Criminal Skins: How Venom, Quake and I Broke Copyright Law.

A column article, Barely Legal by: Alex Johnson


I was 13 years old the first time I violated copyright law.


I ran a dedicated Quake multiplayer server out of my garage for my friends and I. When I discovered that I could make custom skin textures for my Marine, I couldn’t resist. Even better, the custom skins worked in multiplayer games on my home server.

The next logical step? Make the most unfair, impossible-to-see, and outright terrifying skin for my character. My friends would have no idea what fragged ‘em.

I was into Spider Man at the time, so I knew exactly who fit the bill: Venom. His black suit was perfect for hiding in the shadows of Quake’s low-res, muddy gray-brown maps. After a quick web search, I found the perfect image that I copied right off a Marvel fan site. With a little Microsoft Paint magic, I had a really evil looking Venom running around in Quake. Then about hour after that, all my friends had quit playing because my nearly invisible character model was “cheap.”

Mission accomplished.

It never occurred to me that by taking a copyrighted image of Venom and distributing it to all my friends, I likely violated someone’s copyright. Every day, countless budding artists and creators brush up against the fringes of copyright law without realizing it. Mostly, it goes unnoticed and no one gets in trouble but too often creators end up losing hours of hard work because they unintentionally violated a copyright. I don’t get to do much video game modding these days, but I do work with a lot of artists and independent game developers who are still struggling with the same kind of issues as a legal clerk for New Media Rights.


New Media Rights has been a nonprofit legal clinic that offers free and drastically reduced fee legal assistance to independent creators who share their work online.

We have been providing free legal assistance to game developers, filmmakers, and independent creatives since 2007. One of our principle goals is working directly with artists to make sure they aren't victims of legal bullying and censorship. And when we're not working directly with people, we've testified for copyright reform before the Copyright Office, and advocated against laws like SOPA and for things like net neutrality. We also make a ton of fun educational videos

So now that we're friends and you know what I do; let’s talk about you …

The more people I help, the more apparent it is to me just how much misinformation and confusion surrounds copyright law. My work inbox is flooded questions:

•   When I create something unique and original that starts as someone else’s copyright work, what are my rights?

•   Can I still get in trouble if what I made is totally different from the original work? How different does it have to be?

•   I’m not making any money off my work that mean’s it’s legal fair use, right?

Now more than ever, everybody needs to know the answers to these questions or their hard work may get deleted. Businesses need to know these answers or their employees may lose their jobs when lawyers start knocking. Whether you are pinning pictures to your latest Pinterest board, writing fan fiction based on your favorite book or making the next Minecraft; we’re all creators of some kind.  

So these questions are what this column is about ...

In a world where big media companies with angry legal departments are eager to get rid of their competition, how do we stay within the law and stay off their radar?

It’s easier than ever for one of us to accidentally violate someone else’s copyright without even realizing it. Similarly, it's just as easy for large companies to abuse copyright laws to censor people's works. Hobbyists and independent creators simply don’t have the money, knowledge or resources to fight back.

So flash forward 15 years, and I’m still playing video games. But now I’m working at New Media Rights to ensure people can do the things they love by helping people get the answers that they need. This column is just one more way to do that.

Every day when I go to work, I’m surrounded by gamers, artists and Internet aficionados who have a common passion for technology. We support creator’s rights because we are creators ourselves. Our goal is to make education about intellectual property law understandable and available free of charge to those who need it most.

All we need to do now is make this column entertaining enough for you come back each week. So how about a teaser for next week’s column ...

Will I get in trouble if I punch my artist? And other burning questions about General Partnerships

As soon as you start working on a project with someone else that you intend to sell (see: comic writer/artists teams, game programmer/artist teams), you’re in a legal relationship. Cute. I’m so happy for the two of you.

As you may already be aware, working with a partner affects predictable things like copyright ownership your final product. But it also affects your legal liability in strange ways: for example, if your inker punches your writer in the face, then YOU as the penciler may be personally liable for that punch as if you did it yourself. Want to know more?  See you next week.


Alex Johnson is a third year law student at the University of San Diego School of Law. After growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, Alex has been a life long lover of all thing technological. Alex is a strong proponent of copyright reform and net neutrality. In his spare time, Alex enjoys preparing for the coming human-machine singularity, and will gleefully welcome our future mechanical overlords.

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