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Proposed copyright changes have Dungeons and Dragons fans up in arms

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

By far, the world's most popular tabletop role-playing game is Dungeons & Dragons. And it is having a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES")

CHRIS PINE: (As Edgin the Bard) We're thieves, but we helped the wrong person steal the wrong thing and unleashed the greatest evil the world has ever known.

SUMMERS: It's not just that there is a D&D movie coming out or that the characters in the Netflix series "Stranger Things" love it or even that it helped lots of people through the pandemic.

GRIFFIN MACAULAY: People were enjoying the escapism. And they got really into Dungeons & Dragons during it all because it was a wonderful way in order to, like, not exist in this very scary plane of existence.

SUMMERS: That is Griffin Macaulay. He runs The Griffon's Saddlebag.

MACAULAY: That means that I am, you know, making magical swords and potions that make your hair stand on end and stuff like that.

SUMMERS: See, most people who play D&D customize it. They develop their own rulebooks, their own adventures and characters, their own variants of the game. Not only is that not frowned upon, it has been explicitly legal since the year 2000 per its Open Game License. It allows anyone to take certain parts of Dungeons & Dragons' intellectual property, adapt it and even sell it without any explicit permissions or royalty payments. For The Griffon's Saddlebag and many third-party companies, developing these other ways to play the game is a business. But this month, the D&D community faced what it saw as an existential threat.

MACAULAY: We were all very scared, and we're all doing our best. And we love the community for sticking up with us. It's been a lot.

SUMMERS: D&D's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, which is a subsidiary of the giant toy and game company Hasbro, had been working on a new Open Game License. Drafts of that new OGL were leaked. And for third-party creators, it specified royalty payments, licensing agreements, commercial restrictions. It wasn't a very open license at all.

LINDA CODEGA: Personally, I have not seen the tabletop role-playing game space ever react like this en masse to any news.

SUMMERS: Linda Codega covered this controversy for io9, part of the site Gizmodo. The reaction was swift - a social media campaign, a mass unsubscription to official D&D digital products, announcements of alternative licenses.

KYLE BRINK: We responded as quickly as we could, and we're responding even more strongly now. So strong feedback calls for a strong response.

SUMMERS: In an interview, the executive producer of Dungeons & Dragons, Kyle Brink, said the proposed OGL Version 1.1 was very much still being developed internally when it leaked. He said the goal was not to further monetize D&D but to protect it against hateful content and to address emerging technologies. Wizards of the Coast apologized for the proposed draft, and it put forward another, completely different OGL draft, Version 1.2, for public comment.

MACAULAY: This is much more friendly and much more open and is doing, honestly, a good job of listening.

SUMMERS: Griffin Macaulay of The Griffon's Saddlebag says this attempt at a license is better. But the community still has concerns. io9 journalist Linda Codega says the whole episode reveals that Dungeons & Dragons is a game that does not need its owner.

CODEGA: The thing about playing Dungeons & Dragons is that nobody actually plays by the rules. They have the rulebook. And, like, it's there, and it's available. But there are so many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe one group really wants to just, like, talk to people. Maybe one group is like, we are murder hobos, and that is all we are going to do; don't even try to make us, like, talk something out 'cause we're not going to do it. And then there are other people who are just like, we just want to have fun and, like, do resource gathering and, like, play with our friends. So the thing to remember is that every single person at a table who plays Dungeons & Dragons is using their imagination to create another kind of story and another way to use Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing medium.

SUMMERS: And can you just help us understand culturally why it is so important for creators, for people who love to play this game, to have that open gaming license, to have the ability to create things based on the IP and to make money off of it?

CODEGA: If the leaked OGL 1.1 that people saw in early January went through as proposed - there are so many third-party publishers out there that rely on the OGL 1.0 that was published in 2000 and then updated in 2016 that it could have caused a whole section of the business to go under and was seen by a lot of people as, like, a monopoly move on behalf of Wizards of the Coast. And creators, again, fans who are at the table and playing Dungeons & Dragons and doing whatever they want, they see that, like, this company is telling them, like, you can only play your game the way we want you to play your game. And every single fan was like, absolutely not.

SUMMERS: So last week, Wizards of the Coast issued a new draft OGL without royalties or co-licensing, and there's now a period of community input. What have you heard from creators and people who are invested in Dungeons & Dragons? Are they satisfied?

CODEGA: It's certainly an improvement on the OGL 1.1. And the fact that Dungeons & Dragons is putting some core rules into a Creative Commons license is - has given people, like, some hope that they will be open to feedback and, like, exchanging ideas and editing the OGL 1.2. But a lot of people are still very dissatisfied by the fact that Dungeons & Dragons still wants to deauthorize the 1.0.

And then there's just the fact that people don't believe Dungeons & Dragons. They don't believe Wizards of the Coast when they say they're acting in good faith. There's no more trust left. And people are really upset by the fact that if they did it once, they will attempt to do it again. And the risk of getting back in bed with Wizards of the Coast is too great.

SUMMERS: What do you think that people who are not creators, who do not play Dungeons & Dragons, what do you think that we should take away from what has happened here with this license and Wizards of the Coast and the gaming community that loves to play tabletop games?

CODEGA: I think that the big takeaway is that you shouldn't let corporations have a hold on your imagination, and you shouldn't let corporations tell you what to do with your work. I think this is something that a lot of people will get up in arms over, where people say that, you know, corporations can defend their copyright, corporations can defend their intellectual property. And I'm like, to what end? Like, how long will people accept that multibillion dollar corporations own stories, own play.

It's something of an inflection point where people are starting to realize and take ownership of the fact that they are creative and they are imaginative. And, like, nobody can tell them they're not. It's an incredibly powerful and important, like, message, just that, like, you own your stories. Nobody can take them away from you. And if they try, riot.

SUMMERS: That is Linda Codega, writer at io9. Thank you so much for joining us.

CODEGA: Thank you so much, Juana. It was really nice.

SUMMERS: Dungeons & Dragons' executive producer Kyle Brink said that public comment on the new OGL will run through February 3. Within two weeks of that date, Brink says the company will respond. And he says it will keep running feedback cycles as needed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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