Not-So-Open Gaming License: Dungeons & Dragons Publisher Tries to Tighten Grip on Third-Party Content
It’s an agreement that fans and content creators have been operating under for years: use Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as the base system for your podcast, tabletop roleplaying game system (like Pathfinder, or Adventures in Middle Earth), or TV show and the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, will not require royalties or pursue legal action if you follow its open licensing agreement.
And the agreement has value on both sides. Third-party creators can use the System Resource Document, which lists some D&D concepts (such as the name Dungeons & Dragons and proper nouns used within the game) as proprietary, but allows other concepts to be licensed under the current Open Game License, or OGL. The current OGL licenses basic D&D information about gameplay structures (or how to play the game), as well as character, species, and equipment information (or how to build a character and prepare them to play the game) as open game content.
In return, D&D has experienced a Renaissance in recent years. Streaming platforms such as Dropout, YouTube, and Twitch host live-plays of one-shots — a D&D game started and finished in one sitting — and campaigns — longer stories told and played across multiple sessions. Podcasts detailing campaigns are not only popular in their own right but have led to a graphic novel series already on its fifth installment and a TV series now in its second season. And third parties are not the only moneymakers. A D&D movie starring Chris Pine is set to premiere in March, and Paramount+ ordered a D&D live-action series in January.
But recent leaks show that Wizards of the Coast may be changing the rules.
The new OGL, version 1.1, was set to accompany the release of a new edition of D&D rules currently termed OneD&D. But a leaked version of OGL 1.1 drew fire from fans and third-party creators alike.
The new OGL made sweeping changes, separating its license into a Commercial and Non-Commercial Agreement depending on the use a licensee is making of the System Resource Document and if the licensee is profiting from that use. Under the leaked draft, a licensee making over $750,000 from its work owes Wizards of the Coast, a company whose sales topped $816 billion in 2020, 20-25 percent of its revenue over $750,000.
Creators and users also balked at OGL 1.1’s license-back provision, which granted Wizards of the Coast a “nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use” licensees’ content “for any purpose.” A broad reading of this clause would grant Wizards of the Coast a right to use all fan-created content and the ability to profit off it without any obligation to credit or pay the creator.
The original OGL granted a “perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive license” to open game content to licensees and said that licensees “may use any authorized version of this License to copy, modify and distribute any Open Game Content originally distributed under any version of this License.” But OGL 1.1 de-authorized the original OGL and says “unless otherwise stated in this agreement, any prior agreements . . . are no longer in force.”
Putting aside questions of whether this change would pass the smell test with a court, this news immediately threw third-party creators into crisis mode. Tens of thousands of frustrated users canceled their subscriptions to Wizards of the Coast’s online platform, D&D Beyond.
Wizards of the Coast had previously walked back its open license system and experienced similar backlash. In 2008, the company released a new license agreement called the Game System License alongside the fourth edition of D&D. Perhaps unsurprisingly, creators and users didn’t use that edition as a result. The company returned to the OGL with its fifth edition, and it is that edition that has spurred the various recent successes. For longtime D&D users, the leaked OGL is just the latest in the saga of Wizards of the Coast cutting back on its promise of an open game system.
Given the uproar around the open game system, it’s worth noting that only some elements of a game such as D&D are able to receive copyright protection. In its factsheet on games, the US Copyright Office noted that “the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it” cannot be copyrighted. And as soon as a game is made public, others may develop another game “based on similar principles” without running afoul of copyright law. While Wizards of the Coast may copyright instructions or directions to protect all copyrightable elements of the game, it cannot copyright the idea underlying it.
But third parties are not waiting for a court case to make changes to their operations. Paizo, publisher of Pathfinder and Starfinder game systems and D&D’s biggest competitor, published its first edition using the original OGL and many of its products still bear the original OGL license language. Paizo issued a statement on January 12 noting that it is prepared to pursue legal action “if need be” and announcing a “new open, perpetual, and irrevocable Open RPG Creative License (ORC).” At the time of its announcement, five other publishers had already agreed to participate in the ORC license, which will initially be owned by Paizo’s intellectual property law firm but the company plans to provide ownership to a “nonprofit with a history of open source values.” Other publishers announced their moves away from Wizards of the Coast and the OGL, with indie publisher The Rook & The Raven confirming its withdrawal from licensing negotiations with Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro.
On January 13, the day after Paizo’s announcement and after a week of radio silence following the OGL 1.1 leak, Wizards of the Coast walked back its OGL 1.1 plans. It stated that “it’s clear from the reaction that we rolled a 1.” (Rolling a 1 in D&D leads to sometimes catastrophic results; it’s the worst outcome of a dice roll.) The company promised any new OGL would not include royalty structures or any license-back provision that would give Wizards of the Coast any ownership of third-party created content. Further, the company promised that the new OGL would only cover content for TTRPGS (tabletop RPGs), excluding livestreams, cosplay, and other uses.
After that announcement fell flat, the company issued a fresh apology January 18. Wizards of the Coast said it would share a new and (hopefully) improved OGL for users’ review and feedback coupled with a survey to gauge their reaction. Then the company committed to “compile, analyze, react to, and present back what we heard from you.” Finally, the company listed all areas that will not be covered by the new OGL, including video content, any accessories such as novels, apparel, and dice, contracted services (some Dungeon Masters, or DMs, run games not only for fun but as a first or second job). The company reiterated that “[t]here will be no royalty or financial reporting requirements” and “[y]ou will continue to own your content with no license-back requirements.”
Creators and fans are still awaiting a new OGL draft from Wizards of the Coast; however, Paizo has not walked back their open license announcement. And multiple video creators already announced their movement away from D&D for future campaigns. Trust in Wizards of the Coast is still shaken, with some dismissing the company’s latest statement as a mere PR move.
In any event, changes are coming to Wizards of the Coasts’ OGL, and any such changes might be too late to keep users on the company’s system.