By: Perry Maybrown
It all started with a leak, which led to a draft, before ending in a retraction.
Wizards of the Coast (WotC) rolled a critical failure when trying to modify their Open Gaming License (OGL)—a license that allows other creators to make use of some Dungeons & Dragons content as building blocks for their own games—after a draft of the updated license was leaked to news outlet Gizmodo. While WotC insisted that little would change, the new license seemed to say otherwise.
The community revolted, leading to promises of boycotts, mass cancelations of subscriptions to D&D Beyond, and a new license called Open RPG Creative License (ORC) from rival company Paizo. Faced with this onslaught, the gaming company chose to back down and keep the OGL intact.
The OG OGL
The original OGL (1.0a), published in 2000, offered prospective gamers a perpetual license to “copy, modify and distribute” the open game content making up the Systems Reference Document (SRD). While the SRD changes with each new edition of D&D (excluding the 4th edition, which is a completely separate can of worms), the OGL stays the same and is perpetual, meaning the license has no set expiration date. The mechanics and building blocks for a Table-Top Role Playing Game (or TTRPG) make up the bulk of the SRD, which creates a base from which creators can build their own games. You can’t use the OGL to publish works that use WotC’s trademarks, like the famous dragon ampersand.
1.0a includes several caveats that creators must follow to not confuse anyone about what is and what isn’t open game content. For one, a complete copy of the OGL must be included with every copy of open game content distributed. To avoid confusion, creators must also label what is open game content. Content can be directly from the SRD, open game content from other game makers, or original works that the creator wishes to add to the proverbial open game content pile.
The license is far from perfect, however. Most notable is the lack of the terms “revocable” or “irrevocable” in its text. This omission makes it difficult to know if WotC can terminate the OGL. Only further muddying the waters is section IX of the license. Through this clause, WotC retains the authority to update the license and allows creators to apply any authorized version of the OGL to any open game content distributed under any license version.
WotC may argue that they can update the OGL and include in the new version language that declares the old to be unauthorized and thus void. However, because the OGL is a long-standing open license, there are legal arguments and evidence that may contradict WotC’s statement and prevent them from deauthorizing 1.0a. Many online have weighed in on the issue, even some legal authorities, with varying conclusions. For now, it’s challenging to say what way a court may lean, but even in that uncertainty, WotC pushed forward with the plan.
The Leaked Draft
On January 5th, 2023, a draft of the new OGL 1.1 was leaked, and it was a radical departure from 1.0a. The license now limited the OGL to the “creation of roleplaying games and supplements in printed media and static electronic file formats.” Meaning creators could no longer create other media such as video games, videos, plays, or otherwise use open gaming content. There was a misunderstanding because one of the sections seemingly implied WotC would own any creations made under the OGL; however, that reading was likely incorrect. While section III does state that WotC owns both the licensed and unlicensed content, as defined in the OGL section I(A), neither of those categories include content made by the licensee. Licensed content refers to content within the SRD, and unlicensed is content not within the SRD. However, under section X(B), creators would grant WotC “a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose.” So while creators would still own their content, WotC would still be allowed to use it.
Some provisions did remain the same between 1.0a, and 1.1. For example, publishers would still be required to include the license with distributed works and identify anything considered “licensed content.” Some sections were expanded in the new draft, like the termination clause, which now allowed termination for various causes. In addition to these expanded terms, further requirements were also tacked on to the license. Such as a clause detailing the repercussions of terminating the license and an indemnity clause that would shift the financial burden to the licensee in several instances if WotC faced legal action due to the license’s contract. While these modifications were likely made to shore up 1.1 legally, the words “revocable” or “irrevocable” were still not in the new license.
The most significant change in 1.1 was that it had been split into two parts, commercial and non-commercial. Commercial had additional monetary requirements regarding royalties and registration. If someone wished to create content to sell, they were required to register and provide WotC with extensive information about the product and creator, reporting any revenue of more than $50,000. Royalties to WotC were only required once a creator had made more than $750,000 in revenue per year across all products produced under the OGL. Creators would have to send 25% of any qualifying revenue exceeding $750,000. Separate terms and royalty rates were detailed for Kickstarter-backed projects.
The Updated Draft
Incensed by this update, fans pushed back, leading WotC to respond with a new draft, 1.2. The license was no longer split in two and did not require creators to pay royalties to WotC. Core D&D mechanics were now licensed under the creative commons license 4.0 CC BY. Rather than requiring the full license, creators could now either include the license or display the newly designed OGL product badge on their work.
Creators were also no longer required to grant WotC a license to use works created under the OGL. Even a new provision under section 3 allowed creators to WotC for copying works (though it does have quite a few restrictions). There was no longer an indemnity clause, though the license bar users from participating in class actions against WotC for activities regarding the OGL. To avoid further conflict, 1.2 finally incorporated the magic words. “This license is perpetual (meaning that it has no set end date), non-exclusive (meaning that we may offer others a license to Our Licensed Content or Our Unlicensed Content under any conditions we choose), and irrevocable (meaning that content licensed under this license can never be withdrawn from the license). It also cannot be modified except for the attribution provisions of Section 5 and Section 9(a) regarding notices.”
In The End
While 1.2 was created to appease the masses, the die had already been cast, and fans were not ready to accept what seemed to be just a modern rewording of 1.0a. WotC eventually backed down, deciding it was not worth the hassle to update the OGL. It is unclear in the future if any new content will be included from the next generation of D&D or if the OGL will stay as it is, only covering the three SRDs, and other open gaming content created for it. The future of these available licenses is unclear, but at least 1.0a is safe from change for now.
Disclaimer: I worked at Wizards of the Coast from 2019-2020. None of the information discussed in the above article is confidential, or provided directly to me by Wizards of the Coast or any of its agents during or after my year of employment. All documents and sources referenced are in the public domain.