Earlier this year, Wizards of the Coast, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons, bought D&D Beyond, the premiere and largest web store for the rules of D&D and they are now trialling a new version of the rules called One D&D; they are also planning to release a virtual table top solution and have a new movie in production. Also recently at a Hasbro earnings call, one of their executives stated that D&D was now a lifestyle brand and was under-monetised. This has created a sense of fear amongst 3rd party creators that WOTC will revise their intellectual property sharing agreements to the detriment of themselves and non-Dungeon Master players who have been identified as under spenders. Depending on where you look, this has created a lot of noise; I think there’s a lot of fear being generated, and it interests me to consider the issues in the context of the software industry practice. I think that software industry grew the open source models and the interaction by games vendors such as Wizards with software continues to inform good & bad practice

What they’re doing.

This is what I think the current state of WotC’s commitment to permitted use of their intellectual property is. (I am not a lawyer etc.),

You may produce written material aimed at supporting table-top gaming using material from the SRD[1] and charge for it. Any other use of WOTC’s intellectual property is governed by the Fan Content Policy, which says any other artefacts must be free (as in zero cost) or subject to a specific commercial agreement.

There’s probably a change coming in WOTC’s zero cost licensing of D&D although their statement says that they will probably only change the Fan Content policy which requires fan content to be free to the market. What is there today is less than some seem to think. It’s not in the interests of WOTC to eliminate or reduce the business opportunity the current licencing permits, but it seems they plan to extend their offerings into games and movies and want/need to assert their copyright ownership of what has always only been available under specific bi-lateral agreements and to assert and protect their trademarks. Third party creators will probably be able to continue to monetise what they already have as they will keep rights under the OGL; they will also have the ability to move their content to an alternative rule set which is in the interest of neither party.  

My warning is that they don’t want to become Oracle or Games Workshop; organisations better known for their legal departments than the value and care they offer their customers.

I was surprised that WOTC had released an open license[2] at the time of the rules version 3.5 establishing a right to use a specific sub-set of the rules, the right to charge for it and the right/duty to recognise the ownership of the material. It has been argued that this was an attempt by D&D’s then new owners to repair the inherited relationship between themselves and their customers and I find it more than coincidental that the OGL and the Cluetrain manifesto (or on Medium) both came out in 2000. One of Cluetrain’s arguments is  that your best sales people are your customers, so you don’t want to go to war with them.

Signals that WOTC may be prepared to dial up their intellectual property ownership claims include the fact that ORCPUB, a D&D rules compliant character repo, was closed down amongst rumours of legal action, although those that ought to know best and rescued the code deny this fact.  But WOTC bought DnD Beyond an alternative D&D character repo with a more tightly integrated implementation of the rules and a freemium charging model. This purchase would seem to be a critical step towards initially a web channel beyond a store and later a streaming model by which I mean real time availability of data i.e. your character sheets. While offering a dramatic improvement in data availability, this is aimed at extending the paying customer base to include non Dungeon Masters.

I have written before (and at Medium) about how software open source models might apply to fantasy role playing games and video games, specifically about Bioware and its Newverwinter Nights game and licence. Bioware and latterly WOTC recognised that their offerings benefit from having a community of story tellers to expand the offering. It’s better for people to engage in a ruleset that has thousands of stories rather than one with dozens. These people, dungeon masters and players create markets and in the case of D&D spend a lot of money with WOTC.

Lessons from the software industry

There are two lessons or three if you want as to how and why some generosity in licensing pays back. The first is that when WOTC produced V4 of the D&D rules, they offered a more restrictive licence; the community rebelled and created Pathfinder and other alternatives and accessed the rules via the 3.5 rules version of the Open Games Licence which is irrevocable[3]. Customers can, nearly always, go somewhere else; perhaps the Hasbro suits just don’t get it. However their “D&D and Gaming” division accrued $2bn dollars revenue[4] last year; how much more do they need. The second lesson is that the current resurgent popularity of D&D has been incubated by the public interest and live play streams of games played by Hollywood stars and most visibly, Critical Role[5] i.e. by 3rd party creators. Another lesson I have learnt through observing an ex-employer of mine, is not to compete with your licensees; Sun Microsystems built itself by ‘creating markets and then competing within them,’ but so successfully that eventually there was only one OEM left, and it was Sun that failed not its final partner.

The IT industry has much experience in developing less restrictive licences than the traditional “All Rights reserved” model developed by author-publisher business. WOTC’s licences are somewhere in the middle of the range between public domain/CC0 and all rights reserved, it’s probably best considered a copyleft licence.

What would be best.

Volume counts. Ask Microsoft, Apple and Google. Permissive licences build volume and good will from customers and fans. Large eco-systems create demand. Again from the IT industry, Sun had built its prominence partly though freely publishing its code which itself had open source origins, and a promiscuity in allowing 3rd party products to run on their software platform.

This takes us to another aspect of the mutual advantage that licensing brings; 3rd Party creators needs. Licensing the rules and worlds of D&D is of advantage to Wizards so that others can expand the market, but also to the licensees as they want to or ought to want to acknowledge the use of D&D rules. These rules, worlds if available and the size of market are the reason that people will buy their products, so whinging about the badges (and trademark acknowledgement) is just that. I know that when looking for a MMPORPG, I was attracted to Neverwinter Nights because it is/was derived from D&D, I know the rules, and understand things like ‘class’ choice, but my final decision was made on the basis of the charging model.

One part of good “welfare economics”, and one of the purposes of copyright law, is that derived works are to be encouraged. I’d also add that within partnership efforts, each partner should be rewarded according to their contribution, anything else introduces monopoly diseconomies.

It seems that they WOTC or Hasbro want a cut from the community content, that D&D Beyond is a new channel, that creating a chargeable VTT would be another attempt to charge players not DMs for content and like streaming content providers, move to charge by the second. D&D Beyond has up till now had a freemium model; I’d advise them to keep a zero/low cost entry for 3rd Party creators as they are an essential part of market building.  

I hope that WOTC remain committed to the view that community creates value and maintain their free, low cost licensing for low turnover and hobbyist creators.


See also if you want my notes and links on my wiki. None of this is legal advice.

[1] The SRD does not include milieux material, so if you want to use Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk or World of Krynn or any other WOTC milieu you need a commercial agreement.

[2] The licence is restricted to artefacts designed to be used in table top play and consisting of books or static electronic files.

[3] I doubt that its irrevocable.

[4] Hasbro is a highly profitable company, reporting 16.1% EBITDA on $6.42bn Revenues

[5] Much of the original content in Critical Role has been made available by WOTC, presumably through a cross licensing agreement.

On WOTCs permissive licences
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3 thoughts on “On WOTCs permissive licences

  • 7th January 2023 at 12:16 pm

    Gizmodo had a leaked preview of the revised license and Chris at Treantmonk’s Temple revised his views. Chris is concerned that they are seeking 25% royalty on revenue and not profit, that they are seeking to revoke the perpetual licence grants of OGL 1,0(*) and that the timescales for adoption of the new licence are disruptively short. He is also concerned at WOTC claiming a royalty free right to use, while also having a broad right to withdraw the licence from its users.

    The Gizmodo article finishes with,

    Wizards of the Coast is clearly expecting these OGL changes to be met with some resistance. The document does note that if the company oversteps, they are aware that they “will receive community pushback and bad PR, and We’re more than open to being convinced that We made a wrong decision.”

    If these changes concern you, you’d better let them know.

    I remain unconvinced that 3rd parties can’t stick to the SRD and OGL1.0; it means they’d fork the code.

  • Pingback:On the WOTC OGL – davelevy . info / wiki

  • 11th February 2023 at 1:08 pm

    As a result of the consultation, WOTC responded with this. WOTC publish the SRD 5.1 under a CC BY 4.0 licence, claiming the licence now belongs to someone else, and is also irrevocable. It looks like the open source had value people won.

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