Licensing a ‘shared universe’

I’ve been talking to some other authors about doing a ‘shared universe’.

A shared world is where characters, settings and fictional ‘history’ are open to be used by many authors, but the actual text of the stories is still the property of its author.

A famous example is the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, where many authors wrote stories which included the Necronomicon, Cthulhu etc., but the authors could still sell the resulting stories and claim them as their own.

I already release my writing using a Creative Commons license. However none of the Creative Commons licenses seem to fit this situation. All the licenses seem to treat a work as a single ‘unit’: you can allow only non-commercial use, allow use to those who allow use in turn, allow use if they don’t alter it, and so on.

There doesn’t seem to be a provision for allowing use of setting information but retaining the right to the text as such.

It might be as simple as saying “the characters and setting are released under this CC license, but the text as such is copyright” But I’d like to have that confirmed. And then what if you want to restrict it – for example ‘you can write stories, but not movies’?

I wonder if there’s a need for a separate ‘Shared Universe License’, or at least for a page that explains how to do it using Creative Commons licenses.

Anyway I’ve emailed a Creative Commons mailing list asking what they say, and I’ll pass on what happens.

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5 thoughts on “Licensing a ‘shared universe’

  1. Most of these “Licenses” are simply usage agreement verbage cooked up by egg-heads for general use that meets the broad goals of the intended audience. There’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t write up your own legal text specifying the allowed and disallowed usages of the content you are creating the license for. You could even write up your own, new “Shared Universe” license and unleash it for common usage 🙂

  2. The ideas behind a world aren’t copyrightable. Some of them may be trademarked, but that’s a different thing (and much harder to get and enforce). So long as you don’t attempt to trademark the names, your world is already open game to anybody who wants to make derivative works. They just can’t copy and reuse more than that legally murky amount of “fair use”.

    So maybe make a wiki or something for the explicitly shared content, license that with something nice and broad (CC Attribution Unported), and retain copyright for your own works in that world.

  3. Thanks both of you.

    The idea is for anyone to be able to add to the setting (and required to if they use existing setting elements).

    From the answers on the CC email list, it looks like I/we might have to write up a separate license, albeit it might refer to existing CC licenses.

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