Escape Rooms & Intellectual Property Enforcement

“Is it licensed?”

This is the inevitable question we receive after reviewing any escape room that is based on an existing video game, movie, book, or television series. It’s a good question and it’s a murky one.

Lego Wonder Woman, Batman, Sonic, and Gandalf figures standing on a road outdoors.

I’m going to explore the gray area that is intellectual property and discuss our approach to handling it. Before I do so, I want to make something incredibly clear:

I am not a lawyer.

Lisa is not a lawyer.

Intellectual property law in the United States is made up of a number of different specializations. This is to say, it’s really damn complicated.

Our Intellectual Property Policy

We have a longstanding policy on intellectual property that goes back to the early days of our reviews:

If we have been told by the company that we’re playing a licensed game, we include that information in the review. Otherwise we do not comment on intellectual property rights.

  • We cannot be the intellectual property police.
  • The laws are too complicated.
  • We do not have access to any contracts that may or may not be in place.
  • We don’t know how to parse what is fair use and what isn’t.
  • Even if we could sort out copyright, we cannot even begin to delve into the trademark and patent landscape in a review.

Finally, if the rights holders care to enforce their intellectual property rights, that’s why they have lawyers. If they want to go full Metallica, that’s their prerogative.

Why So Gray?

To give you a sense of how murky this is, here are a few ideas to chew on:

Even when a company flat out tells us that they have a license to use someone else’s intellectual property, we don’t know if they:

  • are abiding by the terms of the agreement
  • acquired the rights from the correct party
  • told us the truth

We know of one company that had the rights to run a Harry Potter escape room. Less than a week after it opened, they were contacted by the rights holder and told that the department within their own organization that had issued the rights didn’t have the authority to do so.

We have spoken with one company that has an escape room based heavily on Harry Potter, but they claim that they designed the game with their lawyer and are walking along the razor’s edge of fair use. The game has been running for some time without being shut down, so maybe they achieved their goal?

We cannot tell the difference between an escape room that is inspired by Indiana Jones and an escape room that is violating the intellectual property of the rights holders. We can note if the game seems particularly Indiana Jones-y.

We cannot tell the difference between an Egyptian tomb raid called The Mummy and one that is violating the IP rights of The Mummy film. We can note if the game references the film.

Passionate Opinions on IP

I know that in the community, there are a lot of people with strong opinions on intellectual property.

Jigsaw from Saw sitting on a tricycle.

There are plenty of people shouting “come up with your own ideas.” There’s also no shortage of folks who are eager to tell us that, “In my country, no one cares about intellectual property rights.”

We’re chilling somewhere in between the two.

In principle, I agree that people should create their own intellectual property. In practice as a player, I love exploring these worlds in escape rooms. I’d be lying if I said that it matters to my gameplay experience whether or not there is a contract correctly assigning rights now collecting dust in someone’s office .

If we were reviewing phones, no one would expect us to base our review on whether or not Samsung was violating some random patent held by Apple.

Finally, I am not losing any sleep for the major media companies. They can take care of themselves. I think that it’s pretty damn stupid for a mom & pop escape room business to take on the risk associated with violating the intellectual property rights of a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. If the rights holders want to come down hard, it’s certainly within their capabilities.

So, all of that is to say:

If we have reason to believe that the experience we’re reviewing is licensed, we’ll say so. Otherwise consider our silence as a big old ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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