Culture & SocietyIndie Game Marketing

How to acquire and adapt free licenses from the public domain to bootstrap your studio

Smart Game Developer Strategy Series - Part 2

How to bootstrap your studio, increase the visibility of your game and make it easier to sell by adding and altering an out of copyright licenses from the public domain*?

Last week, I wrote about acquiring TV, Film and Character licenses from under the big boys’ noses and matching them up with distributors to get a development deal for your game. It’s an excellent creative solution and one I have used successfully many times but still, it may be a big ask. What if you can’t afford a license or if you are too small or unknown to get one? What if you are not yet willing to shoulder the responsibility of managing a big brand with demanding multiple stakeholders? 

 Well, here is an interesting alternative!

There are hundreds if not thousands of free licenses in the public domain. These are mainly books and characters. Obvious examples are Dracula, The Lost World and Tarzan, that were written over 75-100 years ago. But there are many films and TV licenses too (Night of the Living Dead, The Battle of Midway, Last of the Mohicans). Historical or famous battles and events can also be used (for example the sinking of the Titanic, D-Day, Dinosaur Extinction, 9/11 etc).

 Ok, here’s the inevitable disclaimer: please be careful before you use anything from the public domain. Check it out with a lawyer first. Don’t just take my word for it. Apparently, the text of some of the James Bond books are now in the public domain as well as Disney’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon, but do you fancy arguing about it with them? I sure don’t. There is still plenty to choose from though!

 Now. Here is the way to make the license your own and create your own brand and copyright out of it. Using your gamer’s creativity and imagination, add something to your selected license. This has worked very well and has been tried and tested many times in our industry. Take for example American McGee’sAlice. Here is a classic example of a free to use, public domain text. In this case, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland taken to a new and darker realm for the purposes of making a great game. The game worked a treat, sold over 1.5 million units and had two the distinct ingredients needed to make this work:  

 a) Brand recognition – a place in the hearts and minds of the masses. Who doesn’t know Alice, the white rabbit, the Cheshire Cat etc?  

 b) A new twist – Something that adds new value and interest to the traditional license. In this case a darker take.

Ok let’s assume you have chosen a public domain license, you have twisted it and added your spin, your Unique Selling Point (i.e. give a knife to Alice!).

Now, to sell the idea, explain the opportunity to a potential distributor or co-publisher. Present the game idea, the USP, the development plan and share how the ROI is going to be returned to all parties. Ask them what they think they can sell and then ask them to fund the game development.

Again, once you have agreed to a deal, in principle, it’s really important to hold onto the rights if you can and not give them to the publisher or distributor. Keep control and negotiate the deal including your royalty rate and any sequel rights. If you have the rights, you have the value, the leverage, and control of the project.

 That’s it. These deals work because people recognize the brand. This, coupled with the right twist, can lead to increased sales revenue. Good luck!

You can find out more about how to succeed in the games business both strategically and financially by signing up here for the business of indie games. You’ll find advice and guidance from 30+ in-depth interviews with the industry’s finest.

I have also included some links to a possible license lists below.

*The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.




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Simon Bailey

Simon has managed games studios for over 20 years with 65+ mass market titles delivered and released on multiple platforms, including a number of top 10 sellers. Skills include:
  • Delivering ROI
  • Managing large development teams across multiple projects and platform SKUs
  • Licence Holder, Stakeholder, Platform Owner and Product Manager satisfaction
  • Deal-making and Business Development
  • Balancing the creative and commercial
  • Large scale console development management
  • Managing mass market entertainment licences
  • Delivering to release

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