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Wizards of the Coast and the Digital Dilemma

Wizards of the Coast, and its preceding incarnation, TSR, is infamously bad at delivering digital tools. There had been some recent signs of improvement- although released late, the subscription Character Builder is quite good, and they had made a great deal of their catalog available for sale through pdf vendors such as RPGNow and Paizo. Now, though, in my opinion they’ve taken large strides backwards.

Wizards of the Coast works are infringed. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone- just about every creative work is infringed to varying degrees. What has been a surprise is the company’s response. WotC has decided to pull all of their pdfs from the market in a seemingly knee-jerk reaction, giving their distributors and their customers very little notice and their customers no legal way to get the pdf. These products include all 4th Edition and earlier Dungeons and Dragons pdfs as well as some older systems for which they own the copyright (for example, Alternity). This action, taken in consideration with other recent actions seems to indicate that some at WotC are seriously out of touch with the effective use of digital technologies. In addition to the pdf situation, WotC has released a new Internet Sales Policy and has begun lawsuits against copyright infringers.

There have been earlier indications of questionable behavior and/or attitudes. The switching over from the OGL to the GSL showed a remarkable lack of belief that the improvement of the overall RPG market can act to improve their own sales. (This is a polarizing discussion and will immediately discredit me in some quarters, so I’ll address it separately some day.)  The lack of  a promised fan site policy has made a number of online fan endeavors problematic. The recent cease and desist notices towards certain sites started pointing towards the possibility of the lawsuits that we’ve now seen.

Take a look at my background if you want to get a sense of my gaming preferences and my biases. To make a long story short, I’ve played D&D for awhile, and I’ve been playing 4th edition almost every week since it was released.

Infringement is wrong. I do not in any way condone the use of peer-to-peer technologies to unlawfully distribute copyrighted materials to the public. WotC is within their rights to take the actions that they have, but they could have taken different actions. Let’s look at their recent actions: the Internet Sales Policy, the lawsuits, and the removal of the pdfs.

The Internet Sales Policy. The Internet Sales Policy doesn’t quite allow sales on the Internet. To be more specific, it only allows authorized retailers to make such sales if the Internet site is directly affiliated with a bricks and mortars gaming store, sometimes referred to as a FLGS (friendly local gaming store). Also note that the Internet Sales Policy at this point in time primarily affects sales of Magic: the Gathering. Now, I’m *all* for supporting your local gaming store, but this seems to be an odd method of doing so. There are online-only gaming stores that have good customer service and good relationships with their customers. FLGSes have other advantages, such as the ability to hold gaming events, and WotC can also support them by providing them with support for those events. Moving on, the license allows prohibits these FLGSes from participating in the secondary market, not allowing them the revenue associated with their and their customers’ lawful uses under the first sale doctrine. Ever see your local gaming store sell individual Magic cards? Not anymore, if they want to be an authorized retailer. Is cutting of a source of revenue and a reason for some customers to go to the store really helping your FLGS? Finally, at least one vendor I know has expressed the idea that the term in the license prohibiting “lowering the value” of WotC goods could be interpreted as disallowing negative consumer reviews.

The lawsuits. The initial reported reason for the pull of the pdfs was “piracy.” (Terminology note- I try to use the word infringement for this type of action, just to be specific.) WotC has sued 8 individuals- 5 named, 3 John Does- for copyright infringement. WotC put out a press release about their action (probably to show how serious they are about the problem). Like the *AA’s, WotC is suing its fanbase. One of the individuals has self-identified himself as a 16-year-old D&D player in the Philippines. Another, if his story is true, is a D&D player from Poland and is actually innocent of infringement (his friend uploaded the pdf to scribd without his knowledge). Being innocent of infringement is not particularly far-fetched, either, even if this person is lying- there are number of ways that this can occur. Lose your computer? Have your computer or a storage machine hacked? Edited the watermark? We’ve seen these types of things occur with other content industries already.

WotC is suing these individuals for actual damages (the amount they’ve lost, which they also claim is unmeasurable in those same documents), and statutory damages (up to $150,000 per infringement). Without getting into a specific legal discussion about copyright, trade law, international conventions, and jurisdiction, WotC absolutely has the right to take these actions. The legal process, however, is not kind. Although it’s hard for some to feel sorry for these individuals when they’re guilty, if you’ve never seen a scared kid who’s made a stupid mistake have the full force of the law come down on her, it is a gut and heart-wrenching experience. If they’re not guilty, the experience is even worse. Also, the idea that lawsuits discourage infringement hasn’t quite borne out… A lot of people won’t have sympathy for these infringers, and I can see why. It’s still a terrible situation.

The removal of PDFs. The removal of PDFs was not solely a response to infringement. (As a response to infringement, removing your product from the market is a pretty silly move.) It was also a business decision, as stated by the president of the company. They are planning to make works available again in some format, but not PDF, and they won’t disclose the methods they would like to use. This has led to rampant speculation, but in my opinion the signs are not positive. I use the PDFs I had on multiple computers that I own- my desktop and laptops. I take the laptops to places that don’t have Internet access. I’m not fond of DRM-encumbered technologies. I have issues with not being able to do what I like with the products that I’ve bought. Furthermore,  they become increasingly hard to preserve and use as technology changes.

The way the pdfs were removed was also problematic. I think that the third party pdf stores do have some responsibility for the unhappiness- they let themselves be in an arrangement where WotC did have the ability to pull items the way they did. Even with the “24 hour reprisal” that WotC has allowed, WotC still had to allow it. But from what they’ve stated publicly, it seems like a lot of their everyday business was based on mutual respect and communication, and this decision totally surprised those vendors. It’s kind of hard to be too hard on them; they obviously don’t have much power in that particular relationship, and furthermore, they’ve been good at communicating what has been happening from their perspective.

As it so happens, I don’t necessarily need to buy a pdf to have legal access to a copy. I have easy access to a nondestructive book scanner and OCR technology. I’d just rather buy the official pdf copy. It’s less of my time, and I can support the company that way.

Realistically, I’m not dropping 4E altogether. I like the system, and my friends and I are playing it. I like the designers. I’ve met a few of them at various cons, and they seem like genuinely nice people that love their game. The actions of the company, though? I probably won’t be such an advocate for the game, and when the current games are done or dissolved, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I have put a lot of money in it already with the books, pdfs, tiles, miniatures and so on… but for the first time in a long time I have started seriously looking at different systems closely. I’ve subscribed to dungeonaday.com. I downloaded the free copies of Exalted and the Pathfinder beta to check them out. I’ve started looking at Mutants and Masterminds (I enjoyed the Wild Cards novels) and I’ll probably take a look at Savage Worlds.

So, what could WotC do, in my opinion?

-Be better at communication. The interviews and PR responses thus far are uninformative.
-Seriously consider the ramification of the lawsuits and act accordingly. They won’t win many fans by offering cheap settlements- it hasn’t helped the RIAA much- but it’s better than what seems to be occurring. Frankly, I’d be happier if they stuck to publicizing their cease and desists rather than issuing press release about how they’re wielding the hammer of statutory damages. I haven’t seen that be much of a deterrent. At any rate, I don’t think crushing the infringing D&D players is going to help a whole lot.
-Ideally? Resume sales of pdfs. It’s not likely to happen. They’ve decided to move on. I’ll make my own absent a similar alternative.
-If they are coming up with a DDi subscription-related model, I hope they let me pick and choose what I want. If I want the Character Builder and Dungeon/Dragon, let me go with those. They shouldn’t increase the price dramatically because they’re providing features I’m not interested in- that will pretty much just guarantee that I don’t buy the product at all.
-If I have to download yet another application to view the materials, and that application affects how I can copy or view the item, I’m not likely to buy those materials.

There actually have been some good discussions about how companies can support FLGSes out of this over on enworld and some store owners blogs, with several representatives from publishers participating. Several publishers have come also provided discounts on their pdfs in light of these events. Those are all pretty positive outcomes… just not necessarily for WotC.

I hope WotC is seriously considering all of these viewpoints.

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