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D&D General Dragonlance's Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman Are Suing WotC for Breach of Contract

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For fans of the Dragonlance D&D setting, there's some mixed news which has just hit a court in Washington State: it seems that there's a new Dragonlance trilogy of books which was (until recently) being written; but we may never see them. On 16th October 2020, a lawsuit was filed in the US District Court by Dragonlance authors Weis and Hickman asserting an unlawful breach of contract by WotC regarding the licensing of a new series of Dragonlance novels. Indeed, it appears that the first of three novels, Dragons of Deceit, has already been written, as has Book 2, Dragons of Fate.

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The Lawsuit
From the documents it appears that in March 2019 a new Dragonlance trilogy was licensed by WotC; Weis and Hickman wrote a book called Dragons of Deceit, and the draft of a second called Dragons of Fate, and then WotC terminated the contract in August 2020.

The suit asserts that the termination was unlawful, and "violated multiple aspects of the License Agreement". It goes on to assert that the reasons for the termination were due to WotC being "embroiled in a series of embarrassing public disputes whereby its non-Dragonlance publications were excoriated for racism and sexism. Moreover, the company itself was vilified by well-publicized allegations of misogyny and racist hiring and employment practices by and with respect to artists and employees unrelated to Dragonlance."

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NATURE OF THE ACTION

1. Margaret Weis (“Weis”) and Tracy Hickman (“Hickman”) (collectively with Margaret Weis, LLC, “Plaintiff-Creators”) are among the most widely-read and successful living authors and world-creators in the fantasy fiction arena. Over thirty-five years ago, Plaintiff- Creators conceived of and created the Dragonlance universe—a campaign setting for the “Dungeons & Dragons” roleplaying game, the rights to which are owned by Defendant. (In Dungeons & Dragons, gamers assume roles within a storyline and embark on a series of adventures—a “campaign”—in the context of a particular campaign setting.)

2. Plaintiff-Creators’ conception and development of the Dragonlance universe has given rise to, among other things, gaming modules, video games, merchandise, comic books, films, and a series of books set in the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world. While other authors have been invited to participate in creating over 190 separate fictional works within the Dragonlance universe, often with Plaintiff-Creators as editors, Weis’s and Hickman’s own works remain by far the most familiar and salable. Their work has inspired generations of gamers, readers and enthusiasts, beginning in 1984 when they published their groundbreaking novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, which launched the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy. Their books have sold more than thirty million copies, and their Dragonlance World of Krynn is arguably the most successful and popular world in shared fiction, rivaled in the fantasy realm only by the renowned works created by J.R.R. Tolkien (which do not involve a shared fictional world). Within the Dragonlance universe, Plaintiff-Creators have authored or edited 31 separate books, short story anthologies, game materials, and art and reference books in a related series of works all dedicated to furthering the Dungeons & Dragons/Dragonlance brand.

3. In or around 2017, Plaintiff-Creators learned that Defendant was receptive to licensing its properties with established authors to revitalize the Dungeons & Dragons brand. After a ten-year hiatus, Plaintiff-Creators approached Defendant and began negotiating for a license to author a new Dragonlance trilogy. Plaintiff-Creators viewed the new trilogy as the capstone to their life’s work and as an offering to their multitude of fans who had clamored for a continuation of the series. Given that the Dragonlance series intellectual property is owned by Defendant, there could be no publication without a license. In March, 2019, the negotiations between the parties hereto culminated in new written licensing agreement whereby Weis and Hickman were to personally author and publish a new Dragonlance trilogy in conjunction with Penguin Random House, a highly prestigious book publisher (the “License Agreement”).

4. By the time the License Agreement was signed, Defendant had a full overview of the story and story arc, with considerable detail, of the planned trilogy. Defendant knew exactly the nature of the work it was going to receive and had pre-approved Penguin Random House as the publisher. Indeed, Defendant was at all times aware of the contract between Penguin Random House and Plaintiff-Creators (the “Publishing Agreement”) and its terms. In fact, the License Agreement expressly refers to the Publishing Agreement.

5. By June 2019, Defendant received and approved a full outline of the first contracted book in the trilogy (“Book 1”) and by November 2019 the publisher accepted a manuscript for Book 1. Plaintiff-Creators in turn sent the Book 1 manuscript to Defendant, who approved it in January 2020. In the meantime, Defendant was already approving foreign translation rights and encouraging Plaintiff-Creators to work on the subsequent novels.

6. During the development and writing process, Plaintiff-Creators met all contractual milestones and received all requisite approvals from Defendant. Defendant at all times knew that Hickman and Weis had devoted their full attention and time commitment to completing Book 1 and the trilogy as a whole in conformity with their contractual obligations. During the writing process, Defendant proposed certain changes in keeping with the modern-day zeitgeist of a more inclusive and diverse story-world. At each step, Plaintiff-Creators timely accommodated such requests, and all others, within the framework of their novels. This collaborative process tracks with Section 2(a)(iii) of the License Agreement, which requires Defendant to approve Plaintiff- Creators’ drafts or, alternatively, provide written direction as to the changes that will result in Defendant’s approval of a draft.

7. On or about August 13, 2020, Defendant participated in a telephone conference with Plaintiff-Creators’ agents, which was attended by Defendant’s highest-level executives and attorneys as well as PRH executives and counsel. At that meeting, Defendant declared that it would not approve any further Drafts of Book 1 or any subsequent works in the trilogy, effectively repudiating and terminating the License Agreement. No reason was provided for the termination. (In any event, no material breaches or defaults were indicated or existed upon which to predicate a termination.) The termination was wholly arbitrary and without contractual basis. The termination was unlawful and in violation of multiple aspects of the License Agreement (arguably almost every part of it, in fact). The termination also had the knowing and premeditated effect of precluding publication and destroying the value of Plaintiff-Creators’ work—not to mention their publishing deal with Penguin Random House.

8. Defendant’s acts and failures to act breached the License Agreement and were made in stunning and brazen bad faith. Defendant acted with full knowledge that its unilateral decision would not only interfere with, but also would lay waste to, the years of work that Plaintiff-Creators had, to that point, put into the project. Given that the obligation to obtain a publisher was part and parcel of the License Agreement, Defendant was fully cognizant that its backdoor termination of the License Agreement would nullify the millions of dollars in remuneration to which Plaintiff-Creators were entitled from their publishing contract.

9. As Plaintiff-Creators subsequently learned, Defendant’s arbitrary decision to terminate the License Agreement—and thereby the book publishing contract—was based on events that had nothing to do with either the Work or Plaintiff-Creators. In fact, at nearly the exact point in time of the termination, Defendant was embroiled in a series of embarrassing public disputes whereby its non-Dragonlance publications were excoriated for racism and sexism. Moreover, the company itself was vilified by well-publicized allegations of misogyny and racist hiring and employment practices by and with respect to artists and employees unrelated to Dragonlance. Plaintiff-Creators are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that a decision was made jointly by Defendant and its parent company, Hasbro, Inc., to deflect any possible criticism or further public outcry regarding Defendant’s other properties by effectively killing the Dragonlance deal with Plaintiff-Creators. The upshot of that was to inflict knowing, malicious and oppressive harm to Plaintiff-Creators and to interfere with their third- party contractual obligations, all to Plaintiff-Creator’s severe detriment and distress.


Delving into the attached document, all seemed to be going to plan until June 2020, at which the team overseeing the novels was replaced by WotC. The document cites public controversies involving one of the new team, issues with Magic: The Gathering, Orion Black's public complaints about the company's hiring practices, and more. Eventually, in August 2020, the suit alleges that during a telephone call, WotC terminated the agreement with the statement "We are not moving toward breach, but we will not approve any further drafts.”

Ending the Agreement
The suit notes that "None of the termination provisions were triggered, nor was there a claim of material breach much less written notice thereof, nor was a 30-day cure period initiated." The situation appears to be that while the agreement could not in itself be unilaterally 'terminated' in this way, WotC was able to simply not approve any further drafts (including the existing draft). The text of that allegation reads:

Not only was Defendant’s statement that “we will not approve any future drafts” a clumsy effort to circumvent the termination provisions (because, of course, there was no ground for termination), it undermined the fundamental structure of the contractual relationship whereby the Defendant-Licensor would provide Plaintiff-Creators the opportunity and roadmap to “fix”/rewrite/cure any valid concerns related to the protection of the Dungeons & Dragons brand with respect to approvals. In any event, Defendant had already approved the essential storylines, plots, characters, creatures, and lore for the new Dragonlance trilogy when it approved Plaintiff-Creators’ previous drafts and story arc, which were complete unto themselves, were delivered prior to execution of the License Agreement, and are acknowledged in the text of the License Agreement. In other words, Defendant’s breach had nothing to do with Plaintiff-Creators’ work; it was driven by Defendant’s response to its own, unrelated corporate public relations problems—possibly encouraged or enacted by its corporate parent, Hasbro, Inc.

Basically, while the contract itself could not be terminated, refusing to approve work amounts to an 'effective' termination. Weis and Hickman note that the license itself does not allow for arbitrary termination. The following section of the document is relevant:

Nothing in the above provision allows Defendant to terminate the License Agreement based on Defendant’s failure to provide approval. To the contrary, should Defendant find any aspect of the Draft to be unacceptable, Defendant has an affirmative duty under contract to provide “reasonable detail” of any changes Plaintiff-Creators must make, which changes will result in Defendant’s approval of the manuscript. Accordingly, for Defendant to make the blanket statement that it will never approve any Drafts going forward is, by itself, a breach of the license agreement.

So, the agreement apparently requires WotC to allow W&H to fix any approval-based concerns. Notwithstanding that WotC might be unsatisfied with W&H's previous rewrites, the decision in advance to simply not approve drafts without giving them this chance to rewrite appears to be the crux of the issue, and this is what the writers are alleging is the breach of contract.

Weis & Hickman are demanding a jury trial and are suing for breach of contract, damages, and a court order to require WotC to fulfill its end of the agreement. They cite years of work, and millions of dollars.

Licensing Agreements

Defendant acted with full knowledge that its unilateral decision would not only interfere with, but also would lay waste to, the years of work that Plaintiff-Creators had, to that point, put into the project. Given that the obligation to obtain a publisher was part and parcel of the License Agreement, Defendant was fully cognizant that its backdoor termination of the License Agreement would nullify the millions of dollars in remuneration to which Plaintiff-Creators were entitled from their publishing contract.

So how does all this work? Obviously we don't have access to the original contract, so we don't know the exact terms of the licensing agreement; similarly, we are hearing one side of the story here.

The arrangement appears to have been a licensing arrangement -- that is, Weis & Hickman will have licensed the Dragonlance IP from WotC, and have arranged with Penguin Random House to publish the trilogy. It's not work-for-hire, or work commissioned by and paid for by WotC; on the contrary, in most licensing deals, the licensee pays the licensor. Indeed in this case, the document indicates that Penguin Random House paid Weis & Hickman an advance in April 2019, and W&H subsequently paid WotC (presumably a percentage of this).

Licensing agreements vary, but they often share similar features. These usually involve the licensee paying the IP owner a licensing fee or an advance on royalties at the start of the license, and sometimes annually or at certain milestones. Thereafter, the licensee also often pays the IP holder royalties on the actual book profits. We don't know the exact details of this licensing agreement, but it seems to share some of those features.

On March 29, 2019, Plaintiff-Creators and PRH entered into the Publishing Agreement. PRH remitted the signing payment due under the Publishing Agreement to Plaintiff- Creators in April 2019. Per the terms of the License Agreement, Plaintiff-Creators in turn remitted a portion of the signing payment to Defendant—an amount Defendant continues to retain despite having effectively terminated the License Agreement.


Tortious Interference

On information and belief, Defendant also engaged in back-channel activities to disrupt the Publishing Agreement by convincing PRH that Defendant would prevent Plaintiff- Creators from performing under the Publishing Agreement

There's another wrinkle, a little later. The document says that a second payment was due on November 2019 -- similarly it would be paid to W&H by Penguin Random House, who would then pay WotC. It appears that PRH did not make that second payment to W&H. W&H later say they discovered that WotC was talking directly to Penguin Random House about editorial topics, which is what the term 'tortious interference with contract' is referring to.

By June 2019, Defendant/Hasbro expressly approved a detailed outline of Book 1. In November 2019, PRH indicated that the complete manuscript of Book 1 was accepted and it would push through the second payment due on the Publishing Agreement. At that time, Plaintiff-Creators submitted the complete manuscript of Book 1 to Defendant/Hasbro who expressly approved the Book 1 manuscript in January 2020. Inexplicably, and despite Plaintiff- Creators’ repeated request, PRH never actually delivered the second payment due on approval of the Book 1 manuscript.


What Happened?
Throughout the process, WotC asked for 'sensitivity rewrites'. These appear to include four points, including the use of a love potion, and other "concerns of sexism, inclusivity and potential negative connotations of certain character names." W&H content that they provided the requested rewrites.

One section which might provide some insight into the process is this:

During the writing process, Defendant proposed certain changes in keeping with the modern-day zeitgeist of a more inclusive and diverse story-world. At each step, Plaintiff-Creators timely accommodated such requests, and all others, within the framework of their novels.

It's hard to interpret that without the context of the full conversations that took place, but it sounds like WotC, in response to the previously-mentioned publicity storm it has been enduring regarding inclusivity, wanted to ensure that this new trilogy of books would not exacerbate the problems. We know they asked for some rewrites, and W&H say they complied, but the phrase "within the framework of their novels" sounds like a conditional description. It could be that WotC was not satisfied with the rewrites, and that W&H were either unable or unwilling to alter the story or other details to the extent that they were asked to. There's a lot to unpack in that little "within the framework of their novels" phrase, and we can only speculate.

It sounds like this then resulted in WotC essentially backing out of the whole deal by simply declaring that they would refuse to approve any further drafts, in the absence of an actual contractual clause that would accommodate this situation.

What we do know is that there are two completed drafts of new Dragonlance novels out there. Whether we'll ever get to read them is another question! Dragons of Deceit is complete, Dragons of Fate has a draft, and the third book has been outlined.
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Dire Bare

Legend
It is interesting though, and somewhat ironic (hypocritical?) considering the charges against WotC from Weis & Hickman . . . there are a lot of elements of classic Dragonlance that don't play well with the current focus on how race and culture should be portrayed. The tinker gnomes, kender, and especially the gully dwarves are highly problematic as portrayed in the past. I would hope that a new trilogy of novels (and perhaps some accompanying game materials) would try to rectify that.
The more I think about it, this might be the reason the lawsuit is alluding to. Perhaps WotC wanted to avoid revitalizing a beloved, but problematic, property.

There's no reason why WotC, in partnership with Weis & Hickman, couldn't have shifted course and decided to reboot Dragonlance (hard or soft) to remove or mitigate the racist and sexist issues in the original novel trilogy and game world. I would love to see something like that!
 

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Something to keep in mind here, the details in the filed lawsuit are only Weis and Hickman's side of the story. That's not to say that anything in the complaint here is wrong, just that we haven't heard WotC's response or even seen a copy of the contract in question. Corporate lawyers tend to play things close to the vest, so we most likely won't hear anything from them unless they file a response.

I don't know when that will happen, or even if it will happen at all. If Weis and Hickman settle with WotC, the settlement will almost certainly require that both sides keep quiet about the terms of the settlement. And they will settle. These sorts of contract disputes almost never end up going all the way to trial.
If what they're alleging is true though, about contractual requirements for notifications, for a cure period (a chance to remedy a failure to meet the terms of the contract), and such, that doesn't make WotC look good at all.

Contract disputes tend to get settled out of court because this kind of law tends to be very "black and white", and by the time everything comes out in discovery, it's usually pretty unambiguous about who is in the right or wrong. With a well-written contract (which I'd expect with WotC) it seldom goes to trial because it's usually obvious who will win, and neither side wants the cost of proceedings that won't serve a purpose.
 

Remathilis

Legend
It is interesting though, and somewhat ironic (hypocritical?) considering the charges against WotC from Weis & Hickman . . . there are a lot of elements of classic Dragonlance that don't play well with the current focus on how race and culture should be portrayed. The tinker gnomes, kender, and especially the gully dwarves are highly problematic as portrayed in the past. I would hope that a new trilogy of novels (and perhaps some accompanying game materials) would try to rectify that.

Without derailing this thread, I think Dragonlance would need a good scrubbing of these elements before it saw a new publication. It needs not be radical, but making the races less mono-personality would be an excellent start.
 

Akodoken

Explorer
Instead of actually providing any editorial feedback, or trying to work with them, they just cancelled the contract?
This is my concern as well. The books have not been released. If there were issues, there was still time to resolve those issues before sending the books to print.

Like many, I would love to see WOTC's response, if there is one.
 

mockman1890

Explorer
I really shouldn't ask, but what is the misogyny WotC is accused of? (per Hickman's statement) Obviously I know about the Orion Black and racism situation, but I'm unaware of any misogynistic practices or scandals involving WotC.

(EDIT: Oh right, it's about what's-his-face, because of the novel he wrote 10+ years before he got hired at WotC.)
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I really shouldn't ask, but what is the misogyny WotC is accused of? (per Hickman's statement) Obviously I know about the Orion Black and racism situation, but I'm unaware of any misogynistic practices or scandals involving WotC.
I think there’s been stuff related to M:tG, but I don’t follow M:tG news so I couldnt say what exactly.
 

pogre

Legend
This is my concern as well. The books have not been released. If there were issues, there was still time to resolve those issues before sending the books to print.

Like many, I would love to see WOTC's response, if there is one.
The Answer probably would not say much but:

'Defendant hereby denies each and every allegation put forth by plaintiffs.'

If they file a countersuit/counterclaim that might contain something more revealing.
 

Grantypants

Explorer
My knowledge of American legal systems (or, indeed geography!) is limited! But I can change it to a court in Washington State.
Most Americans don't know the difference either, and it won't change the outcome, but the distinction is Federal court vs state court.
If what they're alleging is true though, about contractual requirements for notifications, for a cure period (a chance to remedy a failure to meet the terms of the contract), and such, that doesn't make WotC look good at all.

Contract disputes tend to get settled out of court because this kind of law tends to be very "black and white", and by the time everything comes out in discovery, it's usually pretty unambiguous about who is in the right or wrong. With a well-written contract (which I'd expect with WotC) it seldom goes to trial because it's usually obvious who will win, and neither side wants the cost of proceedings that won't serve a purpose.
You are absolutely right. Since this suit is only about one contract for one set of books, there probably won't be that much to find in discovery. We'll probably hear about a resolution pretty soon. Of course, that's the US legal system's "pretty soon", which to normal people means "just a few weeks or months".
 

ChaosOS

Legend
Not to state the obvious but this seems like something that will get settled. For those wondering with regards to DL being inclusive, this line from the complaint doesn't make sense until the end bit (emphasis mine). I find it unlikely they're outright omitting prior complaints about not being inclusive enough, so WotC is probably pretty cooked on that defense.
6. During the development and writing process, Plaintiff-Creators met all contractual milestones and received all requisite approvals from Defendant. Defendant at all times knew that Hickman and Weis had devoted their full attention and time commitment to completing Book 1 and the trilogy as a whole in conformity with their contractual obligations. During the writing process, Defendant proposed certain changes in keeping with the modern-day zeitgeist of a more inclusive and diverse story-world. At each step, Plaintiff-Creators timely accommodated such requests, and all others, within the framework of their novels. This collaborative process tracks with Section 2(a)(iii) of the License Agreement, which requires Defendant to approve Plaintiff- Creators’ drafts or, alternatively, provide written direction as to the changes that will result in Defendant’s approval of a draft.
 


I hope WotC noticed about it could be better if they are ready to be generous, and working with 3PPs as outsourcers for partnerships works.

I don't mind if there are bromance couples in the new stories, and D&D is very "cosmopolitan", allowing characters from lots of different origins working together for a common goal, but I am afraid here we may find something as the new Star Wars trilogy and somebody has said no. Please, I am not the only who doesn't want a controversy as the comicgate. Companies should try to avoid that type of troubles and controversies, because you know people love Disney's IPs but not Disney CEOs and choices by theses, for say an example.

What will happened with the new books, the same plot but by different writers, or changing the original end?

Now I have a bad feeling, and I intuit they aren't telling all the truth. What are they hiding?
 

Kurotowa

Legend
So on the one hand, I can totally believe that a Weis and Hickman Dragonlance series was judged irreparably out of step with the modern attitudes towards racism, sexism, and so on. There's a lot of stuff in those novels that has not aged well, and I know first hand just how stuck in their ways authors can be. If this new trilogy was the same damsels and gully dwarves I have zero surprise that it threw up red flags on a deeper appraisal.

On the other hand, though, if the complaint is accurate than the appropriate action by WotC would have been to invoke the termination clause and pay whatever fees were needed. Trying to pocket veto a book by saying they'd simply refuse to approve any future drafts is bullshit of the highest order. Authors get the short end of the stick enough as it is.

I have little love for the Dragonlance novels, but my default position is to side with the authors against the publisher who's trying to do them dirty. Still, as has been pointed out we really need to hear WotC's side of things. The complaint might be accurate or it might be omitting some key elements. So I'm not going to commit too hard to either side just yet.
 

Joseph Nardo

Explorer
It seems you are using "politicalization" as a stand in for removing racism, as if getting rid of racism is something that is looked for by one political party and keeping racism is the goal of the other political party. Which may be true in the US these days.
what part of politicization equals removing racism?
 



wicked cool

Adventurer
didn't WOTC cancel all books at the same time including for a while the Drizzt books? I'm sure that wll be part of their defense. Probably not selling well as D&D was in a low point
 


We know the fantasy of previous decades has got some tropes today theses aren't so tolerated so easily, but today if we try to do too "present-day" fiction, there is also a great risky this becomes "old-fashion" in the future decades.

If we want to use the speculative fiction to promote positive values as the tolerance and coexistence, then we can't forget we have to respect the human dignity, the basis of our rights as citizens. Without this Nietzsche's warning fulfills "who fights with monsters can become one of them".

I wonder about they weren't happy because WotC wanted a positive discrimination quota for followers of the White Witch, Emerald Witch, Azaroth, Zardeenah and Tash, but Aslan, the famous lion, the favorite in the past, totally forgotten. Or maybe they didn't agree because somebody wanted a story about a female irda compeled to be wife and mother to avoid the extinction of his people, but she didn't like males and would rather gossip with other girls.
 

To be honest, fantasy (and other) literature is full of racism and sexism. It is getting better. And if you compare DnD now and just 10 years ago you notice a far better portrayal of women and races in DnD. So WotC has done a good job, but still has room to improve.
Maybe the story Hickman and Weiss wrote just does not meet WotC´s standard anymore. Some stories are just not possible anymore from a modern point of view. Races that are unredeemably evil are problematic... does it hurt fantasy tropes? Yes. Is it bad? Probably not.
Is it ok to disapprove of a book if it does not meet the standards? Yes. Do you have to pay for the work? Depends on the kind of contract.
You probably need to hear WotC´s side and I hope they will get to an agreement where both sides are happy enough.
 

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