Open Game Definitions:
Frequently Asked Questions

Version 2.0 -- January 26, 2004


Please send comments, questions, or feedback to Linae Foster. Contents of this FAQ Copyright 2001, by the Open Gaming Foundation. Much of the information contained in this FAQ relates to copyright and trademark law. The author, Ryan Dancey, is not an attorney and makes no representation about the accuracy of the legal material contained herein. This FAQ does not constitute legal advice. Readers are advised to consult their own legal counsel before proceeding with any Open Gaming project. Permission is granted to reproduce this document, in whole or in part, provided that this notice is preserved intact.

Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons, d20 System, and other related names are Trademarks and/or Registered Trademarks of Wizards of the Coast. Open Gaming Foundation is a Trademark owned by Ryan S. Dancey.

Q: What is meant by the term "Open Gaming"?

A: An Open Game is a game that can be freely copied, modified, and distributed, and a system for ensuring that material, once distributed as an Open Game will remain permanently Open.

Q: Why use the term "Open Gaming"?

A: The term is derived from the software development community. In that community, the term "Open Source" is used to refer to computer software that is provided to the public using licenses that require the source code to be distributed, and provide permission to the recipients to freely copy, modify and distribute that code as well.

The commonly accepted definition of "Open Source" software is the Open Source Definition, maintained by the Open Source Initiative project. The Definition is fully explained online.

Where possible, an Open Game License should try to implement as much of the Open Source Definition as possible. The Open Source community has spent many years fine tuning their license requirements and debating the law, and the ethical foundation of the Free Software concept. We can all benefit from that effort by using their work as a baseline for the Open Game movement.

Q: What is meant by the term "Free"?

A: There are two common definitions of the word "free." The first is "free" as in "free speech," that is, a right to take (or not take) an action. The second is "free" as in "free beer," that is, something that is provided without cost. In the context of Open Gaming (and Open Source for that matter), the term "free" is used in the first sense.

This use of the term "free" is a recognition of the philosophy of the roots of the Open Source software movement. The Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, founded by Richard Stallman were the first formal efforts to codify the philosophy of Open Source software. It is the preference of the Free Software Foundation and Mr. Stallman to use the term "Free Software" rather than "Open Source", to keep the focus on the idea that the important part of the philosophy is the freedom to copy, modify and distribute computer software, rather than the more utilitarian objective of simply giving users access to the source code.

The semantic confusion between the two common uses of the word "free" is one of the reasons that the term "Open Source" was coined. In an attempt to avoid the same semantic confusion in the gaming market, the term "Open Game" is used throughout this document. It would be technically correct, however, to assume that an "Open Game" is also a "Free Game" in the sense that "Open Source" software is usually "Free Software."

Stallman, and others, object to the use of "Open Source" because it is possible to construct a licensing scheme whereby the source code is provided to recipients of a program, but the code is provided using a license that does not preserve the recipient's freedom to copy, modify and distribute that code. To the uninformed, such a licensing arrangement might appear to be "Open Source," even though the most fundamental part of the Free Software philosophy has been abandoned.

Similarly, it is possible to provide games without providing explicit rights to copy, modify and distribute those games. Most roleplaying games, for example, are based on the implicit assumption that the people using them will create their own content in the form of adventures, characters and even whole campaign settings. However, few commercial roleplaying game products provide a license of sufficient rights to allow the purchasers of those games to distribute the content they create using the frameworks provided by the gaming system.

The Open Gaming concept addresses this problem by explicitly providing such rights.

Q: What other conditions apply to Open Games?

A: Generally, Open Games are provided to the public using a copyright license. The terms of that license may vary from game to game depending on the inclinations of the original creators of the game in question. Each license may impose additional terms, but in order to be considered an Open Game, any such license must give the recipient the right to freely copy, modify, and distribute the licensed material, and the license must provide a mechanism to ensure that Open Game content cannot become Closed (meaning that the freedom to copy, modify and distribute the content cannot be rescinded).

Q: Can I require recipients to pay me a fee or a royalty to copy, modify, or distribute my Open Game?

A: No, you cannot. A requirement to pay a fee or a royalty is incompatible with the freedom to copy, modify, and distribute an Open Game.

Q: Can I require recipients to submit their modifications of my Open Game to me or some third party for approval before they distribute them?

A: No, you cannot. A requirement to restrict the distribution of an Open Game pending approval by a third party is incompatible with the freedom to copy, modify, and distribute an Open Game.

Q: So an Open Game really is "free" as in beer?

A: To the extent that any person can distribute a copy of an Open Game without being required to pay a fee or royalty, or to charge a fee or royalty.

It is important to note, however, that a publisher may be able to add value to an Open Game in the form of non-Open Game material that enhances the Open Game content, provide various support services, or enhance the Open Game in other ways that will allow that publisher to charge for an Open Game, and cause people to be willing to pay for the Open Game material voluntarily.

Q: Can I require that recipients of my Open Game distribute copies without charge?

A: No. A limitation on charging a fee is incompatible with the freedom to distribute an Open Game. The choice to charge a fee must be the decision of the publisher, not the content creator.

Q: Can a Game be both Closed and Open?

A: A creator can license their original material more than once, so it is possible for a given game to have both an Open Game version and one or more versions which are Closed (meaning the content is not provided with a free right to copy, modify and distribute the content). Most licensing schemes designed for Open Gaming ensure that material that is derived from an Open Game will also be Open and cannot become Closed. An original creator could, however, continue to derive materials from their own Closed work, and distribute those materials using any licensing terms they wish; even if a version of that work also exists as a parallel Open Game.

Q: What is a "copyleft"?

A: Copyright is the legal system that allows the creator of a work to control who can distribute copies of that work or make derivative works based from it.

Copyleft is a way of using contract law (through a copyright license) to ensure that everyone has the freedom to copy, modify, and distribute a given work. It takes the copyright law and turns it inside-out. Instead of being used to limit what you can do with a copyright work, a copyleft ensures that your freedom can't be abridged.

Q: What is a "strong copyleft"?

A: A copyleft is only as good as the license that implements it. If a recipient of a copylefted work can distribute that material without being required to pass the copyleft forward to the next recipient, or if the terms of the license can be modified by future licensees, the copyleft is said to be "weak". A strong copyleft is a copyright license which enforces a standard, unchanging set of terms on each recipient of the copylefted material.

Q: What is the connection between copyleft and the Open Game definition?

A: A strong copyleft is one of the ways that a license can ensure that the Open Game definition's requirement Open Game content cannot be made Closed.

Due to the extensive legal groundwork provided by the Open Source software community, the concept of a strong copyleft is the preferred licensing mechanism for Open Gaming projects.

Q: Why create Open Games?

A: The tabletop RPG business lost 60% to 70% of its unit sales from the period from 1993 to 1997. After a detailed study of the market data available, business managers at Wizards of the Coast decided that the primary reason for this decline was the dissatisfaction consumers had about the products game publishers made available for sale.

One way to help publishers make products that will be more interesting to consumers is to allow them to use standardized systems that have large networks of players. Designing a product targeted at a large network of players gives that product a better chance of being commercially successful than designing a product targeted at a small, or a new network of players.

Due to the history of copyright litigation, and the relatively modest financial resources of most game companies, an informal agreement regarding the use of shared game rules, or a license requiring a monetary payment to a third party would not have been sufficient to generate sustained interest in using such systems. Open Games provide both a royalty free license (meaning they impose no financial burden on the publishers) and a formal, explicit agreement describing how to use copyrighted material owned by others without triggering lawsuits or threats of litigation.

Q: Any other reasons?

A: Yes. In addition to the potential improvement in the business of game publishing, Open Games will be subjected to a large, distributed effort to improve the games themselves. Because Open Game licenses allow publishers to make any changes they deem necessary to the material they are using, a publisher who thinks they have found a better way to write a game rule will be free to do so. And, if that new way is perceived as better than the existing alternatives, other publishers will be able to take that new rule and use it as well. In this way, the overall design of an Open Game should improve over time, and be the benefit of far more development and testing than any one game publisher, no matter how large and successful, could hope to apply by themselves.

Q: Is there an ethical reason to support Open Gaming?

A: In this writer's opinion, yes there is. It has been an established feature of RPGs since their inception that they should be used to create new content. Prior to the advent of widespread Open Game licenses, there was no practical way for that kind of material to be legally and widely distributed.

Open Gaming is recognition that your natural human right to free speech is protected and enhanced. The Open Game system is a way for the game publishing industry to finally deliver on the basic promises made by the very first RPGs; that individuals should be free to copy, modify and distribute their own creative works derived from the game systems they have acquired.

Q: Is Open Gaming restricted to just RPGs?

A: No, not at all. Most Open Game Licenses are content-neutral. You could use them to distribute a board game, a card game, a miniatures game, or any other kind of content you are interested in.

Q: Is there a business-related reason to support Open Games?

A: In the case of companies who own trademarks and brands associated with large player networks, one school of thought holds that Open Games which link to those large networks will tend to reinforce them and drive value to the owners of those trademarks and brands.

That is the primary reason that Wizards of the Coast, as a company, is supportive of the Open Game concept. It fully expects that it will gain a direct financial reward in years to come from the widespread positive effects Open Gaming will have on its RPG properties, specifically on sales of Dungeons & Dragons materials.

Of course, the flip side to that theory is that if it is successful, it is successful because other publishers have also been able to extract value from the network of players through the sale and promotion of their own Open Game product lines. Thus, at the same time the owners of large game network trademarks and brands stand to benefit greatly, so do smaller companies or individuals that simply want to sell their work to the largest possible audience of consumers.

Q: Can game rules be copyright?

A: In the United States, the rules of games cannot be copyright. The law may be different in other countries, but most countries are signatures to the Bern Convention on Copyrights, and under the terms of the BCC, the rules of games cannot be copyright. If you have questions about your ability to apply the copyright law to a game, consult your legal counsel.

Q: Why does every RPG product I own claim a copyright for the publisher?

A: RPGs are more complex than just rules for games. A typical RPG includes substantial material that is not "rules for a game". The line between the copyrightable portion and uncopyrightable portion of a particular product is very blurry and under U.S. copyright law, is left to a court to interpret in the event of a lawsuit.

Q: What good is a copyright license for Open Games then?

A: Even though portions of an RPG may not be copyrightable as an idea or as a rule, the actual text used to describe those rules is copyrightable. In addition, all the material surrounding the non-copyright portion is protected by the copyright law as well. The copyright licenses used by Open Games ensure that no matter where an individual judge might draw the line between copyright and non-copyright, you can be sure that you have the freedom to copy, modify and distribute the work. Removing this gray area creates a "safe harbor" that publishers can use to shield themselves from litigation. The safe harbor is an important component to the commercial viability of Open Games. Without it, most rational publishers would not attempt to use a shared rules system out of fear that someone somewhere would sue them for copyright infringement.

Another very valuable right you gain from an Open Game is the right to make a derivative work based on someone else's copyright. Without that right, you cannot legally make and distribute a derivative work. Since RPGs are often self-referencing (meaning, you use one part of the RPG to indicate how another part works or interacts with players during the game), RPGs are essentially chains of linked, derivative works. By giving you the right to make a derivative work, an Open Game license allows you to extend or modify these chains as you see fit.



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