from the d-and-don't dept
If you go back and review Techdirt stories about Dungeons & Dragons, the beloved tabletop fantasy roleplaying game, you will see that most of them focus on the stupidity of moral panics, in which D&D is often swept up. This post is decidedly different. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) recently announced there would be changes to its Open Gaming License (OGL) licensing agreement for creators making content around D&D’s core ruleset. And we’ll absolutely get into that. But first: a history lesson.
The current Open Gaming License in place for D&D dates back over two decades. The purpose of that license is very clear: let creators in general use D&D’s core rules and lore to create new content, but disallow the use of certain copyrighted and/or trademarked content. Why would WotC have opened the game up like that? For the most obvious of reasons: because it was profitable to do so.
In a 2002 interview, then-WotC VP and OGL architect Ryan Dancey said the OGL was “essentially exposing the standard D&D mechanics, classes, races, spells, and monsters to the Open Gaming community. Anyone could use that material to develop a product using that information essentially without restrictions, including the lack of a royalty or a fee paid to Wizards of the Coast.”
The idea, Dancey said at the time, was directly inspired by Richard Stallman’s GNU General Public License. And this wasn’t just altruism on WotC’s part; Dancey said the license would encourage the kind of network externalities that would make the D&D rules system more popular, thus increasing sales of the game’s core rulebook and allowing others to profit off of content based on that system.
Dancey might as well have been a Techdirt reader from back in the day, but this sounds of that logic. Open things up with a generous license, get people to create their own content, and it will all lead to more purchases of the core content that WotC sells in the first place. It was simply good business, in other words. This license continues to be in use all the way up to present.
But as I mentioned, that’s about to change. WotC announced a couple of months ago that the OGL would be updated to version 1.1 and that the changes would reflect a desire to not “subsidize” large corporations that were releasing commercial content utilizing D&D core content. That led many to speculate just what the hell would be in OGL 1.1. Thanks to a leaked draft of the new licensing agreement, the public got its first look at OGL 1.1 a week or so ago. The top-line changes are certainly different, though many in the D&D community looked at these specifics with only mild irritation.
The leaked license document sets up a 25 percent royalty for any revenues a company makes beyond $750,000 in a single year. That new royalty reflects WotC’s position that the original OGL was “always intended to allow the community to help grow D&D and expand it creatively” and “wasn’t intended to subsidize major competitors,” according to the leaked document.
That lines up with WotC’s December statement, which says the license update is partly intended to prevent “large businesses [from] exploit[ing] our intellectual property.” And while the royalty in the leaked license only applies to companies with relatively large revenues, the new OGL reportedly lets WotC “modify or terminate this agreement for any reason whatsoever, provided we give thirty (30) days’ notice.”
The number of folks hitting that top tier number in the 10s of people, so we’re not talking about a ton of creators. And, while many have noted that the 25% royalty is on gross revenue rather than profit, you should also note that this is a progressive system, so the royalties only begin to be applied once you’ve made your first dollar over $750,000 in a single year. Much of the irritation instead centered on the requirement to share revenue data with WotC if a creator makes more than $50k in a year in revenue.
Are these changes going to massively effect the wider community? Not these ones, no. I’d argue they’re still counterproductive, however. After all, in the last two decades, D&D has seen a massive uptick in popularity and gameplay, much of it corresponding to creator content, such as Critical Role and the like.
But those aren’t the only and, arguably, most important changes. The new OGL also purports to replace and nullify the original OGL.
Rights and royalties aside, the most controversial part of the new OGL version 1.1 could be its potential effect on the original, decades-old OGL. The new version reportedly calls itself “an update to the previously available OGL 1.0(a), which is no longer an authorized license agreement [emphasis added].”
That wording came as a surprise to many in the community because the original OGL granted “a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, nonexclusive license” to the Open Game Content it described. But while that license was explicitly perpetual, the EFF points out that it was not explicitly irrevocable, meaning WotC retained the legal right to cancel the original agreement at any time, as it seems to be attempting with this updated version.
That just plain sucks. A metric ton of content has been created under the old OGL which was pitched as a perpetual license. To have that license suddenly nullified is a huge betrayal. And, frankly, additional language in the original OGL is likely to create some significant legal headaches for WotC if it wants to enforce its new restrictions in court.
For instance, there is a clause in OGL 1.0a that reads:
Even if Wizards made a change [to the license] you disagreed with, you could continue to use an earlier, acceptable version at your option. In other words, there’s no reason for Wizards to ever make a change that the community of people using the Open Gaming License would object to, because the community would just ignore the change anyway.
But the new OGL, which creators have yet to agree to, says the opposite. It says that the old OGL is nullified and no longer an option for creators. The previously quoted Dancey actually helped create the old OGL. Asked for comment on what that clause means, well…
Yeah, my public opinion is that Hasbro [WotC’s parent company] does not have the power to deauthorize a version of the OGL. If that had been a power that we wanted to reserve for Hasbro, we would have enumerated it in the license. I am on record numerous places in email and blogs and interviews saying that the license could never be revoked.
The result? Well, there are about 40k signees of an open letter to WotC stating that they will refuse to sign up under the new OGL, that the old one is still in effect per the terms within it, and that the community insists the old OGL be an option for new content moving forward.
“From what we’ve seen, OGL 1.1 is not an open license,” the group wrote. “It is a restricted license. WotC can change it at any time to create even more restrictive terms. They can remove anyone’s right to use it for any reason. It is a joke. It is a betrayal.”
This is an amazing example of a company shooting itself in the foot with the worst imaginable timing. D&D likely has never been more popular, or played/watched by more people, than it is right now. Purely because WotC decided it wanted more control, and money, from the creative community its open policies helped create, well, now that community is up in arms, angry at what it sees as a massive betrayal.
Which will lead to two things. First, a chilling effect on creators afraid to create for D&D now. Second, a community with a sizable and very loud megaphone that is very, very angry at the moment when WotC should be riding the crest of the popularity wave it helped foster.
A failed charisma check, in other words.