Nowadays Shannon Appelcline writes about the history of the roleplaying game business and writes most of the product histories on the Dungeon Masters Guild. In 1994, he administered a computer at Berkeley University that served fan-created content for the indie Ars Magica roleplaying game. That role landed Appelcline an email from Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR claiming that his site offered unauthorized D&D content and demanding that he unplug. “There were no—absolutely zero—Dungeons & Dragons files on the website,” says Appelcline. “They were looking at a roleplaying site not related to D&D and they sent one of their nastygrams.”
“Overall if you think about the Internet at that time being focused on [educational domains], you can see that you had a lot of anti-establishment people on the Internet and so none of us liked TSR that much. Everyone wrote T$R for example. Now they’re sending these nasty letters for legal rights that they probably don’t have. The letter I wrote [in response] said, ‘Not only do we not have any files related to D&D on our site, but we never would. I would rather poke my eye out with a stick before doing anything to help you.’ That phrase was genuinely absolutely, in the letter.”
TSR sent similar cease-and-desist demands to sites across the Internet. Most of the targets actually served fan-created content devoted to D&D. A few delivered files that clearly infringed on TSR’s copyrights.
All these notices bore the name of manager Rob Repp whose job leading TSR’s Digital Products Group included things like managing TSR’s presence on America Online and heading the development of CD-ROM products. No other management employees boasted any Internet experience at all, so Repp drew the chore of leading TSR’s Internet presence. TSR had just gained their first email address a few months earlier. Despite working for TSR, Repp wasn’t a gamer, so he failed to distinguish content for Ars Magica from D&D. But he can’t be dismissed as just a suit. He’s also credited with the border art on many of TSR’s Planescape products.
Repp first appeared on the Internet in 1994 when he replied to a request for an illegal copy of the Monsterous Compendiaum posted on the rec.games.frp USENET newsgroup.
>Anyone know of an ftp site that has a monstrous compendium available for >download? Thanks in advance. (Please email to j...@thepoint.com). I'd be interested in knowing about this one myself. :) Rob Repp | InterNet: firstname.lastname@example.org Manager, Digital Projects Group | InterNet: email@example.com TSR, Inc. | CompuServe: 76217,761 __________________________________ | GEnie: TSR.Online AOL: TSR Inc All opinions are my own, not TSR's | 414-248-3625 Fax 414-248-0389
Despite a TSR’s employee’s interest, someone still posted a link to a file server distributing the infringing content.
The budding Internet created fears beyond such blatant infringement. Repp explained, “When gamers begin sharing their creations with the public, whether for profit or not, they are infringing our rights. If we don’t make an earnest attempt to prevent this infringement of our trademarks and copyrights, our ownership of these extremely valuable assets may be jeopardized.”
Companies that fail to defend their trademarks can lose them. Just ask the original makers of cellophane, escalators, and trampolines. However, D&D fans and TSR would debate how much copyright law justified the company’s cease-and-desist notices.
In an official statement, TSR told fans interested in distributing content to avoid infringing on D&D by making the content generic. “If the party encounters a hydra, let the GM look up the stats for the hydra in the game system he is using. Don’t set the adventures in a TSR world. Create your own or use one from history or legend. Don’t use monsters, spells, etc. that were created by TSR. Create and name your own. Draw on history, legend or reality. Even spell their actual names backward for uniqueness.”
For fans who insisted on sharing content for D&D, Repp promised a solution. “Sometime very soon, we’re going to create a place where gamers can legally upload and share their creations, including modules, stories and software. We are definitely interested in fostering goodwill among customers. Eventually, we want gamers to be able to turn to TSR in cyberspace as easily as they do in a hobby store.”
None of Repp’s goodwill cushioned the impact of the nastygrams.
Unlike Appelcline, Trent A. Fisher had set up a server that actually held D&D-related content: a collection of the best of the rec.games.frp discussion group. “I was pretty angry about all of this. I read most everything that went onto the site, and I never would have permitted anything which outright copied TSR materials. Apparently, someone in TSR leadership must have felt that any fan-generated work represented competition that had to be stamped out.”
Jim Vassilakos also edited D&D-related content in his fanzine The Guildsman . He served it from Stanford University. At the time, he wrote, “Many gamers actually dislike TSR, and they have since before TSR was even on the Internet. I think a large part of the reason has to do with the way TSR deals with competition.”
That distrust of TSR extended to much of D&D’s fan community. Critics pointed to TSR’s lawsuits against competitors. When Game Designers Workshop dared to publish founder Gary Gygax’s latest roleplaying game, TSR sued. When Mayfair Games published generic content “suitable for use with Dungeons & Dragons,” TSR sued. Gamers joked that TSR stood for “they sue regularly.” TSR’s takeover of wargame publisher SPI also troubled gamers. Partly because TSR stiffed lifetime subscribers to SPI’s magazines. Also because most of SPI’s design staff quit when faced with working at TSR. Overall, gamers saw TSR as a company using a dominant market position and deep pockets to bully fans and competitors.
Nonetheless, TSR fulfilled its promise to provide a place where gamers could share their creations. In a time when the company lacked a web presence, the company found a host for fan-created content.
On September 6, 1994, TSR announced that fans could legally upload content to a server hosted by an outfit called the Multi-player Gaming Network or MPGNet.
TSR is pleased to announce a licensed Internet FTP file server. MPGNet's site (ftp to ftp.mpgn.com) will carry a license that allows your creations to be shared with the world via the Internet.
MPGNet called itself “a business that provides low-cost, interactive multiple player gaming entertainment,” but it seemed like a small enterprise. Company head Rob Miracle suggested users cope with his site’s low bandwidth by connecting during working hours when few online gamers were active. (He did promise to upgrade MPGN to a T1 line in 1995. In 1994, a network business dreamed of a 1.44 MB per second T1 connection. Now houses in my neighborhood get a download speed of 360Mps and a upload speed of 25Mps.)
TSR’s takedown of gamers’ file servers had inflamed fans, but the invitation to share content on MPGNet included a requirement that provoked rage.
In order to distribute your texts, software and message digests via this server, you must include the following disclaimer: _______________________________________________________________________________ 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 people’s creations, and that proved most alarming.