Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In Defense of Creator's & Publishers Rights to Old Works

An interesting conversation started up recently, brewing out of a spurious post at Rock, Paper, Shotgun where John Walker made the mistake of writing before thinking. That's nothing unusual on that sort of site*; as anyone who has spent enough time in the realm of so-called video game journalism knows, the oxymoronic nature of the profession often rears its ugly head with ridiculous sentiment, poorly conceived paid ad-copy disguised as news or information and a rampant penchant for displaying a grotesque lack of depth or consideration for their own hobby outside of what's cool and hip for the moment. In this case, Walker was primarily commenting on GOG games which apparently had captured his attention for a brief moment, long enough to spit out some quick hit-grabbing copy which also casually attacked ownership and publisher rights to old product under the pretense that they were no better than plumbers charging you for the use of your faucet. The whole thing was then debated on Slash Dot, which some of you may know to be the place where furious nerds and tech geeks go to defend Linux and burn Microsoft.**

Then, further down, I found a link to a well-reasoned and extremely cogent discussion from Steve Gaynor, a man with a nice resume to back up his opinions.

I have on occasion discussed why the periodic brou-ha-ha behind PDF piracy and pricing in our tiny neck of the woods (RPG publishing) suffers for those who show disdain for the various pricing models as well as the worth of a virtual product like a PDF book. The article by Gaynor above is relevant to all media, ours included, and established handily the fallacy of presuming that a model which assumes that "length of time from date of release" on a creative work is an automatic spiral down into zero value over time, one which (to go by Walker above) automatically means that a product's value of necessity must depreciate to the point where it must enter the public domain one day...must actually be allowed to no longer generate revenue for use by the original owner/creator and instead be allowed into the wild for others to exploit, essentially.

Especially interesting is this 20 year rule, which I know they are tossing about because we have a tech-minded generation that has a hard time conceiving of anything older than that having worth. But....imagine if 20 years were the absolute limit on a product's productive lifespan? There are a lot of works out there, both large and small, that continue to exist and make money well after 20 years. Tolkien's books, Star Wars...Dungeons & Dragons.

I have a theory that tabletop gamers have devalued their own perception of their hobby to the point where even as a publisher it can only exist as a hobby; the nature of RPGs today is that you have your day job, and then you have "that thing you do late at night." For all intents and purposes only a handful of full-time salary-paying (forget benefits) publishers exist anymore, and even they may be facing extinction in a few more years.

It's damned interesting that our own industry has one almost unique exception to this process, one which could arguably suggest that there are ways to model a legitimate process of public ownership into a product without waiting for obsolescence: the OGL. The weird thing about the OGL of course is that it doesn't make money for the originator (WotC) directly, but is intended to foster good will and create a wider range of products that all require the support of WotC's core. At least....that was the idea. I think what really happened was an accidental liberation of the product from its media. Imagine if we did not have the OGL today. Where would we be? The OGL is what essentially made the OSR possible, and most of the current companies we think of among RPG publishers exist because of it (Paizo, Crafty, Goodman Games, Green Ronin, Mongoose, and many more). The entire PDF industry to a greater or lesser degree exists because of the OGL.

In a case like this I admit it's hard to see that the OGL benefited the company that released it in to the wild, but from another perspective it's been the driving force in a large chunk of our cottage publishing neck of the woods for almost fifteen years now. So was it ultimately a good thing for the audience, the consumers and producers of OGL content? Absolutely. Was it good for WotC? My magic 8-ball says "unlikely."

*i.e. any site published online. Like this one =)

**in slash dot's defense they'll burning and slash anything

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