible somehow. As I said, these books were never meant to be about cutting corners or pinching others’ material to make or save a few extra quid; they’re my lengthy love letter to the best years of my childhood, and my own attempt to make a unique contribution that will last and be enjoyed by others just like me.

Yesterday was a tough learning experience for me, but learn from it I have, and I will not make the same mistake again. I apologise once more to Ste, and I hope he will know that I have nothing but respect and fondness for him, and for all those whose work shaped my younger years and left so indelible an impression on my young mind that I feel compelled to spend so much time writing about it all thirty years later.

Jerry Ellis, 28/09/18.


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