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A new and wildly popular independent video game called “Minecraft” lets players build their own worlds, one block at a time. Want to run from zombies through the halls of Hogwarts? You can build staircase after secret passage to your heart’s content. Experience life as a reclusive, lonely billionaire by reconstructing Xanadu from Citizen Kane. Just want to watch the world burn? Here's your chance to make it happen without going to jail!
Your imagination should be the only thing that limits what you can build in your digital world. Sadly, under current copyright law, you could go broke for crafting a tribute to your favorite book or movie.
The creative possibilities of Minecraft are truly limitless. Players, solo or working together, have designed stunning cities, soaring cathedrals, replicas of the Titanic. One of the most impressive creations: a 1:1 scale model of the 40 million cubic meter USS Enterprise spaceship from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The creator, “Halkun”, painstakingly recreated all 43 levels of the ship so that characters in the game can explore and help decorate the interior.
A video of Halkun's passion project has gone viral with over 850,000 YouTube views. In the video, the ship dominates the sky and the entire landscape-it’s hard to describe just how impressive it is, especially when you take into account that it’s made entirely of individual cubes. Unfortunately, in addition to being impressive, it could easily lead to a lawsuit.
Why? Under US copyright law, a replica of a fictional design like a spaceship could be considered a “derivative work,” meaning it is protected by the same copyright that protects Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Viacom owns the Star Trek copyright. If they decide to sue Halkun, the fact that he spent 10 (or 100) hours making his replica, that it’s made out of digital blocks, or that he doesn’t plan to make money on it may or may not protect him. Either way, in order to find out, he would have to hire a legal team to go up against Viacom. That’s a hard (not to mention expensive) way to find out that your USS Enterprise model does not infringe on anyone’s copyright.
Who else might be in hot water? The way Minecraft works, if you want to play the game with a group of your friends (or strangers), you have to set up your own server. Let’s say Halkun builds a replica of Hogwarts from Harry Potter (which, by the way, would be awesome) on your server. In that case, you could be sued for secondary infringement just for running the server that contains this “infringing” content.
If you think that media lawyers have better things to do than sue you for modeling an imaginary magical castle, you’re (unfortunately) mistaken. In 2007, J.K. Rowling sued for $50,000 because someone made a papier-mache replica of Hogwarts’ exterior. At a religious festival in India.
So feel free to set up a Minecraft server, invite your friends, and start creating. But be aware that US copyright law is more behind the times than you might imagine. Watch out Halkun.