jhkimrpg (jhkimrpg) wrote,
jhkimrpg
jhkimrpg

The Ethics of Open Content

So there was a recent thread on RPGnet, I found out about some accusations about me that I was disturbed by. The accusations have to do with System Reference Documents Page on my site.

As explanation of the page... In 2000, with the release of Wizards of the Coast's SRD, I started up a separate page of open content that did not use trademarks like "D20 System" or "Dungeons & Dragons". At first it was just the fantasy SRD from WotC, which I converted to HTML for easy browsing, as well as spell and monster data as XML or MySQL. I later added the Modern SRD and fantasy 3.5 SRD (from Wizards of the Coast) as well as other open-content sources from a number of publishers -- including the Anime SRD (derived from Mark C. MacKinnon's BESM d20 system), the "action-oriented SRD" (derived from Mark Arsenault's Action! System), the "runic SRD" (derived from Matthew Sprange's RuneQuest - based on original material by Greg Stafford), the Fudge SRD (derived from Steffan O'Sullivan's Fudge system), and the FATE SRD (derived from Fred Hicks and Robert Donoghue's Fudge variant FATE). All of these were converted the content into HTML for easy browsing.

My intent with this was as a resource for people developing open-content games, that this would be a like a library of open content to draw on. By having a bunch of open-content mechanics in one place in an easy-to-browse (and human-readable) format, it makes it easier to compare and contrast, and avoid re-inventing the wheel.

The Specific Controversy

A fellow RPGnetter informed me by PM that Chris Helton was making some claims on RPGnet about my SRD collection, specifically about my collection of OGC from Green Ronin that I labelled the "True SRD". In a recent RPGnet thread, he commented about "Except that violates some of Green Ronin's IP from Blue Rose, and the compiler won't take it down despite requests." ("True20 Licensing Fees To Go Away" - Jan '08) Also, I found that a few months earlier he had cited a source for this, saying: "In fact Nicole Lindroos has said that the 'True' SRD has a number of Green Ronin's Product Identity in it." ("Thoughts on & Questions about the True SRD" - Jun '07). I have not received any official notice from Green Ronin about any such OGL violation. However, they have stated that they are opposed to free sharing of their open content (see below).

Also, in the discussion several other posters suggested that I was an asshole or an unbelieveable jerk for posting open content from Green Ronin.

What I've Done

I've been maintaining my SRDs page since 2000 when I posted various parsings of the original fantasy SRD from Wizards of the Coast. I also had been a fan of the Blue Rose RPG when it came out in early 2005, and created my Blue Rose fan pages with various content and utilities. In June of 2005, I first asked on the Green Ronin True20 boards about the idea of creating an archive of some of the open material. The discussion thread is archived as "True System Reference Document" (GR forums, June 2005).

In that thread, I asked if there was moderate position where some of the open-content material might be released. The response from Chris Pramas was no -- they did not want any of their open material ever being shared. I stated that I disliked this position, but that for the time I would do what they wanted.

At that point, I had an archive of the open-content system material for Blue Rose, that I used for my own interest. However, in keeping with what they wanted, I kept it in a password-protected directory. I would occasionally give out the password, telling people "This is open game content, but don't repost it because the creators don't want their open content freely shared." After a while, though, that explanation felt pretty hollow to me -- particularly after the original source line (Blue Rose) was closed.

So towards the end of 2006, I removed the password protection from that directory. I didn't announce this anywhere, but I did list it mixed in with the other SRDs on my SRD page.

The Ethics

There are some general ethical questions here.

Is it legal?

Yes, all the SRDs are legal following the terms of the OGL. Regarding the True SRD, Green Ronin openly disapproves of it, so presumably if they felt there was a legal violation they would inform me of it. (By the terms of the OGL, I would have 30 days to cure such breach.) There were two claims in the RPGnet threads of violations. (1) was that my calling it the "True SRD" violates the trademark clause, because "True" is too close to Green Ronin's trademark "True20". Of course, Green Ronin sells the True20 System knowing that it relates it to WotC's D20 System. (2) was that the use of nationality adjectives like "Aldins" in the favored skills/feats table of Chapter 1 constitutes a violation of Product Identity (PI) of Blue Rose. Blue Rose declared "character and place names, histories, and description" to be PI, but this doesn't strictly include race names or nationalities.

Isn't it wrong because it hurts the companies?

I can't really tell if or how much it may hurt companies involved. Making the open content easier to browse and access could hurt sales of books containing that material. For example, a group might only buy one book, and simply browse open content for additional reference. On the other hand, having the open content there could raise interest in the books, and help sales.

But supposing the former is true, should I take down open content to encourage buying books that have it? I do feel some desire to help companies, but on the other hand I think gamers and designers benefit from being able to browse open content. As a parallel, I do post negative reviews, which hurts companies, but I think it is good for the field as a whole.

Is it wrong if the company objects?

While I'm concerned about harm to companies, I'm less concerned about their demands. In particular, I don't want to punish generosity on the part of companies. That is, if one company is helpful with making its open content accessible while another complains about any sharing of its open content, I wouldn't want to punish the former. So if I'm going to take down open content, it should be on the basis of harm rather than how possessive the company acts about its open content.

The Questions for Me

The question for me is whether I should change or remove my SRD collection. My previous behavior has basically been to keep open content material offline for some time (1 to 2 years), which allows for a fairly large window of profit. Offhand, that seems like a reasonable compromise to me. Still, I'm open to opinions.
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