Greetings, All! I'm not normally one to rant or get angry about how silly people are being, but this topic of copyright needs to dealt with. You're probably thinking, "Why should I listen to him? How would he know?" I know because I'm a professional graphic designer. As a graphic designer you NEED to know everything you can about copyrights, trademarks, and Fair Use Act. It's a part of the profession. Okay. So here it goes:
Copyright is of course protection given to people when they create something. This something is usually either a piece of art, a work of writing, or some form of music. Nowadays, copyright is created the moment something is made. It is protected for life under thye creators name (unless he transfers the copyright to someone else). The fair use act gives people who are not the copyright holder the ability to use the work for certain tasks. The first task is comment and criticism. People are allowed to use portions of the work to make commentary on the owkr itself. This is so people can use their freedom of speech and show examples. The other use is parody. Take "Weird" Al for example. He parodies other musicians' songs. By law, he is allowed to parody those without permission of any kind, but he's just a nice guy so he asks first. You CANNOT in any other way uses works under copyright whether it's for profit or not.
Now for trademarks. Trademarks are a little different. Unlike copyright, they are not automatically set. People need to pay thousands of dollars (I believe it's currently $5,000, but I could be wrong) to get a trademark set. If the owner does not protect his trademark, he loses it. Trademarks are also under the Fair Use Act and can be used in the same ways as above. This is how Family Guy can get away with what they do (and many other shows/movies/etc.).
Those who are posting in these forums about their cool new game based off of work that has not only been copyrighted but trademarked need to understand that they are violating both systems. Games are not commentary or criticism, and it's certain that you aren't parodying any of it. This means that they can first send you a "cease and desist" order. If you do not comply, they can sue you. You would be amazed at how a company like Bandai is quite willing to sue some kid in the middle of nowhere for trying to peddle their "fan" game to others.
A game that aims at being a large online game is hardly similar at all to a fansite, in fact; it is multimedia (graphics, art, music, entertainment) that is downloaded and timeconsuming and attracts a durable community. Companies would rather not games be executed at this scale because they are too distracting from their actual sales. I mean, lets say a Naruto MMO comes out, and this one is officially licensed and is being sold by Nintendo or something, but another online RPG with a large community based on Naruto is already out but for free and is not licensed. The other competitor is taking away sales from the officially licensed game, the company loses profit, they're not happy.
There's a distinction that must be drawn between "fangames" and larger independent online games. "Fangames" falls into the category of what you would find on, say, Newgrounds; small flash dealies that you play once and there's nothing new or interesting after that. Companies could care less. Fansites are merely beacons for the congregation of fans and they mostly discuss the marketed licensed material released by the company. Companies could still care less. An online game with a larger community on a larger scale is something that is renewed, updated, patched, interesting, engaging, and if it's in comptetiton with an officially licensed game, the companies are not happy because they are losing profit, and so they enforce their copyright.
You make mention of websites and signatures. Well because of their normally simplistic nature, they are usually called under the Fair Use Act. When people make fan sites, they aren't normally trying to make new content and pass it all off as their own. Normally the site creator is commenting on whatever thing they created the fan site for. Signatures are the same really. They're commenting on the opinion of the user. Games, however, is not and cannot be placed under fair use. That is unless you create a totally original game and have some characters in there that are obvious parodies of the originals. There are no loopholes. Your "fan" game is quite frankly illegal.
Writers: Bryan R., Simon F.
P.S. I hope this gets stickied on both this forum and the Classifieds. Also, let me know if I goofed, or misspelled, or any other mistakes. I'm only human. ^_^