Today, there’s about a bajillion hard-working people out there offering up all sorts of dev tools, programming libraries and miscellaneous cool resources for the average game developer’s use. Many of these resources are — lo and behold — free. Not just free as in “free speech”, but as in “free beer”. And that’s pretty awesome.
Most freeware devs are genuinely quite happy to see their tools and resources being used for someone else’s games. This may well stink of flowers and unicorns, but it’s true: if you’re polite enough to fire off thank-you messages once your project is finished, chances are that you’ll get a bunch of pretty cheerful replies as opposed to legal threats and requests for money.
However, not everything is quite right in the resource-sharing utopia, and one must always be mindful of the following cautionary points:
(1) ALWAYS give credit where it’s due. A simple line in your readme can make the difference between a warm reception and a Limbo of the Lost witch hunt. It’s just like writing an essay — if you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, you source information properly. It’s not just some law, either: it’s the decent thing to do.
(2) Speaking of Limbo, here’s another piece of important advice: always remember that some resources simply aren’t free. Using a copyrighted image from Oblivion, for example, fits squarely in the “totally illegal” category of resource sharing no matter how many times you throw “BETHESDA RAWKS” into your credits section. Similarly, but less obviously, other file resources may be free for use in some respects but not others. Read the fine print: if a particular resource is only free for non-commercial use, don’t throw it into a game that you’re planning to sell.
(3) If you’re making a fan game or a project that somehow nods to your favourite AAA Xbox title, understand this: you’re entering shaky legal territory. It doesn’t matter that you’re a small-time dev. It doesn’t matter that the game is free, or that you’re making absolutely no cash from it. It won’t even help if you generate the art and sound resources by yourself. The original game developers, if they so choose, have every right to bring down the hammer.
(4) On the flipside, making “Bob’s Super Mario Adventure Land 6” doesn’t necessarily make you a felon or instant lawsuit fodder (AGD Interactive’s Sierra remakes have done fine enough). And fan remakes are super duper fun! Just understand — and accept — that you may be called out at some point with the “cease and desist” spiel. It’s a slap on the wrist, but you’ll emerge unscathed: assuming, of course, that you weren’t trying to sell anything!
In the end, just bear in mind that there’s a lot of stuff out there. Some of it shouldn’t be used in your game. Some of it should be used rather carefully. Don’t let it scare you off using the stuff that is genuinely free: just approach the matter intelligently. The industry will thank you for it.