I’m pushing back my follow-up to the Harengon post to next week. I have a lot of fun suggestions and ideas for writing and playing rabbit folk, but the TTRPG community is full of anxiety over this merger. My ideas for creating a rascally rabbit just have to wait.
Before we dive into this, I would like to clearly and unambiguously state that I am not a lawyer. This is not, and should not be perceived as legal advice. What I’m presenting here is my personal interpretation and opinion of research done by myself. If you are a content creator with work uploaded to D&D beyond and are concerned about your rights to that content, then talk to a lawyer. This post is not intended to be used as legal advice. Rather I am attempting to give a big and small picture summary of a situation so many independent creators find themselves worrying about.
Wait, what’s going on?
What we’re really looking at is a streamlining of a legal agreement between D&D Beyond and Wizards of the Coast over distribution rights. D&D Beyond obviously makes use of the open license provided by WotC in order to distribute free content to the public. They also sell subscriptions relinquishing more D&D content which is owned by WotC. Essentially, D&D Beyond is a distributor, not entirely unlike your local game shop. A certain percentage of their subscription fees certainly returned to WotC, but, make no mistake, Wizards of the Coast own the intellectual property rights to Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, D&D Beyond may potentially be the greatest distributor of Dungeons & Dragons in the world, and therefore, an excellent source of revenue for WotC . That’s why this acquisition makes sense. This buyout will streamline the distribution process. Essentially, D&D Beyond will no longer have to negotiate pricing with Wizards of the Coast, sign contracts regarding the distribution of new content, and pay lawyers a stupid amount of money in order to get a fresh book, like Spelljammer, on the site. The “middleman” is getting cut out.
So what’s the big deal?
D&D Beyond provides tools to Dungeon Masters and players, but it also allows homebrewed content to be uploaded and used by those tools. A DM can create their own monsters, classes, races, anything, on the platform. Once it’s uploaded, they can then distribute that content to their players. D&D beyond also provides other tools that help play the game online. These features have been used by thousands if not millions of people.
On May 18, all of that content fell into the hands of WotC, and that pesky User Agreement you signed but never read signing up with D&D Beyond got an update. Those changes caused a lot of anxiety in a lot of independent content creators and homebrewers. Give the legalese a quick read over.
“ 5.2. License to Wizards. By posting or submitting any User Content to or through the Websites, Games, or Services, you hereby irrevocably grant to Wizards a worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such User Content (in whole or in part) in any media and to incorporate the User Content into other works in any format or medium now known or later developed. The foregoing grants shall include the right to: (i) exploit any proprietary rights in such User Content, including but not limited to, rights under copyright, trademark or patent laws under any relevant jurisdiction; (ii) your name, likeness, and any other information included in your User Content, without any obligation to you. You waive any and all claims that any use by us or our licensees of your User Content violates any of your rights, including moral rights, privacy rights, rights to publicity, proprietary, attribution, or other rights, and rights to any material or ideas contained in your User Content.”
This content was copied directly from the Wizards of the Coast user agreement.
Essentially, the fear is that Wizards of the Coast can take your original content, slap it in one of their books, and never have to acknowledge that you made it or pay you anything. If you upload a homebrew module to D&D Beyond, you relinquish your legal rights to that content. Some people have uploaded a lot of work to D&D Beyond. It’s easy to understand why homebrewers would be so upset. They put hours upon hours into that content, and now they no longer own the rights to their hard work.
But is that what’s really going on?
Well, yes but no. What you really have to ask is what does D&D Beyond and Wizards of the Coast really want? Do they really want the ability to steal homebrew content from independent game designers?
Don’t get me wrong, that is a legitimate concern. It’s happened before and not infrequently. If you do a little digging, you’ll find a bizarrely large number of examples of big brand companies stealing IP from small, unaffiliated artists. And I do mean big companies. Prepare yourself for some righteous outrage then type into Google, “Disney steals from artist”.
Yes, large companies stealing from the little guy happens, but there’s a big difference between WotC and Disney. Homebrew content is unquestionably an extremely important part of Dungeons & Dragons. One of the major draws of tabletop role-playing games is that it provides an excellent collaborative and creative outlet. Players write characters with unique backstories. DM’s create fantastic worlds, villains, and creatures.
Would homebrewers upload their content to D&D Beyond if WotC started publishing their work without even giving them credit? How much outrage would the community express if this thievery came to light? How would they express it? Would they stop buying WotC content? Would they turn to the high seas instead of legitimately purchasing this content?
If we turn our cynicism up to 10 and presume that corporate execs at WotC don’t care where the content comes from as long as it makes them money, then we can at least assume they would ask these questions. They’ll need to know that this isn’t going to come back to haunt them.
Would WotC consider the public outrage worth the free content?
Meh, I really don’t think so. So much of D&D’s popularity is tied to its network and community. The acquisition of D&D Beyond, which provides a platform for that community, proves this. This isn’t just a faceless brand that people give little thought to. The customers, in this situation, are invested in the decisions made by WotC. Essentially, WotC would never get away with it, and they know it.
What’s with the clause then?
This clause looks like a classic case of CYA, cover your ass. The amount of content uploaded to D&D Beyond exceeds the limit of what WotC can sift through. The paid writers working on D&D books will inevitably and organically create content that resembles some random and unfortunate homebrewer’s work. Not to mention the fact that people will upload content that doesn’t belong to them. Basically, Wizards of the Coast needs to mitigate their risk.
Wizards of the Coast is not exactly a prolific publisher of content. They’re a solid publisher, but their brand isn’t so huge and diverse that they need to generate hundreds of thousands of pages of new content every month. They’re not Disney. We get a few good D&D books from WotC every year. The content is produced by in-house writers and paid freelancers. The printing and distribution of their content is expanding but is not overtaxing. They can handle the workload without having to steal from the little guys.
So what should I do?
If you’re really worried about it, publish your own work on DriveThruRPG or the DM Guild. Read the open license carefully, be thorough, and publish it. If anyone, Wizards of the Coast or otherwise, slaps their own name on your previously published work, you’ll have a solid case.
If you already have content uploaded to D&D Beyond, you’ve already given it to the world for free. That is not a publishing site. You’ve not copywritten any content. Anyone, in the entire world, can copy and paste what you’ve posted and try to sell it. Realistically, WotC and their user agreement aren’t who you really need to worry about. It’s someone else willing to steal that work because they lack the negative incentives WotC has for plagiarism, legal or otherwise.
If some bad actor sees your monster stats and sells them as if they were their own creation, could you argue that this was your original content? Could you make a case for it? Could you potentially end up receiving royalties for it? Yes, absolutely. If you can prove that you wrote the content in question, then it is possible to pursue individuals or corporations that plagiarize that content.
Pursuing your rights would be an expensive uphill battle, however. I have a basic understanding of these laws and why pursuing copyright infringement is so difficult, so I won’t be doing a deep dive. The point isn’t to give you legal advice. What I’m trying to say is, CYA! There’s a reason why WotC is doing it, so you should too.
Realistically, I don’t believe we need to worry about Wizards of the Coast stealing our homebrew content. Ultimately, I believe it would end up hurting more than benefiting them. As an independent creator myself, I’m more worried about people I don’t already know about. I’m looking over my shoulder for that shady guy or small company trying to stockpile large quantities of content. Whether I was worried about WotC or someone else plagiarizing my hard work, I’d do the same thing. Study ways to effectively copyright my content and publish it to reputable sites for sale.
I love the Indy TTRPG scene, and I want to see more original and creative content distributed. So be careful with your hard work. Though I don’t believe Wizards of the Coast is a threat, that doesn’t mean that threats aren’t out there. Protect your worlds, protect your monsters, protect your characters, protect yourself, full stop.
This is my take on the subject, I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a response and tell me your thoughts.
Until next time, keep crafting worldsmiths.