RPGs, SOPA, and Copyright

Logo courtesy of creativecommons.org

Last week, visitors to this blog (and maybe this particular column?) would have noticed the blackout held in solidarity with the online community. Together with some big names, many smaller websites shut down for a day (or for the daytime hours) in order to simulate what a censored internet would look like. But, since you’re reading this blog, you probably know all about that, so I’m done talking about that.

Ostensibly (publicly?), bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act are sweeping measures taken by Congress that aim to shut down the (supposedly large) community of pirates, who are evil and are stealing money from legitimate businesses, particularly the RIAA and MPAA. There are so many anti-SOPA sites out there that detail the position of the internet community, and I’ll let you find whatever spin you prefer, but I wanted to talk about how IP piracy affects, or could affect, the RPG community.

First, some diligence on background. What is copyright, and why does it matter? For a user-friendly primer on copyright, I direct you to the US Copyright Office, particularly this helpful primer on the basics. Is it really this simple? Well, no, of course not. But it at least gives us a foundation. The ostensible goal of copyright is to protect the commercial interests of the creator of a work. In layman’s terms: if you want to make money off something you personally created (such as a song, or a novel, or a painting), the law protects you. It also gives you legal recourse against people who seek to make a profit off your work, though takedowns (forcing people to stop using your copyrighted material) and suits (to recoup any damages it may have caused). I am not a lawyer, so take my understanding of all this with a grain of salt.

Why does this matter for the RPG community?

Overhaul in traditional business models

I’m a librarian by trade and education, and the hot-button issue right now is the e-book. In the last 5 years, the entire publishing sector has had to adjust from a print-based economy (selling books to people) to accommodating an electronic economy (selling .pdfs and e-books to people). Due to the emergence of the Kindle and the Nook, as well as e-reading programs available on most smartphones, coupled with the relatively simple interface to purchase e-books, publishers are taking the transition period in the jaw. In the library world, we’re trying to figure out how to manage the introduction of an easily replicated piece of copyrighted material into an existing service model (the library loan), how to lend it using existing technologies, and how to protect copyright.

In the past, an author had to go to a publishing house: the vast majority of authors were unable to finance the large-scale publication of anything, so they relied on the resources and existing infrastructure of a Random House or similar company. They formed a partnership: the publisher took on most of the expenses, but also reaped most of the rewards when the books eventually sold. With the advent of e-books, the need for that existing infrastructure was instantly removed. Now authors can publish their own material directly to the web or through Amazon or a variety of other sales infrastructures and reap most of the rewards.

The same is true for huge aspects of RPGs: systems, modules and adventures, and various add-ons. It is incredibly easy to self-publish. Ben, our fearless leader, has done so himself.

Publishers existed as middle-men: they were a necessary cog in the machinery of printed entertainment. They have had trouble adapting to the new business model, so they start to get desperate (such as RIAA and MPAA). When companies with large reserves of financial resources get worried, they start to throw their weight around. SOPA, PIPA, and their kin serve to protect existing business models. Could Wizards’ abandonment of the OGL have been spurred by wanting to protect their intellectual property?

Actual Piracy

When it comes to gaming books, it takes all of about 5 minutes to find a torrent of copyrighted material, especially from one of the more popular games. Furthermore, as access to older gaming material and indie games is increasingly provided by sites like Drivethrurpg.com, which provides everything in the format of a downloadable PDF, it is extremely easy for gamers (who tend to be technologically savvy to begin with) to share that material. While sharing something across the internet may be over the line, certainly many of us are guilty of sharing these materials with our friends and playgroups.

Murky IP and copyright issues

I think one area we can debate endlessly is where the intellectual property of a system ends, and where the creative nature of someone’s own RPG creations begins. While companies like Wizards and Paizo provide pre-generated module and campaign material, there is a large contingent of playgroups out there who run homebrew systems, rules tweaks, game add-ons, and so forth.

Tabletop roleplaying games are collaborative and creative by nature – it’s why so many of us are attracted to them. The simulationist games (those which aim to simulate the universe they outline) are merely frameworks, sometimes extremely elaborate frameworks, yes, by which we structure our own games. Their purpose is to provide some order, some rules to our collaborative storytelling.

But, through the internet, that purpose can become a bit distorted. Many of us, myself included, create material for RPGs which we wish to share with others, to improve their gaming experience. If I write up a campaign for Pathfinder and publish it, should I be able to make some money off it? If I run a blog where I primarily post D&D stat blocks and World of Darkness one-shots, and I make ad revenue off the visitors drawn by that content, am I profiting off the intellectual property of Wizards and White Wolf? As I said a few paragraphs earlier, where does the system end and my own creation begin?

In the linked primer on copyright, one of the key rights granted to the copyright holder is ” To prepare derivative works based upon the work.” At what point do my own creations become derivative? Is something more derivative if I base my Pathfinder module in Golarion rather than my own homebrewed world? I honestly don’t know. But I can’t really afford to prove it in court.

So, what recourse do we have?

Fortunately, the community has already seized upon ways to avoid some of these pitfalls.

If you’re not familiar with the Creative Commons, go there now and read up. You can find out more from their website, but the goal of CC and other similar initiatives is to foster collaboration without having to worry about the legal issues. One key point is to change the status quo from explicit permission granted to “free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws”.

Many RPG creators, collaborators, contributors, and authors simply give away their material for free. Some don’t specifically charge for their products, but use infrastructures like Kickstarter to encourage donations. It’s like shopping locally instead of at a large chain store: we can encourage the growth of small, independent game designers like we encourage small, independent retailers. (While we have to be careful not to infringe others’ copyrights, we also have to watch out for the reverse: there seem to be more and more examples of large stores taking advantage of the little guys. Thus, we have to protect ourselves by knowing the law. Fortunately, Creative Commons licenses allow us to freely share our materials to the community, but prevent infringers from taking our work and making profits off it).

So many of us, GMs and players alike, create material for our games every day. Our characters, our cities and settings, our systems are inspired by those that came before, and sometimes are directly built atop the foundations of long-forgotten games (RIP d6 Star Wars). Copyright and intellectual property, especially in a community that is increasingly online, are going to be the most important issues to us in a few years, if they’re not already.

We, as gamers, need to know how to protect ourselves. I think the community is extremely strong, and that we need to actively continue to protect our way of life.

Creative Commons License
RPGs, SOPA, and Copyright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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