OGL What's All This About The OGL Going Away?

This last week I've seen videos, tweets, and articles all repeating an unsourced rumour that the OGL (Open Gaming License) will be going away with the advent of OneD&D, and that third party publishers would have no way of legally creating compatible material. I wanted to write an article clarifying some of these terms.

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I've seen articles claiming (and I quote) that "players would be unable to legally publish homebrew content" and that WotC may be "outlawing third-party homebrew content". These claims need clarification.

What's the Open Gaming License? It was created by WotC about 20 years ago; it's analagous to various 'open source' licenses. There isn't a '5E OGL' or a '3E OGL' and there won't be a 'OneD&D OGL' -- there's just the OGL (technically there are two versions, but that's by-the-by). The OGL is non-rescindable -- it can't be cancelled or revoked. Any content released as Open Gaming Content (OGC) under that license -- which includes the D&D 3E SRD, the 5E SRD, Pathfinder's SRD, Level Up's SRD, and thousands and thousands of third party books -- remains OGC forever, available for use under the license. Genie, bottle, and all that.

So, the OGL can't 'go away'. It's been here for 20 years and it's here to stay. This was WotC's (and OGL architect Ryan Dancey's) intention when they created it 20 years ago, to ensure that D&D would forever be available no matter what happened to its parent company.


What's an SRD? A System Reference Document (SRD) contains Open Gaming Content (OGC). Anything in the 3E SRD, the 3.5 SRD, or the 5E SRD, etc., is designated forever as OGC (Open Gaming Content). Each of those SRDs contains large quantities of material, including the core rules of the respective games, and encompasses all the core terminology of the ruleset(s).

When people say 'the OGL is going away' what they probably mean to say is that there won't be a new OneD&D System Reference Document.


Does That Matter? OneD&D will be -- allegedly -- fully compatible with 5E. That means it uses all the same terminology. Armor Class, Hit Points, Warlock, Pit Fiend, and so on. All this terminology has been OGC for 20 years, and anybody can use it under the terms of the OGL. The only way it could be difficult for third parties to make compatible material for OneD&D is if OneD&D substantially changed the core terminology of the game, but at that point OneD&D would no longer be compatible with 5E (or, arguably, would even be recognizable as D&D). So the ability to create compatible third party material won't be going away.

However! There is one exception -- if your use of OneD&D material needs you to replicate OneD&D content, as opposed to simply be compatible with it (say you're making an app which has all the spell descriptions in it) and if there is no new SRD, then you won't be able to do that. You can make compatible stuff ("The evil necromancer can cast magic missile" -- the term magic missile has been OGL for two decades) but you wouldn't be able to replicate the full descriptive text of the OneD&D version of the spell. That's a big if -- if there's no new SRD.

So you'd still be able to make compatible adventures and settings and new spells and new monsters and new magic items and new feats and new rules and stuff. All the stuff 3PPs commonly do. You just wouldn't be able to reproduce the core rules content itself. However, I've been publishing material for 3E, 3.5, 4E, 5E, and Pathfinder 1E for 20 years, and the need to reproduce core rules content hasn't often come up for us -- we produce new compatible content. But if you're making an app, or spell cards, or something which needs to reproduce content from the rulebooks, you'd need an SRD to do that.

So yep. If no SRD, compatible = yes, directly reproduce = no (of course, you can indirectly reproduce stuff by rewriting it in your own words).

Branding! Using the OGL you can't use the term "Dungeons & Dragons" (you never could). Most third parties say something like "compatible with the world's most popular roleplaying game" and have some sort of '5E' logo of their own making on the cover. Something similar will no doubt happen with OneD&D -- the third party market will create terminology to indicate compatibility. (Back in the 3E days, WotC provided a logo for this use called the 'd20 System Trademark Logo' but they don't do that any more).

What if WotC didn't 'support' third party material? As discussed, nobody can take the OGL or any existing OGC away. However, WotC does have control over DMs Guild and integration with D&D Beyond or the virtual tabletop app they're making. So while they can't stop folks from making and publishing compatible stuff, they could make it harder to distribute simply by not allowing it on those three platforms. If OneD&D becomes heavily reliant on a specific platform we might find ourselves in the same situation we had in 4E, where it was harder to sell player options simply because they weren't on the official character builder app. It's not that you couldn't publish 4E player options, it's just that many players weren't interested in them if they couldn't use them in the app.

But copyright! Yes, yes, you can't copyright rules, you can't do this, you can't do that. The OGL is not relevant to copyright law -- it is a license, an agreement, a contract. By using it you agree to its terms. Sure WotC might not be able to copyright X, but you can certainly contractually agree not to use X (which is a selection of material designated as 'Product Identity') by using the license. There are arguments on the validity of this from actual real lawyers which I won't get into, but I just wanted to note that this is about a license, not copyright law.

If you don't use the Open Gaming License, of course, it doesn't apply to you. You are only bound by a license you use. So then, sure, knock yourself out with copyright law!

So, bullet point summary:
  • The OGL can't go away, and any existing OGC can't go away
  • If (that's an if) there is no new SRD, you will be able to still make compatible material but not reproduce the OneD&D content
  • Most of the D&D terminology (save a few terms like 'beholder' etc.) has been OGC for 20 years and is freely available for use
  • To render that existing OGC unusable for OneD&D the basic terminology of the entire game would have to be changed, at which point it would no longer be compatible with 5E.
 
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

EpicureanDM

Explorer
Is there any evidence of this or are you just pulling it out of your hat?
What? Of course there's no evidence. This isn't a criminal trial. It's just someone observing and thinking about the actual people responsible for making decisions about D&D's business, rather than thinking in terms of "WotC" as if it were some sort of self-aware, autonomous corporate entity. Folks on this message board always fall into that trap: "WotC will do X" or "WotC will do Y", when what they should be saying is, "Dan Rawson, Senior Vice President of Dungeons & Dragons, will do X" or "Kyle Brink, Executive Producer of Dungeons & Dragons will do Y". These guys are on LinkedIn. You can see their professional experience and draw your own conclusions.
 

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dave2008

Legend
I mean, it's so blindingly obvious that history is repeating itself. WotC's going to publish 6e, it will cause a schism in the community, and a new Paizo will bleed WotC's market share with some 5e OGL product. Do you think any of the D&D executives would understand that sentence without it being explained to them? I wouldn't count on the D&D design team to lay it out, since they're the ones who decided to publish a new edition and precipitate this farce.
I am guessing you are incredibly wrong, but you probably know that too. We will have the answers in about 2 years, so we can wait and see.
 
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EpicureanDM

Explorer
Note Microsoft is not ignorant of Open Source software which the OGL was inspired by. In fact one of the largest contributors to open sources nowadays is Microsoft and Microsofties. So saying they are “computer people” doesn’t mean they are automatically anti open license
And yet there are rumors and leaks about them being anti open license...
 










JEB

Legend
Radically change the new edition to break compatibility, no new SRD, shut down the DM's Guild, lock third-party content out of D&D Beyond, and . . . meh. Creators at worst wind up in an environment that resembles 2008-2015.
Which wasn't at all ideal for producing third-party material compatible with 4th Edition - it happened (Goodman did some stuff, for example), but nowhere near the volume seen for 3E during the 3E era. On the other hand, if you were looking for support to older editions than 4E, it worked out pretty well...
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
And yet there are rumors and leaks about them being anti open license...
There is one rumour, one leak and it is not even anti open licence; it is just that there will be no SRD for One D&D. This was mistaken by the reporter that, that meant the material would not be covered by the OGL. But @Morrus pointed out at the time that the claim was nonsense since the existing 5e SRD covered it, at least from the material presented so far.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Sorry, but, if I'm understanding things, the OGL was meant as a sort of "safe haven" for 3rd party producers. You could go the IP lawyer route and do it on your own. That's still true. But, the OGL was meant as an agreement between the 3rd party producer and WotC that basically said, "Ok, yes, you are using stuff that was created by WotC, but, we're not going to sue you or otherwise bother you so long as you abide by the terms of this agreement".
Basically, yes. You can use copyright law, or you can come to an agreement with the IP holder. A license is the latter.
 

see

Pedantic Grognard
Which wasn't at all ideal for producing third-party material compatible with 4th Edition - it happened (Goodman did some stuff, for example), but nowhere near the volume seen for 3E during the 3E era. On the other hand, if you were looking for support to older editions than 4E, it worked out pretty well...
Yeah, certainly not ideal. But the worst-case scenario right now is a repeat of an era that saw some 3PPs (though certainly not all) indubitably thrive.

The likely scenarios involve a new edition sufficiently compatible with 5th that the existing SRD is adequate-if-imperfect, the DM's Guild remaining open, the current Fan Content Policy being left in place, and the big question being how long it takes to get an updated SRD (which, even if the initial decision is "never", can be reversed after a management change).

And it's not like there's any risk of a return to the conditions of 1994-1996, when selling any D&D-compatible material involved being in the murky zone between "copyright protects expression, not ideas" and "derivative works infringe copyright". When gaming magazines were explicitly told by TSR not to run D&D articles or face legal action. When takedown notices were sent to any Internet sites offering free fan-created content. That would be a scenario worth worrying about, if it were possible -- but it isn't.
 

antiwesley

Unpaid Scientific Adviser (Ret.)
Just as a clarification to me: I don't really like the OGL, to be honest. I think sometimes it's a broad stroke to protect items that shouldn't be copywritten in the first place. But it often makes me feel like I can't call a priest a cleric, a swordfighter a warrior, or a magic user a wizard, because this is all in the SRD. These terms have been used interchangably for centuries, long before DnD even existed. I may not have read things right, because honestly, it just makes my head hurt. So I sit here paralyzed, wanting to create content, but without the restrictions of the OGL, as it wouldn't even refer to anything in it to begin with. Yes, I understand I can have a 'gremlin' or other common creatures based on mythological sources, but I can't use the SRD to describe it, even if I intended to use gremlins as they are defined in the SRD. For beginners, the OGL is more of a nightmare, and just makes things harder to decipher, IMHO.
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
Someone leaked this information (or "started the rumor"). Do you think it was WotC? Hell, no. It was probably some third-party publisher who learned something from WotC somehow. It makes total sense that WotC will restrict the 6e OGL as much as they can. D&D's current executives don't look back to the halcyon days of Lake Geneva, 1978 and the company run out of an old house. They come from places like Amazon and they bring Amazon's instincts with them.
I'd say it's probably as likely that this information or 'rumor' got started by someone who asked a question on a forum such as ours and it morphed and spiraled out of control to the point poeple don't know where the first comment started.

There's a similar story. John Roderick, of the Omnibus podcast with Ken Jennings, was asked once in an interview if it was true he was voted the 'third most attractive man in Seattle'. He laughed and asked where that came from. The interviewer didn't know. And the story kept spreading, however each time it was cited it was only from that particular interview. It was a snake eating its own tail (or tale in this case ;) )
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
Just as a clarification to me: I don't really like the OGL, to be honest. I think sometimes it's a broad stroke to protect items that shouldn't be copywritten in the first place. But it often makes me feel like I can't call a priest a cleric, a swordfighter a warrior, or a magic user a wizard, because this is all in the SRD. These terms have been used interchangably for centuries, long before DnD even existed. I may not have read things right, because honestly, it just makes my head hurt. So I sit here paralyzed, wanting to create content, but without the restrictions of the OGL, as it wouldn't even refer to anything in it to begin with. Yes, I understand I can have a 'gremlin' or other common creatures based on mythological sources, but I can't use the SRD to describe it, even if I intended to use gremlins as they are defined in the SRD. For beginners, the OGL is more of a nightmare, and just makes things harder to decipher, IMHO.
Um... cleric and wizard, as well as basically every common term used in D&D, are perfectly OK to be used.

Basically, there's a tiny number of proper nouns you can't say. Things like Faerun and the full name of the various Outer Planes (You can say Outlands, but not the Concordanant Domain of the Outlands), the Book of Exalted Deeds/Vile Darkness, and a couple of monsters like beholder, carrion crawler, yuan-ti, etc. Everything else is fair game.

Edit: Meant are, wrote aren't. Fixed it.
 
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I think a bit of historic context as to why the OGL was created, and the SRD's released, would also help clear the air.

Back in the 1990's, TSR (who, for those who don't remember, was the company that used to make D&D more than a quarter-century ago) was extremely litigious. They were notorious about sending threats of legal action to fan websites that published home-brew D&D spells, monsters, character classes or similar content. There were entire netbooks of fan-made D&D content that used pseudo-D&D terms by renaming everything about D&D and trying to make something distinct from D&D rules, but easily translatable back to them. There was a HUGE amount of bad blood between D&D fans and the company that made D&D, because normal things D&D fans would do in the course of fandom (like custom spells and monsters) were things that TSR saw as illegal derivative works of their IP when shared with other fans.

There was enough bad blood that it contributed a lot to TSR being on the verge of bankruptcy because D&D sales had been dropping substantially (for several reasons, but antagonizing the fans certainly contributed). They didn't have enough money to keep in operation, and were VERY close to shutting down permanently. . .and with it, D&D going permanently out-of-print (there was a lot of speculation of whoever bought the D&D name in the bankruptcy proceedings might only care about using it for video games).

Wizards of the Coast, at the time known almost entirely for Magic: The Gathering, swept in and bought TSR at the last moment. I think it was OGL architect Ryan Dancey who talked about being the one who went to TSR headquarters to arrange the buyout, and noticing an oddity about D&D production. . .there was literally no market research. They just made whatever they wanted and assumed players would buy it.

One big reason for the OGL was to to allow for fans to make D&D compatible materials in a way that would keep the lawyers happy and let fans do their thing, and to ensure that D&D could never go out of print, by putting the core rules of 3rd edition (and later 3.5e, and to a lesser extent 5e) in the open where they can be reprinted by anyone or used to create a clone of D&D itself (much like retroclones do for earlier editions of D&D).
 

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