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Game design meets intellectual property in a key collaboration for USC students

One-of-its-kind pact signed between artists and budding lawyers is no game — it’s the real deal

USC Law students and USC Games work
USC law student Cara Adams, center, reads through a contract with Sam Roberts of USC Games, right, and Martzi Campos, a game design student. (Photo/Roberto Gomez)

Game design brings together coders, artists, musicians and writers.

At USC, student teams are also making room for lawyers or, at least, lawyers in training.

A collaboration between USC Games’ Advanced Games program and an intellectual property clinic at the USC Gould School of Law is providing hands-on experience for both groups. Game designers get their first exposure to legal issues they’ll think about throughout their careers; law students get to work with real clients, seeing how their efforts can support a fast-paced industry.

This is the first year that law students in the clinic got to work directly on an assigned games team to function as lawyers, said Valerie Barreiro, director of the law school’s Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic. The law students advised on an initial agreement, signed by the game students, that explains who owns the copyright to various assets.

“It’s not a simulation exercise — it’s real,” said Barreiro, who added that the game teams need to have their projects ready by Demo Day, a biannual exhibition of student work. That means there’s time-pressure as well.

A first-time role

Some of the clinic’s students also got to work on the agreement for USC Games Publishing, an independent label that will bring student and faculty work to commercial platforms. It’s the first time a university gaming program has taken on this role, providing a unique opportunity for legal students. While working to ensure their gaming colleagues were fairly represented, they got to see how agreements like this are crafted with major name-brand companies, including Playstation and Xbox.

Intellectual property is a critical issue for professional game designers, as it is for filmmakers or those working in other creative industries. Games can include assets like artwork, original characters, music and slogans. The law students advise on fair-use policies and right of publicity, along with other complex legal issues that have to be reviewed and modified as a project evolves, Barreiro said.

USC Games Director Tracy Fullerton said it’s important that students understand what elements of a game are protectable. When those agreements need to be formalized, students need to understand how to go about doing that in a way that works for their projects.

Many USC Games students hope to develop their own companies. For them, establishing ownership early on, or understanding the legal aspects of that, is critical.

It’s a win-win for both sets of students.

Tracy Fullerton

“I can think of no better way to learn than to have them collaborate with their peers in the law school,” Fullerton said. “It’s a win-win for both sets of students.”

How the partnership began

The collaboration began in 2015, but has evolved so that each of the game design teams, which include up to 40 people, are assigned one law student each. The Advanced Games program offers a highly practical experience designed to mimic the workflow of a real game company. Concepts are pitched to a panel of faculty and industry experts, who decide which projects will be greenlit for production. Students then assemble into large teams and divide up their labor, each developing a fully functional game by the end of the year.

Fullerton said USC Games is the first program of its kind to offer in-depth collaboration between developers and law students.

“We have had so many students come out of the program and start their own company that it only made sense to help them do so in a more formal way,” Fullerton said. “Most programs focus on the creative and technical development aspects of games, and we are now growing that to the business and legal.”

Laurie Tomassian, one of the law clinic students, said studying intellectual property law in a classroom is different than working with a real client. Her discussions with USC Games students taught her that introducing a contract in the wrong way or at the wrong time can hurt the camaraderie that holds a game development team together.

Multiple moving parts

Cara Adams, another law student, enjoyed seeing just how fast-paced video game development could be. She had initially been interested in copyright law as it relates to the music industry. Though issues related to music come up in video games as well, it requires a different legal analysis.

“Game development has so many moving parts,” Adams said. “Throughout the process, they have to be concerned with character design, audio, coding, etc. We realize the IP issues that arise in the game are very complex and often difficult for creative minds to deal with. As law students, we love being able to help the process run smoother for our clients.”

The collaboration taught her how to write a contract, but it also taught her something equally important: how to explain that contract to non-lawyers.

“That’s a skill in itself — simplifying complicated terms,” she said.

Tomassian said that the collaboration was mutually beneficial. Game design students might not have prioritized the legal side of development before a collaboration like this. She said part of her job included educating clients on why these legal issues should be a priority.

“Having these conversations doesn’t happen unless we’re part of the clinic and we get these opportunities,” she said.


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Game design meets intellectual property in a key collaboration for USC students

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