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Here’s something kind of funny. As you know, Wizards of the Coast (“WotC”) has continuously laid claim to copyright over monster names (which is impossible; let me repeat: impossible) or has leveraged their legitimate copyrights to restrict their use (which is copyright misuse). However lacking in legal force as either position is, that’s been their position. Now WotC has released the SRD 5.1 using the Creative Commons licensed, CC-BY-4.0. As Mike Myler pointed out to me, in doing so, many of these names are now expressly licensed even from WotC’s warped perspective. They’re telling you that you may once again state that beauty is in the eye of the beholder because they’re now licensing you the right to use “beholder.”
Seriously. Do you not see how stupid this sounds?
All of this can be found on page 254 of the SRD 5.1. Both pages 97 and 254 include use of “mind flayer,” so that’s now eligible for use. Or is it? Christian Lindke pointed me to a United States federal trademark registration for “Mind Flayer.”
So, by WotC’s arguments that continuously blur copyright and trademark, they can’t even use mind flayer in a sentence. It belongs to a Chinese dude(tte).
Seriously. Do you not see how stupid this sounds?
WotC legal is stupid, or they think you are. Probably both.
I don’t want to diminish the effect rabid gamers had on causing WotC’s about face, but I do want to provide what I suspect is the proper perspective. The lifeblood of any company is acquiring new customers. Existing customers get older, which means they have less disposable income, and eventually die. You need new blood, and that should always be your primary focus. WotC continues to do exceptionally well gaining new customers, and all your rants (and mine) will not impact that one bit. I doubt we have middle-school children reading our blogs and watching our vlogs. If we do, someone needs to call the police.
So, if we all abandoned WotC, in the long run, they’d survive, and they know that. That’s at least part of why they continued to resist actual change for so long before their surrender. So, why did they surrender? Because we do have a short-term impact on them, and more to the point, on their partners. The creators of the Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D“) movie(s) and television show were probably overwhelming WotC’s telephone and email systems. Their investments in licensing the brand are short term, and I’m sure those investments were substantial. They demanded this change, and their demands could not be ignored.
Again, I don’t want to diminish your efforts. You made those partners aware of your concerns, and you were going to inflict a lot of damage, but if not for these partnerships, WotC would have stayed the course.
Once Again, a Prediction Sure to Come True
Those relationships won’t last forever, and when they dissolve, we’re sure to be in the same position we are now, but with even less of us complaining due to the attrition I described above. What if WotC creates its own movie and/or television studio? Then they won’t need Paramount+, will they? What then? Will we run to Paizo? As I said in a previous post, Mattel could decide to compete with its chief rival, Hasbro, in the role-playing gaming market. What’s the quickest way to accomplish that? My guess would be they’d buy WotC’s chief rival, Paizo, or perhaps one of the second-tier companies with a proven track record. Whatever open-gaming “license” that acquired company used will be just as vulnerable to revocation, de-authorization, or whatever contract principle you choose to misapply to that non-contract. We may be delaying the inevitable by not actually solving the underlying problem.
So, Is the Problem Solved?
No, but I think it’s close enough. I advise cautious optimism.
You may recall that I demanded that they dedicate their material to the public domain. They didn’t do that, but they’re slapping the CC-BY-4.0 directly onto their SRD 5.1, which is almost what I suggested. Dedication to the public domain is probably no more than a grant of a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free license with no restrictions, and that’s almost what CC-BY-4.0 purports to be.
Subject to the terms and conditions of this Public License, the Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-sublicensable, non-exclusive, irrevocable license to exercise the Licensed Rights in the Licensed Material to: 1. reproduce and Share the Licensed Material, in whole or in part; and 2. produce, reproduce, and Share Adapted Material.
Section 2 – Scope.
The potential problem is that the Creative Commons licenses are similar to (though enormously better than) the OGL with respect to acceptance, and they haven’t been tested in US courts. In fact, they’ve barely been tested in international courts. So, we should still be worried?
For now, no. In order for a licensor (that’s WotC in this case) to win a case for infringement, they’d have to argue that license they provided was horseshit. That’s one hell of an argument to have to make.
WotC: “The defendant infringed our copyright.” Court: “How can you say that? You licensed them the works.” WotC: “Oh, that license is complete bullshit, your honor.” Court: “The license you forced them to use?” WotC: “Yep. Complete bullshit. We suckered them in.”
Warning: Gratuitous use of the word, “asshole,” follows.
This, by the way, is exactly what WotC would have had to do if they were taken to court over the OGL, and they would have succeeded by simply reading my posts to the Court. However, as I said, how CC-BY-4.0 is applied is a little bit better than the OGL. It avoids some of my concerns, and for all we know, it could be upheld by courts for that reason. It could also be upheld because it’s been used successfully in other industries almost since its first publication. Everyone’s been cool about its use. No one’s been an asshole. Therefore, the CC-BY-4.0 gives the gaming community time to adjust and diminish WotC’s stranglehold on the industry.
Of course, their stranglehold will remain unless you’re willing to broaden your horizons and not make matters worse for yourselves.
Not Being Assholes
It’s really easy to allow inertia to take over. We’ve spent so much energy in the past few weeks calling WotC assholes that we could go too far. Many years ago, my cousin, Kessel Junkie, once called me out for a nastygram I wrote to a company that had pissed me off. In it, I informed the company that I was no longer doing business with them. If that were the case, why write the letter? If you want to go, just go. The only proper purpose of the letter should be to get them to change their ways, but if they know I’m a lost cause, my letter will do nothing to effect that change. If you enjoy WotC’s products, then don’t let the inertia put you in that same position.
WotC corporate and legal have behaved as assholes through this entire process. They kept having to go back to the well and make edits because doing the right thing doesn’t come natural to them. They’re definitely not our friends, but we shouldn’t be assholes either. Whatever brought us to this point, this is where we are, and it’s exactly what you wanted, and pretty close to what I wanted. So, there’s no reason to engage in the overstatement that plagues American discourse. There’s no reason to continue to criticize companies for doing what they exist to do: Make money. There’s no reason to continue calling for boycotts at the expense of good people who are the creatives at WotC, or even just the bench warmers so to speak. Those people probably agree with you about their employers’ behavior, but their ability to pay their rent depends on their continued employment. You’ve won, so don’t be a sore winner, but also . . . .
Don’t be Naïve
Whether you realize it or not, your “victory” keeps you in a morass of uncertainty. If you’re okay with that, I’m in no place to stop you. If you choose to ignore the status quo and defer having the rug pulled out from underneath the community, that’s your business. It probably won’t take another 20 years for that to happen, but that still may not necessarily be a bad position for you, just those that follow you. This mirrors our approach to the environment and the economy, passing off future ills to future generations, but the consequences aren’t nearly as dire. They’re just games, and you’ll find others to play if you’re still playing them when this happens again. However, if you want to play the next iteration of D&D, it may affect you as well. All of this applies to 5th Edition, not to “One D&D“. There’s no guarantee that OneD&D will use either CC-BY-4.0 or OGL 1.0. OGL 2.0 may be in the near future after all.
Not My Problem
I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I don’t play 5th Edition anymore, I own every WotC/TSR product I’ll ever want, and I’m not creating content for others. With my 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons Character Builder functional, that could change if I get it into a suitable form for publication, but the last time WotC threatened me, I told them to pound sand, and they immediately blinked. They can’t harm me because I know they’re full of shit (as are their licenses). I know what I can and can’t do, and I don’t care whether they acknowledge that publicly. But mark my words: This will happen again. Most of you didn’t listen to me the first time, so I don’t expect you to listen to me now, because even those of you that did listen seem happy living in the “open gaming license” hole they’ve dug for you.
But it will happen again, and next time, WotC will have prepared itself to be able to tell you to pound sand. Even if CC-BY-4.0 is used for One D&D and is ultimately deemed legally enforceable, it’ll be another scary time for small-time third-party publishers. I’ll reserve my “I told you so” for that day. Now, I’m off to obscurity and some much-needed rest from meaningful blogging.
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, I’m still too busy dealing with preparations for Winter Vantasy. However, I’ve written what will likely be my last post on the OGL controversy, and it’s scheduled for Tuesday. I also expect that to be my last post for a little while. My last streak was over 370 straight days posting, and my current streak stands at 151 with today’s post. I could use a break.
In my focused post on consideration (or lack thereof) in the OGL, I analogized the Open Gaming License (“OGL”) 1.0(a) and System Reference Document (“SRD”) to a lease of an apartment and the rules and regulations document for that hypothetical apartment complex. That made it easier to understand the problem with consideration. I had another thought last night, which popped a memory into my head. Here’s a moderately-NSFW video from HBO’s movie, Don King: Only in America.
You Tube videos get deleted all the time, so let me give you the important (if not funny) part. Don King hands George Foreman a blank contract to sign. Foreman hesitates, but King assures him that he’ll fill in the details later. Do you need to be an attorney to realize that such a contract, once filled in, is not enforceable?
So, let’s return again to the OGL’s language on consideration, copying what I wrote before almost verbatim. It licenses you “methods, procedures, processes and routines” as well as “any additional content clearly identified as Open Game Content by the” game designer. The first part of that grant mirrors language in the Patent Act and patent law practice defining what can be patented. Likewise, these same words are used in the Copyright Act (specifically 17 U.S. Code § 102(b)) and copyright law practice to describe things not copyrightable. So, for a company like WotC that isn’t using the OGL to license patented subject matter (which I believe is the case for all RPG producers), that first part clearly licenses nothing.
The second part of that grant is meant to reference the System Reference Document (“SRD”), but by its own terms could mean a press conference. A clear statement is a clear statement, it can be oral or written, and it can always be restated. However, more importantly for today, it doesn’t even have to exist at the time the OGL is deemed accepted by the licensee (i.e., you). We saw that with the OGL 1.1, which was sent out before the SRD 5.1 existed. So, even if the contents of what eventually is “clearly identified” are copyrightable, because they don’t exist at the time you accept the contract (by mere use of the game mechanic!), and assuming no patents on the game in question, you’re basically signing a blank contract. The game designer will just fill in the details later. This also means that, if you assume your acceptance of the contract is valid, it occurs not when you act or speak, but when the game designer does so. That is, the game designer makes the offer and then accepts on your behalf, all on terms you didn’t know at the time the contract became valid.
This is legal nonsense of course, and it’s why you can’t sign a blank contract and fill in the terms later. That’s not a “meeting of the minds” required for offer and acceptance. This will be the case for all of these so-called open gaming licenses. If you buy into any of them, you’re escaping from a crocodile’s jaws by running into the jaws of a leopard (viral video omitted).
None of this works. It’s all (mis)perception, so it can all be taken away the second corporate philosophy changes, which eventually will happen.
Blog posts cannot substitute for legal advice. If the topics discussed in this post are relevant to a real case you have, please consult an attorney.
Two observations about this post. First, it was written shortly after the Open Gaming License 1.1 (“OGL 1.1”) leak, so a lot of this had to be rewritten to make sense. I may have missed a few things, so some of my points may be dated. Second, this could very well be the last post I make about the OGL specifically. I’ve addressed most things at issue, and I have a multitude of posts on this blog and my legal blog that address relevant topics generally. Besides, I know what I wantWizards of the Coast (“WotC”) and other game designers to do, so criticizing anything that doesn’t meet my needs is a meaningless effort. Expect more cat memes, mythology videos, and game design opinions going forward than legal analysis. If that’s not to your liking, that’s fine of course; just keep in mind what I’ve written here so you can reference it in the future.
The Open Gaming License, Version 2.0 (“OGL 2.0”), nee OGL 1.1, but now apparently 1.2, has stirred up quite a lot of controversy. WotC has continuously denied rumors that later turned out to be true, then shifted to declaring it a tie, and now has provided a mea culpa. The fact that they’re having so much trouble doing the right thing indicates that they don’t want to do the right thing. That’s annoying to say the least, but what’s most important is what they’re doing now. So far, what I’ve seen still fails to address my concerns about consideration and acceptance, but things are evolving rapidly, so we have to take things as they come, though I don’t trust them.
Many of you have called for boycotts of all things Hasbro, not just Dungeons and Dragons. Play-Doh is also in your sights, and #BoycottDNDMovie is trending on Twitter. As I’ve stated, I’m not on board with that hysteria here or elsewhere in the commercial world. There are too many good people that will suffer, and too much good material from them that will never see the light of day, if WotC has to lay them off. I feel like you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water, and at the expensive of people you don’t want to hurt. But that’s just me. You do you. I’m here to give you a dose of real hysteria.
I Swear This Section Will Be Quick
In short (like real short, so don’t sweat the missing details), game mechanics are not copyrightable, but your specific way in which you write those rules are. Accordingly, I can rewrite the entire Player’s Handbook in my own words, without any of their artwork, and not run afoul of WotC’s copyright. Would that be a cool thing to do? No, but there may come a time when it is both necessary and fitting.
My Proposed Response
Here’s what I’m going to do if WotC doesn’t fix the problem to my satisfaction: I’m going to rewrite the entire 5th Edition Player’s Handbook in my own words, without any of their artwork, and publish it free on this site. Don’t believe me? I estimate that I’m at least 40% finished, and it’s all public domain material. Here’s an excerpt:
It includes race and class write ups from other sources as well, often pointing out very good reasons why WotC doesn’t own the material. Here’s another excerpt:
Do you think I’m afraid of a lawsuit? Here’s yet another excerpt.
When OneD&D is released, I’ll do the same thing but with its version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which would be a much more serious concern for WotC considering that dungeon masters do the most purchasing. I was reluctant to do this. Not only would a court battle be a hassle, but I also don’t want the industry harmed. However, if WotC continues to push the false narrative of an “open gaming license” and doesn’t instead shift gears and go the route of dedicating to the public domain, then they’re the ones doing the harm. Massive harm. I’m simply publishing public domain material, and if anything appears to be creative, there’s always this. You may still not like this idea, but here’s something else to consider.
A Nefarious Plan
My post had subtext I wouldn’t expect anyone but an attorney well-versed in intellectual property to decipher. If the courts review table-top role-playing games (“TTRPGs”), we’ll learn that, given the nature of copyright law, TTRPGs can’t generate profits big businesses require. That is, while small publishers can expect to continue to make the relatively small amounts that they make on TTRPGs, TTRPGs will no longer be the cash cow that WotC has made of Dungeons & Dragons. WotC probably knows this, as evidenced by this provision of the draft OGL 2.0:
In case this isn’t clear, that draft gave WotC permanent access to your intellectual property, which they can do with as they please and have no obligation to pay you for that privilege. Now I know WotC has backtracked on that particular provision, but only because the feel they have no choice at this point. While I don’t trust them, I don’t care at this point whether they mean it. This was, at one point, their plan. If they think they should steal something you won, then it’s far for me to steal something from them that they do not own. At least I’m not really stealing.
But why would WotC even do something like this knowing that, once implemented, it would start to generate heat that could destroy the brand? Remember when WotC said that OneD&D would be the last version of D&D necessary? I suspect that’s because they see the writing on the wall. WotC sees my posts and others like them that necessarily lead to this legal conclusion and think, “Our well of money is about to dry up, so let’s do a last-minute cash- and intellectual property-grab. When it’s over, we’ll have made a ton of money and have a perpetual, irrevocable license to other people’s intellectual property that we can use to make books and other products that will survive the legal fallout.”
A friend of mine, who knows WotC culture far better than I, doesn’t think this is WotC’s plan, but I’m working with what I have, my own ignorance be damned.
Michael Hammock, an economics professor at Florida State University weighed in. A Facebook connection posted his quote in which he discussed how foolish the leaked OGL 2.0 would be if authentic. Could WotC be that stupid? Sure, but I wouldn’t make that assumption. They’ve been too successful for us to think they have so little business sense. They likely know the consequences and just don’t care. In summary, I suspect they know TTRPGs are no longer going to be profitable enough for them, and they wanted to secure new sources of revenue at your expense before that’s a done deal. So no, I won’t feel the slightest bit guilty of thwarting whatever remains of these plans, as my actions will be 100% legal and not in any way larcenous. You can’t steal what no one owns. Moreover, WotC may not even sue me, not because they realize that the suit would be frivolous, but because it would just make matters worse for them. They also may be facing lawsuits from other parties, and there are only so many fights they can handle at one time. The last one they need is one with a counterclaim for copyright misuse that will have serious consequences.
Copyright law is in desperate need of reform, but it’s great stuff. I fully support the notion of (a reformed) copyright, but even in its current form it has consumer protections, such as copyright misuse, that prevent copyright holders from abusing their copyright. As far as I’m concerned, WotC has misused their copyright, at least with respect to their actions against me, and many creatives are going to be forced out of the market by an OGL anywhere near what we’ve seen so far. This hurts everyone, so I’m glad you’re finally seeing WotC for who they really are.
If you still think I’m the bad guy at this point, it’s because you’re the bad guy.
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, however, I mix another’s work with my own. First, the goofy stuff. Here’s a meme about the OGL conflict.
Now, for a strange point about WotC’s approach.
As you all should know by now, the specific expression of a game rule can (in theory) be protected through copyright. It still has to jump through the hoops of being creative enough for copyright and avoid the merger doctrine, but at least copyright could apply to that expression. So, simply adding “the specific expression of” to the beginning of “their sentence “the methods, processes, procedures, and routines” would avoid our arguments about copyrighting game mechanics and make this a tougher case. However, despite my 14-year insistence they do so, and now all these other attorneys (at long last) telling them the same thing, they still aren’t doing it. It’s a clear example of Bodine’s Law of the Internet, and in fact inspired me creating that rule in the first place. TL;DR: Without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it’s often impossible to tell the difference between arrogant deceit and genuine ignorance/incompetence. Does WotC continue on this path because they’re idiots, or because they think we are. Either way, after all we’ve been through, that would make WotC a bunch of idiots.
Even more amazing, my rule hasn’t gained a lot of traction.
Okay, that sentence was a bonus “something stupid.”
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, it’s about someone else’s work. If you follow this blog, it’s impossible not to know that I’m preparing for a return to 1st Edition AD&D. This week, I received the bulk of my new purchases.
I’m still awaiting three more titles: The Monster Manual II, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Unearthed Arcana. I don’t expect to make full use of this collection. A lot of this is to complete my collection, but even the stuff I don’t use will help me enhance the stuff I do use. As far as I’m concerned, none of this was a waste of money . . . except for I2: Tomb of the Lizard King, for which I accidentally bought two copies. That cost me only an extra $10. Fortunately, I’ve already sold and mailed it.
In case you’re wondering, I bought these via the DMs’ Guild, which is “direct” from Wizards of the Coast, but they run off the Drive Thru RPG engine. I’m not 100% sure of the relationship, but regardless of which site I’m on, I see the purchases I made from both. They were promised to be delivered within two weeks, but I got them within five days. Someone on MeWe pointed out one drawback of buying the reprinted adventures: The maps aren’t removeable. This is true, but it’s not a problem if, like me, you’ll actually run the game with the (bookmarked) PDFs. In all other ways, the adventures are the same as the original ones, but they’re reasonably priced. Getting a good price on any of these is possible, but it takes a lot of patience. Most of them cost literally 100s of dollars until you find that one offering that’s reasonable. I just bit the bullet and bought want I wanted for my collection without any danger of overpaying.
Note: I don’t understand the analysis of that attorney. I still see a huge distinction between the cases, but as I don’t work in employment law, I don’t appreciate all the subtleties that may apply. It does leave me scratching my head that I feel this is a slam-dunk for WotC, yet this attorney believes it’s a slam-dunk for the judges.