5e Creative Commons: It’s a Trap!

Insert image of an Aquatic Admiral in Space here

I’ve heard enough people say something to the effect of, “If you’re so concerned about the OGL, just use Creative Commons.” My answer has steadfastly been, “No, I’m not going to publish with it.” I’m frequently met with confusion by that. So I’m going to explain some.

Why The OGL Was Good

First some background. The OGL was good because you can say certain things are open and certain things are closed. This means that when I create a product, I determined what can be used by other companies and what can’t. Many publishers uses this to great effect, declaring proper names closed but the game mechanics open. This means if I create the spell Quelf’s Acid Bolt, I wouldn’t have to create an entire separate document to let other companies use the spell Acid Bolt. But another company would have to shift through ever single part of the spell to determine what can and cannot be used. This is more time intensive (read: hard work) for the one that wants to use the spell in their product, but the spell is still available to those that want to use it.

TLDR: The OGL is good for products that you want to share only parts of your product, but not all.

What Creative Commons Does Well

Creative Commons (CC) is excellent for sharing stuff on the internet. Podcasts you want to post to your site, music you want to share, images, blog posts, etc. The most restrictive Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives), still let’s you post it to your website for all to download with no fear of consequences. Without CC, this is called piracy.

How a Publisher Would Use CC

The point of using the OGL for a publisher is two fold: the ability to use material created by other publishers and to let other publishers use your material. Replicating that in CC is one of two ways: declaring your product as Attribution only (maybe Share Alike) or creating separate product that is Attribution only (or Share Alike again). (Full disclosure: if it is Share Alike, you have to make your product Share Alike as well.) Otherwise, there is no way for other companies to use content I create. The first means I cannot protect any part of my work from other companies. To reference the above example: everyone can use Quelf. The latter means every product has to have an SRD. That’s extra work for small publieshers. Both scenarios are bad.

How is This a Trap?

Here’s the thing I’m not seeing anyone talking about. Imagine you’re Wizards of the Coast a second. A bunch of publishers start using CC to create 5e products. So you gather up a whole bunch that are Attribution only/Attribution, Share Alike and republish them in a print book, no pdf for sale. How much did it cost them to create that book? Nothing for the writing.

Pause there a moment. Doesn’t using other people’s work without paying them sound familiar to anyone? Like OGL 1.1. Because that is exactly what it is.

Back to the scenario again. How much is Wizards going to make compared to how much it costs them to make? Quite a bit. It might even be one of their most profitable books compared to cost. It is one thing when a small publisher does it because their sales are not going to hurt the larger entity. When a large publisher does it, they devour sales from smaller companies.

Let me expand on that some. That adventure you worked so hard on that you released as CC-AT-NC-ND (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives) can be shared far and wide without you making more than a few sales on it. That campaign setting you put two decades worth of work into that you published via CC-AT (Creative Commons Attribution) that you wanted others to add on to, anyone can just republish their own modified version without paying you a cent, including Wizards. Even if it is Share Alike, that just means that Wizards has to release your work under Share Alike. But do they care; they didn’t take the time to create it in the first place.

So again, Wizards management wants to get people to create books for them for free while stomping small publishers. This is Plan OGL 1.1 and this is still the plan today. The D&D SRD in Creative Commons is a Trap.

7 thoughts on “5e Creative Commons: It’s a Trap!

  1. I used to think that exact thing. Then Wizards’ put in OGL 1.1 that they can use your work and there’s nothing you can do about it. The only goal of that is to republish others work without any consequences.

  2. Regarding WotC using your writing in their products, OGL v1.0a already allows that, as long as they themselves follow the OGL v1.0a requirements. That is, they could take _Book of Heroic Races_ and convert it to 5e, as long as they comply with OGL v1.0a (including the OGL in the document, identifying BoHR in the Section 15, identifying the OC and PI in the document, etc.).

    That’s a thing they can do now, without remuneration. The main argument that they won’t is that in 23 years they have done so only in a very limited fashion (two monsters in _Monster Manual II_ and a handful of pages in _Unearthed Arcana_).

  3. While true, they did it wrong then. I don’t remember the specifics but IIRC they messed up what was and wasn’t open content. CC, if it is declared open, it is all open.

  4. (Sorry this turned into far more long-winded of a reply than I intended. I really should get my own blog up again someday. But even if I disagree with part of what you are saying, I hope you take this in the spirit of “You inspired me to really think about this” because I do 80% agree with you. 🙂 )

    I fully agree with the first half, that the OGL is far better for the selective share-alike network that works well for RPGs.

    As for the second half, I still really don’t see WotC gathering up 3pp work and republishing it. Sure, they *could* but:

    A) They could only select the works that were themselves licensed for CC re-use. With the 5e SRD as CC-BY, you can use that material and release nothing of your own work into CC. I actually worry posts like this will further encourage publishers to NOT license their work for re-use.

    B) Honestly, I think those in charge of WotC view 3pp’s as peasants and beneath their notice. (Although, I freely admit “those in charge of WotC” are likely to change in the next 5 years, so perhaps my point here is completely moot.) I’d be amazed if they considered any 3pp work worthy enough for them to acknowledge. They are no longer the 800 lb gorilla in the room, they are the viral sensation who doesn’t even realize anyone else is in the room with them. They see Marvel, Paramount, and Bioware as their peers, not Kobold Press or even Paizo. They almost never even acknowledge DMs Guild, and they actually make easy money off of that place right now!!

    Personally, my bigger worry about the 5e SRD being in CC is publishers will use it and NOT share their content. In various Discords and forums I frequent, there is a vast gulf between those of us who worked in the d20 days who try to find ways to share our content and look for interesting bits to use out of others people’s OGC versus newer writers/self-publishers who started in the 5e days who actually look for any way they can to look down their own IP and prevent sharing. (Of course, that’s an overgeneralization – but 9 times out of 10 you can usually tell pretty quickly in a conversation about the OGL which edition they started publishing under.)

    Ironically, even several of the most vocal OpenDnD hashtag posters work very hard to prevent re-use of their own material. Some even using the OGL in ways the older generation believed was not even possible, all while passionately arguing for WotC to keep D&D open. They see the OGL and the SRD as equivalent. In their minds, the OGL is only for accessing the SRD, and that’s it. (I’ve lost track over the past several years of the number of times they have been shocked and disbelieving when I tell them the OGL lets them use any 3.x or Pathfinder or Starfinder OGC material. If I had a dollar for every “The 3.5 OGL is the same as the 5e OGL???” response…).

    Now that the 5e SRD is CC-BY, they can have full access to it without having to share anything of their own. I’m FAR more afraid that the OGL commons will wind up ignored and languishing into history because so many newer publishers have little interest in sharing their own content. (Or everyone is going to move to the new ORC pool, and leave the OGL pool to become neglected and forgotten.) So many of them see these licenses as one-directional. Ways of major publishers to share with the self-pubs, rather than realizing “major” and “self” are useless limitations, and licenses like the OGL allow equal use among all publishers.

    I see that already happening and the 5e SRD in CC only accelerating that. Add in worries like this of WotC repackaging all of their content, and they will be even LESS likely to use the OGL or any license for re-use of their content. With seeing the OGL as one-directional, their use of the SRD is a right they have, but anyone else’s use of their content is theft that must be prevented. Many of them worry that a multibillion dollar corporation who doesn’t even know they exist is eagerly waiting to steal their book of Dragonball Z inspired subclasses.

    Sad truth is, WotC simply does not care about 3pp.

    It’d be nice if the rest of us in the room while the 800 lb gorilla stares out the window at Hollywood celebrities worried more about the first part of your post than the second. If our biggest worry was “How can I still share my content how I want to share it?” rather than “How can I prevent my content from being stolen?”

  5. Exactly, Keith! They have also had almost the exact provision from OGL 1.1 for the DMs Guild, yet I don’t think they have ever used anything from it. Plus, if they wanted the CC 5e SRD to lead to material they could use, they could have made it CC-SA rather than CC-BY, but they didn’t. There’s very little evidence that WotC cares at all about re-using 3pp material.

    On the re-use provision of OGL 1.1, I actually believe their explanation that it was intended as a protection against parallel development. But since they don’t actually care about 3pp, they didn’t bother thinking it through. When you care more about making your Legal Dept happy than your licensees, this kind of overreach is perfectly natural. To a VP or above who has never worked on an RPG book and who has convinced themselves that they are the next Kevin Feige and D&D will be the next MCU, I can see them thinking that provision is just standard CYA boilerplate that you’d toss to the masses.

  6. Oh – and quick addition: Using the provision to repackage 3pp content cheaply is viewing it like they still think they are a publisher. They do not. Just read their executives describing WotC. They literally have said they are not interesting in being primarily a publisher anymore. (Near exact quote from Cynthia Williams!) They are a brand management company. The executives no longer see creating a fun gaming experience as their primary focus. To them it’s merely a means of “customer engagement.” Keep them interested in the brand.

    WotC, in their minds, is no longer a game company focused on selling games. They only care about monetizing the brand.

    View the OGL 1.1 through the lens of a brand management company rather than a publisher, and some of these provisions make more sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: