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Open Licenses & Gaming Part I

A while back I promised I think Adam Jury and Fred Hicks a post on Creative Commons, the Open Gaming License, why I think the OGL has problems, why Creative Commons licenses don’t always work for tabletop gaming publishers, and so on. This is too much for a single post, so I’ll start with my technique for emulating the OGL using Creative Commons licenses. It has the virtue of being productive thought as opposed to criticism, and it seems more useful to lead with something someone might actually use some day.

Basic Creative Commons Licensing

First off, if you’re a total hippie and you just want people to be able to do whatever they want with your work, you can skip all this and slap an Attribution license on the whole thing. That allows people to use your work, change it, resell it, the whole nine yards. Very easy. The only restriction is that they must give you credit. You could also do what Adam and the Posthuman Studios guys do for Eclipse Phase: use an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. That allows people to do whatever they like with your work, but they can’t resell it, they have to give you credit, and they have to let people do the same thing to their work.

There are a few other ways to slice that cake. If you wanted to allow people to just redistribute your work, without changing it and without selling it, there’s a license for that. If you wanted to let people resell it but not change it, you can do that. All in all there are six flavors of license, which means two things: first, you can fine tune your license to fit most scenarios, and second, you need to think carefully about what you want.

Pay Your Lawyer

Pause. This is where I note that if you were going to use any license in a commercial capacity, you would be well-advised to talk to a lawyer. What I’m about to outline, it’s just an idea I made up. I’m pretty sure it’s valid, because I’m smart and I think about this stuff a lot for entertainment, but I’m not putting my money at risk. If I ever published a tabletop RPG, I would talk to a lawyer before I used my own idea. You should too, and you should talk to a lawyer before you do anything with licenses.

Pause over. OK.

What the OGL Does

The OGL allows you to do something that none of the Creative Commons licenses allow. It allows downstream licensees to protect small chunks of their derivative works. In practical terms, let’s say I publish a D20 adventure under the OGL. I made up some monsters, and I’m cool with anyone using those monsters, as the OGL pretty much demands. However, I want to protect the world I’ve designed; I don’t want anyone else using the world. It’s my secret sauce.

I can do that. I declare the bits I don’t want you using as Product Identity, and you can’t use them. I have to allow reuse of any bits that are derived from OGL content, but I can put those side by side with my new stuff and protect the new stuff. This is awesome if you’re a third party publisher who wants to publish (these days) Pathfinder supplements, because it means you can do so without damaging your ability to protect the new material you invented.

The same basic principle applies to people who want to use the OGL to publish new material. If I write a totally new game, and I want you to be able to publish commercial supplements, but I don’t want you to use my world, the OGL makes that trivial. Flip back to our Eclipse Phase example. If Posthuman Studios wanted to let people publish derivative Eclipse Phase adventures commercially, but didn’t want people to be able to just republish the rulebook and charge for it, they’d have a problem. Creative Commons licenses don’t cover that use case.

My Trick for Emulating the OGL with Creative Commons

Unless you futz around some. Here’s the trick:

1. Write your game. Publish it. Don’t put a Creative Commons license on it.

2. Write a System Reference Document for your game. The only thing you put in here are the things you want people to be able to use. Put a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license on it.

3. Educate the hell out of people so they understand they can use the stuff from the SRD but not the stuff from the full game. WotC had to do this too, it’s not that bad.

At this point, I’ll be able to draw on your SRD to make a supplement, or even to make a completely new game. But let’s say you put the mechanics in the SRD and left out the world and character creation rules. My new game can’t be set in the same world, and it can’t include your character generation rules. Or, hey, put the character generation rules in — now I can use those. Now it’s pretty similar to the OGL situation with one big key difference.

A game or module based on your SRD has to be completely covered under the same Creative Commons license. I can’t protect the new world I wrote, and I can’t protect my characters, and so on. This is, I speculate, a pretty big turn-off for third party developers. OK, is there any way around that? Sure — you can publish your SRD under the Creative Commons Attribution license. Now I can protect whatever I want as a third party developer, including material that’s clearly derivative of the stuff you shared. I don’t have to put a Creative Commons license on my stuff at all. So that’s better for the third parties, but maybe it offends your sense of sharing equity. (Not saying that tongue in cheek. It’s a reasonable objection.)

If you wanted to get a little more complicated, you could make up a logo and protect that logo with trademarks. Then you could license the logo to people if they were willing to release their derivative works under a Creative Commons license. This is pretty similar to what WotC did with the D20 logo license. I think it doesn’t work well, because people don’t need a logo to figure out if something’s compatible. Nobody wound up caring that much about the D20 license. “Compatible with the third edition of the world’s most popular fantasy roleplaying game.” Yeah.


My trick is flawed in that it can’t duplicate the OGL exactly. I either wind up giving third parties more control or less control; I cannot thread the needle and let them protect some of their work without letting them protect all of it. If I was using this, I’d let them protect all of it because I think that would result in greater adoption of my efforts. I also think smart third parties would do the same thing I was doing, in the end. However, that’s just me.

Should people just use the OGL, then? I don’t think so; I think it’s got some time bombs and problems which make it unwise. But this is where I get way into opinion, and I know there’s a lot more to argue about there, so I’ll save that for another post.

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