On WOTCs permissive licences

On WOTCs permissive licences

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. …

Meyer’s Cultural Map

Meyer’s Cultural Map

I have just finished the Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It’s taken me longer to read than it should, but that’s not her fault. She argues, building on the work of, her predecessors, including Geerte Hofstede,  that there are eight dimensions of business communication, these are communicating, evaluating (feedback), leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, scheduling and persuading. She argues that cultures share positions on these dimensions as people’s comfort and natural style is based on their education systems and often deep seated cultural and historical factors. She argues that differences are relative i.e. you might be mediumly robust in offering direct feedback, but if you come across someone more so, you will find them rude, and need to recognise that if delivering such feed back to some one from a more robust culture, they may fail to understand. She uses charts to illustrate cultural differences across the dimensions and I reproduce one. I also offer an Anglo-Dutch phrase translator. I finish by wondering how useful this is for 121s. The blog article says much more, ...

Fighting Corruption

Fighting Corruption

Sadly I have been looking to see what’s being said about Corruption and Anti-Corruption. I made a wiki post which includes some links on management strategy, which includes an article from McKinsey’s Journal which offers a brief taxonomy of corrupt practices, this is augmented by Transparency International’s tool kit, to which I link. TI also note that, “The UK Bribery Act, which was passed in 2010, introduces an offence of corporate failure to prevent bribery.”. There are also some specific action plans inc. current advice from the MoJ. Interestingly, to me, the action plans share many ideas from risk management practices and IT Security controls that I have been working with for many years, and that having a robust programme of controls is the only defence against the aforementioned corporate crime.

Construct a taxonomy, develop controls, measure the effectiveness of the controls and fix those that are broken.

This costs money and time, and companies may lose business because of it. No-one says it’s easy.

I have now made a post on my linkedin blog, which while repeating some of that I say here, looks at the MOJ Guidance and their six principles and offers some important definitions of pertaining to bribery.  I highlight the concept of ‘improper behaviour’ from within the legislation. …

Theory matters!

Theory matters!

I have just posted a blog on linkedin about business and IT strategy.  I say a bit more here! This was provoked because I was doing some research for a job application which involves IT strategy. I was considering the alignment of business strategy with that of the IT department and what I might say. I outlined three models, although they were all developed a while ago, I think they all have relevance today. The three models address business strategy, software portfolio management and architectural pattern selection. Business strategy should drive portfolio and project management choices. While business strategy will outline how to do what must be done, it also defines what will not be done.  Portfolio management determines the allocation of development funding, priority, maintenance funding, project risk appetite, people skills, project governance and software sourcing policy and as result of choices made, one can select the appropriate platform super architectures, of which you may need more than one. I conclude that theory matters. See more below/overleaf … …


While there is not a lot of theory for HR professionals, one piece of good practice is to separate performance management systems from pay assessments in order to encourage employees to admit their weaknesses. I wonder why no-one does this? …

Keep a diary

Just looking at my Union diary for next week and considering the documentation arms race between managers and workers. If you think you are in trouble or getting into trouble at work, write down what happened and how you feel. It’s no good several months later relying on memory; there is little doubt that management will have a written copy of what happened. …

Abolish Performance Reviews

I recieved in my inbox an article on Adobe’s experience on abolishing their annual appraisal process. One reason was cost, they calculated it took the equivalent of 40 FTEs to run the process which illustrates the distraction of management time. The article quotes quality guru W. Edwards Deming who says,

It nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics.”

They replaced their previous stack ranking system with a more flexible and empowered system, divorcing formal performance from salary/bonus decisions.

It proved to be more popular with managers and staff, with one employee reporting

… that a feeling of relief has spread throughout the company because the old annual review system was “a soul-less and soul crushing exercise.”

One side effect was that involuntary terminations increased but voluntary terminations reduced, It ought to be a happier place to work. …


I re-read Greiner’s Evolution and Revolutions as Organisations grow. He argues that the growth of companies meet crises, the resolution of which change and shape the next stage of development and that companies go through creativity, direction, delegation, co-ordination and collaboration stages. As ever, I fail to see the compulsion and inexorability of each succeeding stage but the causes of potential stagnation and the need to respond by changing the management style and tools are insightful.

I wonder where today’s exemplar corporates are on this curve, or is software different? …

Search Neutrality goes to Parliament

Earlier this week I attended the @pictfor meeting advertised as about “Search Neutrality”. It had entered my radar when Alec Muffett who had been invited to speak, announced his attendance on twitter and his Computer World blog, “The Google Dialogues : Search Neutrality”. The speakers were Alec, and Shivaun Raff, the CEO of Foundem and Mark Margaretten, Professor at U. of Bedford. Foundem is one of the complaintants to the EU provoking an EU monopoly investigation into Google. This is covered in the Guardian, on the 20th November, in an article called “Google search investigation sparked by complaint from British site”.

Shivaun argued that Google manipulates its sort order to benefit its own alternative properties, particularly the price comparison sites. (Foundem is a vertical price comparison site.) They argue that over 90% of European search is fulfilled by Google, and that when Google chose to discriminate against them, their traffic fell off to a business breaking trickle.

Alec and Mark took a similar line to each other, Google is one click away from failure, relevance including sort order is subject to competitive pressure & no-one has a right to a place in a search engine’s sort order. Alec in his blog post points at James Grimelmann’s article,“Some Skepticism about Search Neutrality” who makes similar points, although Grimmelmann argues that vertical search sites are rarely useful or usable. Margaretten dealt with this less judgmentally by pointing out that Google also prefers sites with original content, which is why aggregator sites do less well. He reinforced the point that there are good reasons to devalue vertical search sites, although Foundem can prove that they were specifically penalised. Grimmelman distinguishes between regulating for “Search Neutrality” which he opposes and anti-trust law which he argues is different and has its own theory and practice. The meeting missed this dichotomy between monopoly regulation and search neutrality.

Shivaun Raff was backed up by a spokesperson from Streetmap, who provided some evidence that Google had manipulated their sort order when they launched Google maps in order to better compete with the established players. I hope that they have made a submission to the Commission. The talk in the bar after was that streetmap lost out due to Google Maps technical superiority particularly features such as navigation, user generated content, personal customisation and world wide coverage; however even if this is true it doesn’t necessarily mean that the allegation of malicious action is unjustified.

I’ll be interested to see if the Commission come to consider Google to be a monopoly. It dominates in search, and its maps and mail are wildly popular but it’s definitely second choice for microblogging (g+) where it’s outgunned by twitter and facebook, identity assurance where Google Profile trails behind twitter and facebook, picture blogging (Yahoo), bookmarks (delicious and reddit) and blogging (wordpress). It’s interesting to consider this in the light of some changes made by google to their user experience over the last couple of months where they are staring to build walls around their services to make it harder to share one’s data with other companies services. For instance, they have wrecked Google Reader for me since I can now only share news via Google+, there is now no open XML feed for these. I’ll explore this in another post soon. …

The chilling effect of global copyright enforcement

And on to the EU’s attempt to implement strong copyright enforcement. I’ll return to the UK in the next week or so, but the European Commission signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) a couple of days ago. This proposed trade treaty has been negotiated in secret amongst a group of governments from the developed world. The US agenda was to strengthen international enforcement of intellectual property laws, and the original European agenda was similar, but orientated more around the protection of a number of geographic brands, such as champagne or cheddar. The Open Rights Group talks, on their blog, about the secrecy and how we have came to this point. …