In 1994 TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, struck two blows aimed at containing fan-created D&D content on the Internet. (See TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans.)
First, administrators running servers offering D&D content received email from TSR representative Rob Repp. “On behalf of TSR, Inc. I ask that you examine your public net sites at this time and remove any material which infringes on TSR copyrights.” Because universities hosted most of these sites, the notices led to a quick wave of shutdowns.
Second, TSR insisted that fans who wished to distribute their D&D creations exclusively use a server run by their licensee MPGNet. Fans hated that loss of control, but the real blow came from a disclaimer that TSR demanded fans add to their content.
This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.
The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute independent creations, and that proved most alarming. “This statement looks more like a release of distribution rights than a disclaimer,” wrote Jim Vassilakos.
Sean K. Reynolds would soon become TSR’s online coordinator. In an interview, he explains the roots of TSR’s online policy. “They came up with the idea that if you express something in D&D format, it belongs to TSR because TSR owns D&D.“
Jim Vassilakos took the full force of TSR’s legal assault. He edited The Guildsman, a roleplaying fanzine with D&D-related content, and then he distributed it online from a server named greyhawk at Stanford University.
Before legal notices forced the Stanford server to shut down, TSR’s affiliate MPGNet had copied the Guildsman archive, transferred it to their servers, and added the disclaimer, all without permission. This led Vassilakos to write MPGNet head Rob Miracle.
“You (MPGN and TSR) have basically taken a vast quantity of material from Greyhawk, including the six Guildsman magazines which total over 400 printed pages, and proclaimed yourselves as the sole distributor of this material. I think that, given this situation, you should be able to see clearly enough why people are upset at this unexpected turn of events. In any case, my contributors are telling me that they’d prefer that their material not be kept at MPGN under this sort of condition.”
Rob Miracle wrote a conciliatory response. “First, let me say that we took over Greyhawk so that it wouldn’t die. We had lost other great sites and didn’t want to lose probably the best site. I will do whatever you wish, because they are your files. Just let me know.”
Of course this dispute just samples the furor raging in the Internet’s community of D&D fans. Fueled by distrust of TSR, people considered ways the company could benefit from seizing control of so much online content.
Many creators feared that TSR would bundle their creations in a CD-ROM or start charging for online access. Did the disclaimer enable the company to reap profits without paying anyone for their work? The more conspiracy-minded worried that TSR would simply gather content and pull the plug, eliminating a source of competition. Certainly some folks sought free and illegal online copies of D&D products. The crackdown made such sources harder to hide.
TSR claimed good intentions. “I can tell you that the intent we had when we started working with MPGNet was not to derive revenue from that site,” Rob Repp wrote. “I find it unlikely in the extreme that a company with as sharp a legal team as ours is going to simply grab someone’s stuff and publish it without permission. I don’t think that’s lawful, and I’m certain the legal people would mention it during some meeting or other.”
Rob Miracle explained, “MPGNet has nothing to gain from offering this service other than the satisfaction that there is a net home for gaming material.”
Meanwhile, many wondered if TSR really needed to take such steps to defend their intellectual property. Some fans did extensive legal research. TSR cited drow as a monster of their own creation. Gary took the name from folklore, but few of the specifics. (See The Stories Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters.) So did TSR own the drow? Perhaps not, but they surely owned mind flayers, beholders, carrion crawlers and other monsters Wizards of the Coast now reserves as D&D’s product identity. TSR couldn’t copyright game mechanics, but could they copyright terms like armor class and hit dice? TSR felt their steps were required.
Many gamers saw TSR’s defense of their copyrights and trademarks as overreaching. If fans saw it, then TSRs lawyers saw it too, and fans supposed that revealed a bad-faith strategy working toward a hidden agenda. Benjamin Lake wrote, “Imagine how much cash TSR would have if every copy of Ultima (for example) was taxed for using the concept of levels and experience points.”
Perhaps Rob Miracle began regretting his company’s affiliation. “There is no conspiracy. MPGNet has no hidden agendas and as far as we know, TSR does not have a hidden agenda.”
During the furor, one fan asked, “Does TSR regard it as illegal to play AD&D with a dozen or so people over the Net, as opposed to playing it with a dozen or so people in my living room?”
“We certainly do not,” Repp explained before adding a catch. “Saving up all the moves, however, and republishing them as a separate work would probably be an infringement.” Such a recounting of a D&D game resembles an actual play podcast or even a streaming game. This interpretation would forbid the content powering much of D&D’s current surge in popularity.
Rob Repp got tired of bearing the Internet backlash, and tired of fans pointing out how TSR fought copyright infringement now, but had used balrogs and hobbits without permission 20 years earlier when the company operated from Gary’s basement. Sean K. Reynolds explained Repp’s plight. “To put it bluntly, he pissed off a lot of people with his attitude and posts. Not all of it was his fault. TSR’s online policy was draconian and unproductive. Rob was just tasked with enforcing it, but not being a gamer he couldn’t relate to the fans’ side of the story.”
In May 1995, Repp posted to the AD&D mailing list announcing a job opening for an online coordinator at TSR. The job’s responsibilities included managing TSR’s web presence and AOL site. Reynolds saw the listing. “I felt I could do a better job of it than he was; he was making people mad when he didn’t have to.”
Reynolds got the job. Two days later, Repp quit. Reynolds landed in charge of the online policy that he had argued against. “My first act was to go to the lawyer and say, ‘What can we do about this? We have this policy. I think it’s kind of unreasonable—actually very unreasonable.’ We stopped doing the cease-and-desist letters threatening people posting their own monsters or whatever, and started focusing on people doing actual copyright infringement. Without actually changing the TSR policy, we just kind of mitigated our enforcement of the policy.”
Reynolds served as online coordinator for 2 years. “A lot of people badmouthed me for a long time because of that policy, but while I was TSR’s online coordinator not one website was shut down for D&D material that wasn’t an actual copyright violation (such as posting scans of books or artwork). Nobody was ever bothered by me because of fan material on their site.” In 1997, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. “They had a much more benign and open idea of how to handle this sort of thing.“
The new owners of D&D would completely rethink the status of fan creations. D&D team head Ryan Dancey led this change of direction. He credits open source software for inspiring the change. In open source, programmers contribute free code that enhances the utility of software like Linux, the operating system that now powers the Internet. Through open source, the Internet community proved the value of their freely-distributed creations.
Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and other companies for D&D leads more people to play D&D. Dancey writes, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear some weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?
Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules, and not just on the internet, but in stores.
At a glance, this new spirit of sharing seems like a complete reversal, but TSR’s disclaimer that allowed sharing on MPGnet hints at the modern licenses. Like the OGL license, the old disclaimer set a legal basis for sharing content. Unlike the disclaimer though, the OGL is irrevocable. If you place content under that license, it is perpetually under it. This leaves little room for a hidden agenda. In an echo of MPGNet, gamers can offer creations that use D&D’s brand, unique monsters, and worlds on a specific site, the Dungeon Masters Guild. This time though, gamers can sell their products. And presumably the DMs guild has an Internet link even faster than 1.5Mbps.