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Intellectual Property, or Intentional Plagiarism?

Let’s talk about the concept of Intellectual Property (IP). For those that are unfamiliar, an IP is a theme owned/trademarked by someone else that can be licensed for use, or, sadly in a lot of cases infringed upon (read: stolen) by one who thinks laws somehow don’t apply to them.

Here’s an example — I love The Simpsons. Grew up with them, and as such I credit much of my adult sense of humor to that show molding me as a child. So what if I decide that I want to open a Simpsons-themed escape room? I’m fairly certain 20th Century Fox would have a thing or two (or potentially some multi-million things) to say about that before a court of law. So as such, I cannot open an escape room directly themed to The Simpsons.

What if what your fondest childhood memory centered around Super Mario Brothers – the classic Nintendo video game? What if you wanted to open an escape room directly themed to Super Mario Brothers? You could call it “Super Mario Room,” and within you could challenge guests to explore the world of Super Mario and ultimately save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser! Fun, right? But clearly a direct and intentional violation of copyright law.

What if you’d rather something a bit newer; something that appeals to a broader audience than just video gamers? Oh hey – Universal is doing well with their Harry Potter lands! Why not a room themed to Harry Potter? Everyone knows the characters. Heck- the books even sell neck and neck with the Bible! You could call it “Harry Potter: Escape from the Chamber of Secrets,” and within you could invite guests to relive the adventures of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Explore the Gryffindor common room to find clues and solve puzzles to find the Chamber of Secrets and defeat the dark powers of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named! Epic, right? But clearly a direct and intentional violation of copyright law.

Here’s the thing — I’ll never build my Simpsons themed room- but the other two actually did exist – and in fact the story descriptions above were copy/pasted from on their website. And worse – they exist within the same venue. And perhaps worse than that, though admittedly not the point of the topic, they’re two of the worst escape rooms you’ll ever find, full of logic leaps, non-intuitive steps and pages and pages (literally) of math homework (though to be clear, even if they were the best written escape rooms of all time, they’d still be absolutely intentionally committing copyright infringement.) If it isn’t bad enough that they infringe upon well known, established copyrights – they don’t even come close to serving them justice. I played those games in October of 2015. It’s nothing shy of a Christmas miracle that they had not received a cease and desist from the respective studios to which the actual rights belong before I saw them.

So obviously that’s the extreme end – stealing the concept, stealing the characters, stealing the theme and misrepresenting the brand. But where do you feel the *actual* line is? “Inspired by” something is entirely within the law as long as it does not imply or claim to be an official implantation of that IP. As an owner, would you even risk skating that line? Poking the wrong Hollywood bear could result in a catastrophic, fatal blow being delivered to a new company – or even worse a small mom & pop.

As a designer – I can tell you it’s a subject that makes me uneasy. I once worked with a client who gave me the concept they wanted to use for their next room. It would be inspired by Movie ____. As they went on to explain the major beats of the game, it became clear that literally every beat was sequentially identical to literally every beat of the “inspired by” movie. Worse yet, they had planned to name the game directly after Movie _____. Luckily in that situation, I was dealing with sensible clients and cooler heads prevailed. The concept was changed to something original. That’s not the only example of an instance where a client mistook “inspired by” for “based directly on.” I think I’ve probably developed a twitch that happens each time a client starts an attraction pitch with “So you know that movie _____?” As any designer will tell you, there can be a very fine line between proceeding with the requested design against moral belief or bowing out.

Again, though this is probably first and foremost a matter of concern to owner/operators – everyone should feel free to participate in the comments section of this discussion. I think it would be most interesting to see two different theoretical point of views presented: How would you feel about this topic if you were the owner/operator and how would you feel about this topic if you were the potential designer tasked with it?

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