Copyright, Creative Commons, and Public Domain, a short discussion

Some corners of the internet appear ready to move on from the “One D&D” drama. WotC has put a Creative Commons license on the 5e, walked back from “deauthorizing” the OGL1.0a, and basically everything else. For now, all appears to be calm. Personally, I think there are still some questions that need to be addressed.

Wait, what is “Creative Commons”? (I actually know the answer, but I suspect not everyone does.) Second, why put a Creative Commons (CC) tag on 5e but leave the OGL 1.0a untouched? What about older editions of D&D? Will WotC/Hasbro go after retro-clones from older editions of D&D? What about Public Domain? Could WotC make the content available as a public domain property?

And of course, what about the next iteration of D&D? Where does that fall with all of this? There’s been minimal discussion about how copyright will be handled for the new “One D&D” that WotC promised was coming. Much of the uproar was about what WotC was planning on doing with existing products, licenses, and publishing agreements. (Rightfully so, in my opinion.) The silence around the next version of D&D’s publishing agreement is likely being kept secret on purpose. WotC/Hasbro is probably very concerned about consumer reaction after the fallout from the initial forays into modifying the publishing agreements.

That’s a lot of questions and I could keep going. The key problem is that WotC/Hasbro has caved in to fan discontent, and tried to find a way to calm things down. This is at the core of what just happened with D&D.

Yet, at this point, you might wonder what this has to do with CC and the Public Domain. To address this, here are a few definitions, followed by some explanations.

  • Copyrightthe exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (such as a literary, musical, or artistic work) (Merriam-Webster, accessed 8 Feb. 2023)
  • Creative Commons : Creative Commons licenses give everyone from individual creators to large institutions a standardized way to grant the public permission to use their creative work under copyright law. From the reuser’s perspective, the presence of a Creative Commons license on a copyrighted work answers the question, “What can I do with this work?”  (Creative Commons, accessed 8 Feb. 2023)
  • Public Domain : The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. (Stanford University Libraries, accessed 8 Feb. 2023)

We have three separate terms here, and while each means something specific, they all overlap.

Copyright protects the creators or the people/entity that “owns” the work(s). This is the collection of laws that ensure that if someone says, writes a book, that person receives credit for their work. No one else can legally claim ownership of that book and there are existing laws to ensure that this is respected. Regardless of what the OGL says, WotC owns the rights to D&D.

Creative Commons is an organization that has created various types of licenses people can put on their work(s). This means that copyright laws apply to depend on the license a person uses for whatever they’ve made. If someone has a look at the list of different licenses, it’s evident that there are different types of protection ranging from a fully protected product to simply saying, “the author created this work, but you can reuse it, more or less, however, you want.”

Then there’s the public domain, which is the body of created works without copyright protection. That might sound odd so I’ll explain. For argument’s sake, we’ll use the USA as the example, and there, a work becomes public domain after “the author’s life, plus 70 years. ” Every year on January 1, people celebrate “Public Domain Day“, because new works enter the public domain. It’s worth looking over the list because some incredible stuff is available. As a side note, Canada changed its laws from author’s life plus 50 years to author’s life to 70 years, and they made it retroactive. That means in Canada, nothing entered the public domain this year, and it won’t until 2043(!). (You can find some help with navigating the Public Domain here.)

Legal footnote aside, these three concepts matter for tabletop gaming. Not a single thing published for D&D is in the public domain, no matter how loosely created the publishing agreements sound. No one is allowed to just “have” D&D, no matter how abandoned they think it might be. This point is not ambiguous.

However, a lot of freedom has been granted to creators via the publishing agreement WotC/Hasbro has made available. The license WotC/Hasbro chose to apply to 5e is Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). The link explains what is permitted, and there are articles from all kinds of organizations, such as TechCrunch, that distill some of the information quite well. The same goes for the older OGL 1.0a. These are legally binding agreements that allow people to use and create material with the content WotC has made available.

What the CC license represents is largely a capitulation from WotC/Hasbro. Fans were angry, the company lost a ton of money quickly, and was forced to take action to calm the rage. Now gamers have two versions, and only two versions of D&D available to them via very open publishing agreements, editions 3/3.5 and 5. This is it though, in case anyone has any other thoughts on the matter 0 D&D, these documents do not cover Basic, 1e, 2e, and 4e. I am just putting that out there. Two editions of D&D will exist under different rules for publishing, the OGL 1.0a for 3/3.5 and CC for 5e. This is an interesting evolution and one that could set a precedent for the future of tabletop gaming. It’s hard not to speculate why WotC wouldn’t apply a CC license to older products they aren’t actively supporting anymore, but maybe I’m just needlessly optimistic about what could be.

People seem to have developed a strong preference for content that is freely available to be reused and recreated. I haven’t taken too much time with it yet, but the 5e document is a complete game and weighs in at a hefty 403 pages. With the game now tagged with a CC license, the longevity of 5e is all but assured. This means that not one, but two versions of D&D will be available to pretty much everyone for as long as they want to play them.

Older versions will start making their way into the public domain around 2080, or something like that. Gary Gygax died on 4 March 2008 and Dave Arneson died on 7 April 2009. Using Arneson’s death as the final countdown for public domain, it’s 70 years from his death. Until then WotC/Hasbro has, under extreme pressure, made a peace offering with fans that offers a legal copyright-protected version of the game to fans for free. It’s a compromise and a welcome one.

Works Cited:

“Copyright.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.

“About CC Licenses.” Creative Commons. Accessed 8 Feb. 2023

“Welcome to the Public Domain.” Copyright and Fair use. Stanford Libraries.,one%20can%20ever%20own%20it. Accessed 8 Feb. 2023





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: