The OGL Getting Less Open

May 5, 2008

Archiving some thoughts from Story Games.

For me, this isn’t about folks being able to make money by riffing off WotC’s IP. That would be good for some publishers, sure, but I’m more interested in the long-term effect of the new GSL on the culture of sharing and free-use in our little creative niche. In my opinion, the OGL provided a legal framework to allow roleplayers to do what roleplayers had already been doing since before the first version of D&D was published: borrow and remix game mechanics for their own play and, also, for creating competing commercial products. From that perspective, if licenses become significantly less open, they actually restrict widely accepted existing practices and are not necessary a big gift that we should be thankful WotC is bestowing upon us. The free borrowing practices of roleplaying are already decades ahead of many other creative fields in establishing an open creative environment. Going backwards would suck.

At this point, it’s simply a lot of bad emotions, that they’re telling folks already used to playing in their playground that, if they want to stay, there are a bunch of new rules they have to follow. But, on the other hand, I think WotC being less open about their IP is likely to have a strong effect. In fact, I would argue that the backlash against the perceived weaknesses and problems of open gaming started a while back.

Remember the John Kim vs. Green Ronin fiasco over posting the open portions of Blue Rose on the internet, as a kind of SRD? To me, that indicated that Green Ronin was not actively on board with many of the core principles of open source, despite their own use of open content. In contrast, Evil Hat enthusiastically welcomed efforts by their own fans to make an SRD for Spirit of the Century. Recently, Green Ronin have taken a more pro-open stance with their True20 material, but I suspect this is — at least in part — motivated by an attempt to build a foundation for True20 when it looked like WotC was putting a firmer grip on their own IP. They’re still actively dissuading attempts at a True20 SRD.

So, from my perspective, a shift in thinking about open content and the value of it has already happened in the minds of several major roleplaying publishers. The changes to WotC’s open content procedures are really an indication of these developments more than something entirely new. But I would argue that something is wrong when roleplaying publishers increasingly feel the need to prevent their fans or fellow publishers from “unfairly” taking advantage of their work. Legitimately protecting your IP from damaging, unfair practices is one thing, but protecting a specific business model or method of operating is another, and I think the latter is actually happening more often. The way open source generally works as a commercial business model is that you give away some open content (Linux, webcomics, SRDs) and make your money selling content that isn’t open or freely available (support, t-shirts, hardcover books with full color art). But WotC and Green Ronin clearly want to have their cake and eat it too; they want people to spend money for the privilege of having access to open content (via print or PDF versions, or both). That’s pretty odd, yeah?

But, honestly, that’s how most publishing works under the OGL. Do OGL publishers put their open content on their website, for people to use? Nope, not generally. Sometimes they make PDFs of their products free after they’ve sold about as many as they play to, but that’s it. And now they have even less of an incentive to make open content really open and available, with major publishers taking pains to put more barriers around content that’s supposed to be free to use. I imagine a widespread turtling is not far off, with a large number of folks retreating into their shells instead of being coaxed into abandoning them entirely. Is there a future in which you can play D&D for free (i.e. the corebooks can be freely downloaded), but have to pay for “official” supplements compiled by WotC from both fan and freelancer material (and made all pretty)? Maybe, but it just moved a bit further off, since WotC (and others) have decided that this open stuff isn’t as awesome as they thought it was and, instead of getting more open (and, generally speaking, roleplaying’s barely open at all, yet), we’re going back to being more closed.

3 Responses to “The OGL Getting Less Open”

  1. Brennan Says:

    I’m moving to Creative Commons for all of my stuff. Copyright law as it currently exists is an obscenity in my mind.

  2. Jmstar Says:

    Is it short-sighted of me to think “let them keep making those buggy whips”?

    And I have nothing but contempt for parasites who utilize open content but don’t embrace the concept that makes that content possible. That’s a whole ‘nother buggy whip.

  3. Hey Jonathan. A lot comes back to the idea of: How open are you if you don’t want others to touch it?

    (This is going to sound bloggy but I hope it’s a relevant datum):

    That question was central when I came up with the Great Hundred project. That project has stalled having failed to reach critical mass, but it’s certainly not dead – it received some phenomenally strong contributions.

    The second* biggest thing I regret in that project is that I chose licensing schemes. I felt that no one would want to contribute if it was possible for someone to take the ideas and not even give credit. So I established that the final project would be released as two separate documents: one 100% OGC material under the OGL, and one 100% Creative Commons – Attribution. The idea was to strike a balance between openness that people were comfortable using, and credit – I mean attribution – to the original authors.

    Now I’m starting to think that even that licensing scheme was a mistake, because even choosing some elaborate licensing scheme means you’re playing with legalized, permission culture that gets propped up or pushed down by various interested parties whose allegiances and values are in flux.

    I wonder if I should have gone all the way and made the whole project public domain. If I had done that, I doubt there’d be as many contributors as there are, but as I came across your blog I’d be saying “Hey, I took this approach and it’s not entangled in any of that corporate jockeying. Want to come play in the yard?”

    * The biggest thing isn’t relevant to this topic.

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