Free As In Beer

A lot of ink has been spilled over open software licenses and the degree to which software should be free.

In my other geek world, the world of gaming, there’s been action in the past decade to open the base rules of a system to allow third party developers to design games using those rules.  Wizards of the Coast, most notabably, released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons under the Open Gaming License (OGL), which I don’t know the technical details of but will classify as sucessful due to the glut of third party 3E books.  Wizards used the OGL as a marketing tool to revitalize D&D, and it worked.  D&D became the dominant gaming system again, largely on the backs of third party assistance.

Don’t believe me?  Go look at the RPG bookshelf in Barnes and Noble.  Look at how many D20 books there are by other companies.  Now think about this: every time someone learns the D20 system through, say, the A Game of Thrones RPG, they’re more likely to give straight D&D a try because they already know the rules.

With the release of 4E, Wizards has apparently decided that people making money off of their work sucks and need to be kept on a tighter leash.  4E was not released under the OGL, but instead under the Game System License (GSL).  Note the word “open” ain’t anywhere in there.  That’s not by accident.

A lot of publishers – ones that were successful in the days of the OGL – are saying they won’t be going into the 4E world because of the GSL, and I don’t blame them.  Wizards is playing a game very similar to Microsoft’s in the 1990’s.  They’re saying, essentially, “Now that we have a near monopoly on the market, we can make unreasonable demands of everyone involved with us and they’ll either have to play along, or they’ll make so much less money that they’ll eventually play along anyway.”

That they’ve put publishers into this position by hooking them with the more simple and permissive OGL makes me pretty angry.  I like 4E a lot as a gamer, but I agree with what I read on one publisher’s site.  Why not just keep the thing closed?

Only I know the answer to that question.  It’s because they still want the marketing benefits of the OGL without executives feeling that the permissiveness of it is knocking 1% off of their stock price.  It’s the same corporate nonsense that’s killing this country in a hundred ways, and I’ve had enough of it.

Let’s go over some of the scary and draconian rules of the GSL, shall we? Before we do, though, let me make one note: this is the Dungeons & Dragons GSL we’re discussing.  Wizards has not yet released the D20 GSL, and as such this license is restrictive about not allowing rule changes in a way that the D20 version will hopefully not be.  In any case, I’m going to stick to the ugly pieces that won’t likely change.

  • Wizards of the Coast can change the license at any time, and changes are retroactive. Not only can they change the license without notice, at any time.  Not only do any changes made affect already published products.  Not only does the simple act of continued publication constitute acceptance of the license changes.  It’s also the licensee’s responsibility to keep checking the website to see if it’s updated!  And if you forget, and keep publishing after it’s been changed?  You accepted it, of course!
  • If you’ve published a line under the OGL, and come out with a GSL/4E conversion, you can no longer sell the OGL version, ever again. This means even if you convert your wildly popular 3E line into 4E and the rules don’t match well anymore and your line bombs, you can no longer make any money on the popular 3E version of your product. This isn’t saying you can’t come out with new OGL/3E products in that line.  It’s saying you cannot sell any previously published work ever again except to clear out your remaining stock in those items.
  • Wizards can terminate the license entirely. Not only can they change the license, but they can terminate it outright simply by saying so on their website.  You could have just published a book only to have the license yanked out from under you before you recoup your costs..  Oops!
  • That part about not being able to publish your old OGL stuff survives termination of the GSL, though. This license is so friendly to third parties it almost hurts.
  • Your Licensed Product can not include a website. It also can’t include miniatures, “interactive products” or “character creators.”  If you’re wondering what “include a website” means, you’re not alone.  Your license does include a single-download PDF, which implies being able to have a website about your product, but where the line between having a website and including a website is drawn is extremely unclear.

It’s not that this is the worst license ever, and if Wizards had come out with this for 3E without ever having the OGL it would feel a lot less odious.  But considering they spent 10 years building and benefiting from the third party publishing community the OGL had formed, this is an awful lot like a kick to the croch for a lot of people. The conversion rules, in particular, are just plain ugly, punishing publishers for wanting to participate in 4E without commiting their entire business to the new system.

It’s sad, too, because I was really looking forward to what third parties would do in this new space.  Now I’m just hoping the ones that decide to play don’t end up getting their hand bitten off for their trouble.

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