12 January 2023

Dungeons and Dragons Rat Fuckery

There has been an explosion of outrage over Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. changing their "Open Gaming License", which will have the effect of making their license.

Well, writing from his hot air balloon secret base, (Way cooler than S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarrier) Cory Doctorow observes something very interesting, that the license that they have issued is complete garbage in either the old or the new version, because it licenses things that are not subject to copyright.

While Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. can apply IP to things like the actual words used to write the rules, characters, names, places, etc, they cannot actually copyright the meaning of the rules.

Copyright covers expression, not ideas: (Some slight reformatting for prettier links)

Last week, Gizmodo's Linda Codega caught a fantastic scoop –a leaked report of Hasbro's plan to revoke the decades-old Open Gaming License, which subsidiary Wizards Of the Coast promulgated as an allegedly open sandbox for people seeking to extend, remix or improve Dungeons and Dragons:

The report set off a shitstorm among D&D fans and the broader TTRPG community – not just because it was evidence of yet more enshittification of D&D by a faceless corporate monopolist, but because Hasbro was seemingly poised to take back the commons that RPG players and designers had built over decades, having taken WOTC and the OGL at their word.


Free/open licenses were invented specifically to prevent this kind of fuckery. First there was the GPL and its successor software licenses, then Creative Commons and its own successors. One important factor in these licenses: they contain the word "irrevocable." That means that if you build on licensed content, you don't have to worry about having the license yanked out from under you later. It's rugproof.

Now, the OGL does not contain the word "irrevocable." Rather, the OGL is "perpetual." To a layperson, these two terms may seem interchangeable, but this is one of those fine lawerly distinctions that trip up normies all the time. In lawyerspeak, a "perpetual" license is one whose revocation doesn't come automatically after a certain time (unlike, say, a one-year car-lease, which automatically terminates at the end of the year). Unless a license is "irrevocable," the licensor can terminate it whenever they want to.

FWIW, as Doctorow notes, this sort of rug pull is actually rather common.  For profits go from, "We encourage the community to create content," to, "Fuck you, pay me," as soon as they feel that they no longer need to that community's content.

Here is the important bit:


The perpetual/irrevocable switcheroo is the least of the problems with the OGL. As gsllc@chirp.enworld.org – an actual lawyer, as well as a dice lawyer – wrote back in 2019, the OGL is a grossly defective instrument that is significantly worse than useless.

The issue lies with what the OGL actually licenses. Decades of copyright maximalism has convinced millions of people that anything you can imagine is "intellectual property," and that this is indistinguishable from real property, which means that no one can use it without your permission.

The copyrightpilling of the world sets people up for all kinds of scams, because copyright just doesn't work like that. This wholly erroneous view of copyright grooms normies to be suckers for every sharp grifter who comes along promising that everything imaginable is property-in-waiting (remember SpiceDAO?)

Copyright is a lot more complex than "anything you can imagine is your property and that means no one else can use it." For starters, copyright draws a fundamental distinction between ideas and expression. Copyright does not apply to ideas – the idea, say, of elves and dwarves and such running around a dungeon, killing monsters. That is emphatically not copyrightable.

Copyright also doesn't cover abstract systems or methods – like, say, a game whose dice-tables follow well-established mathematical formulae to create a "balanced" system for combat and adventuring. Anyone can make one of these, including by copying, improving or modifying an existing one that someone else made. That's what "uncopyrightable" means.


Which brings me back to the OGL, and what, specifically, it licenses. The OGL is a license that only grants you permission to use the things that WOTC can't copyright – "the game mechanic [including] the methods, procedures, processes and routines." In other words, the OGL gives you permission to use things you don't need permission to use.

Things like specific characters, maps, dialogue, etc. are subject to copyright, but if you want to create a new character class, say for example a boomerang spoon thrower, you can do using dice, and levels, and experience point requirements for levels, etc. without permission, and you can sell it.

You could also create an app to calculate character stats and otherwise aid in game play, because the fact that hit points for a fighter use a D10 (in my day, they only got a D8, and we liked it, you kids) is not copyrightable.

The original (allegedly good) OGL never gave its users any rights, it took them away, albeit for free, and there is no reason for anyone to continue to use this license.

Just write and release your works, and maybe form a coop to deal with the nuisance suits that might come your way from Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.


Cthulhu said...

Hey! You stole my boomerang spoon thrower character! Pay me!
Seriously, Hasbro and Wizards seem to have nothing but contempt for the players.

Matthew Saroff said...

And you stole it from the Muppet Show. Remember the reference to Manny Kaye, the boomerang spoon thrower?

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