Licensing Pitfalls, Swinging Axe Blades and Poison Darts

If you write content for RPGs, it is likely at some point you’ll do so under the terms of some sort of license. The most likely form is some sort of agreement with a platform you sell on, whether that’s Kickstarter, DriveThruRPG, Itch or whatever. There’s a whole load of legal boilerplate. You should probably read it, you should always read it, but you probably won’t and it’ll probably be fine.

The other type of license is around content. You might be agreeing to a license to let you publish content for a specific game system, or using a mechanics from a system. That’s what we’re going to talk about here. We’ll look at some things you could fall foul of, some things that make a license good, and link to some examples.

None of this constitutes legal advice, not even a little bit. I’m not a lawyer.

Some Terminology & Reading

If you’re new to RPGs, these might be useful.

Edit: this post from Liber Ludorum is an excellent intro to licenses overall and the Mork Borg license which we link to later.

SRD – A System Reference Document. Typically this contains all the rules text of a game, and none of the setting / gameable content. There is often a license accompanying this to allow you to use those rules in your work. The degree of strings attached to this varies.

OGL – the Open Game License. The biggest and well known example of this kind of thing. It allows you to make content for that really popular roleplaying game in terms of rules and mechanics. It lets you use lots of the monsters and stuff that are in the SRD too. There’s some stuff that’s a no-no though. The most precious IPs. We don’t really talk about this here, but you’ ll likely see it around if you read more.

Trap the First – Hiding the License

When you are considering agreeing to a license, it should be easy to read the full text of the license. I’d expect it to be linked right there where it is first mentioned. For instance, in the Wretched & Alone SRD, the full CC-BY 3.0 license is clearly linked.

Now, I can’t help but use the DM’s Guild agreement as an example when writing this, because it is the license agreement I think most first time creators are likely to sign. Because they’re first timers, they’re not likely to fully understand the ins and outs of what they agree to. I certainly did when I signed up to the DM’s Guild, I was just excited to make stuff for games.

If you visit Getting Started on the DM’s Guild you’ll notice the license agreement isn’t linked. You mostly are encouraged to visit the FAQ pages you’ve just landed on. In fact to find the full agreement you need to read the last bullet points, which links you to another page where you have to scroll to the bottom. Oh, and you need to have an account to read it. That page is the Publish a Title page, and the agreement is the last step. It’s in an iframe or somesuch, so I can’t even link to it. In fact, as of writing this it doesn’t load properly for me on that page and I am unable to read it there (if you know, like I need to complete X and Y within the title upload page, I’d love to know, although factor it into your thinking about hiding the agreement)

Now, I think reading the agreement should be your first step and it should be easy. This feels like hiding the agreement, and I don’t like it. The FAQ pages give lots of answers, but the map is not the territory.

You, the individual, have to use your judgement. Until this morning if you visited the Wretched & Alone SRD Itch page the term CC-BY 3.0 wasn’t linked to anything, it was only linked in the files you downloaded. Was I hiding the agreement? No. I was just lazy/incompetent. It’s up to you to decide the difference between someone not bothering to link to an easily findable license and deliberately linked to another page where you have to scroll to find it, and where the line is in what you consider to be appropriate transparency.

Trap the Second – Ownership

When you write something, it is yours. That seems obvious. If you’re a freelancer you can sell it, or may have written it for someone in the first place. They likely license it from you under terms that give you some control, ability to get it back, possibly continued income. There’s lots written about freelance writing, go find it if you need it.

When you agree to an RPG content license, there’ll be something like this. The most excellent Troika license is very clear up front about who owns what. It’s super clear about what parts of their you can and can’t use. Chef’s kiss. The concept of who owns the work barely takes up any text. You own your work, they own theirs and you can use some of it. Go bananas.

Let’s do the DM’s Guild again. They have a very helpful FAQ because reading license agreements is a pain. There’s this little nugget that clears it all up.

Wizards does not own any of the unique IP that you create in your publications. Wizards does own the IP that they contribute, plus the DMs Guild agreement will grant Wizards and other DMs Guild authors a license to use your IP.

Well, I’m glad that’s all clear. I still own the work, that’s great. Of course, it’s always a good idea to check the full agreement. So let’s do that. As mentioned earlier, I can’t actually read the damn thing on the DM’s Guild itself but I can read this version on Reddit. This is perhaps a good example of why being able to easily read the full license is important. Perhaps ask yourself why whoever wrote the FAQ skipped over what follows.

Here’s a quote.

5. Rights You Grant to OBS

(a) No Reversion. Due to our licensing arrangement with the Owner and the collaborative nature of the Program, you are granting us broad licenses in your Work and your User Generated Content included in your Work, and the rights to your Work will not be reverted once it is published in the Program. You will have the ability through online tools at OBS websites to stop public display and sale of your Work on OBS marketplaces, but not to stop the sale of works of other authors in the Program even when such works use your User Generated Content that you originally created in your Work and thereby became part of the Program IP for other authors to use.

(b) Exclusive License to your Work. Effective as of the date you setup your Work through the Program on OBS’s website, you grant us the exclusive, irrevocable license for the full term of copyright protection available (including renewals), to develop, license, reproduce, print, publish, distribute, translate, display, publicly perform and transmit your Work, in whole and in part, in each country in the world, in all languages and formats, and by all means now known or later developed, and the right to prepare derivative works of your Work.

(c) Exclusive License to all User Generated Content in your Work. Effective as of the date we first make your Work available through the Program, you grant us the exclusive, irrevocable license for the full term of copyright protection available (including renewals), to all User Generated Content included in your Work. You agree that the User Generated Content is available for unrestricted use by us without any additional compensation, notification or attribution, including that we may allow other Program authors, the Owner and other third parties to use the User Generated Content.

Let’s break this down a bit. First off, the license is forever, or until the limits of copyright law. Your work is licensed to them until the copyright lapses and it becomes public domain. You’ll most likely be dead when this happens and your DM’s Guild Writing and your skull will be your only legacy.

It’s exclusive. You can’t publish anything you publish on the DM’s Guild anywhere else. While you do technically own it still, you can’t do what you like with it. Because your village and dungeon include a Beholder (part of what you get access to with the license), the whole thing is now locked away. This includes all the art you did. You probably had an agreement with that artist too. Is it even compatible with this?

It’s irrevocable. This means you can’t have it back. There’s no reversion. So even if you decide you want it back and take it down from the Guild fifteen minutes after you publish it without making a sale the license is in place and you’re stuck. Even if they find the content objectionable and take it down, the license remains with them. There are some examples of rights reversion on the Guild in very specific circumstances, but this is when they allowed it, not when a writer wanted it.

Again, you the individual need to decide how comfortable you are with this. A lot of folks definitely don’t realise what this means for them. Can you, for instance, make stickers, t-shirts and tote bags of art from your shiny DM’s Guild title? It seems to me you can’t. You’d likely get away with it, but is that the point? You can’t print some copies at a local print shop and sell them at a convention. If you stop playing Eeeee and start writing passionately for something else you can’t remove the Beholder and republish for another system. You can’t publish a system neutral version on another platform. You do still own it though, that FAQ was clear about that.

What happens when the DM’s Guild program changes? It’s been around since 2016. Will it still exist as is six years from now? I suspect not. When it changes, and depending how it changes, your work will go with it. If that means they close it all down for rolling out Eeeeee (one more e) and don’t revert licenses, you’re stuck, and have no claim to it. You signed away all rights to sue them too. “you irrevocably waive any legal claim you may have under any theory of law in any territory”. That was the in point six, just after the rights you gave to them.

Trap the Third – Platform

So, why are you writing under a license anyway? Romantically, because you’re deeply in love with the setting and the idea of being able to write in fills you with effervescent glee. Good for you. Cynically, to get access to the people who like that setting and sell your stuff to them. This cynical option will be how I frame this.

When you use a license Your Thing hopefully has ways to get put in front of the people who like the Original Thing. Mork Borg has a cool license, with clear permissions. What’s more it has an excellent community. It has a thriving Discord where people can and do successfully promote their Mork Borg work and make money off it. The creators regularly use their social media platforms to show off Mork Borg work other people have done, that they don’t see a cut of. There are cool stores who will buy your Mork Borg stuff in print and it will sell because the license works. It gives you power to sell your thing.

Now, to complete what will no doubt be perceived an absolute hatchet job on the DM’s Guild I’ll do a small example. When you sell a product via DriveThruRPG, you have the ability to email your customers from the publisher tools page. As part of your license agreement with OneBookShelf for DriveThru, you can contact people and say I have a new thing for sale, maybe buy it? When you sign up with the OneBookShelf for the DM’s Guild, that is taken away. This was probably a deliberate decision.

Again, this is up to you to judge how big a deal that is. What I will tell you is tools that let you build an audience who are interested in you and your output are extremely powerful, and give you real independence as a writer/publisher. Without them, you are far more likely to wind up dependent on the DM’s Guild. Unable to walk away, even if you want to. After all, you can’t take your work with you, or the people who like it.

A Short Summary for a Long Thing

You decide what you’re comfortable with in terms of licensing. Read the license though, twice. Maybe more. Consider what it means in terms of practical outcomes. Consider what it means two years from now. Consider what license-breaking chances you are and aren’t willing to take. Talk to some more experienced folks and regard what they say with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some of them probably have license Stockholm Syndrome.

Some Cool Licenses

These licenses are cool. Go read them. Make stuff for them. Heck, make one thing for all of them.

Anyway, if you’ve read all of this and have thoughts do offload them in the comments. Comments do have to be approved because bots are awful and so are people. If this was valuable to you and will effect what you do and how you do it, consider supporting me via Ko-Fi or buying some of my stuff here or on Itch. This took a couple of hours to write, and a good deal of experience to be able to write it.

There are a lot more cool SRDs and content licenses out there. Link to some cool ones in the comments. I might even come back and add them to this list.