Creative Commons

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Eclipse Phase is the new transhuman horror/conspiracy RPG from Catalyst (publishers of Shadowrun and Battletech). It hits my sweet spot in terms of setting, but what’s really got me jazzed is the license.

It’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license, which basically means that anyone who wants can copy it, remix it, change it, build on it, and so forth. The restrictions are that you have to give the original authors credit (Attribution), you can’t charge for it (Noncommercial), and you have to put the same license on anything you produce based on the original (Share Alike). It’s the same license Wikipedia is using, except that Wikipedia is allowing commercial reuse.

The obvious question is why would you use this instead of the OGL, which is designed for gaming? Some practical reasons: Creative Commons licenses are backed by a well-funded foundation, which is actively engaged in updating the licenses as needed and translating the licenses into different languages and legal systems. Creative Commons licenses have been tested in court. Also, philosophical reasons: The OGL includes the confusing concept of “Product Identity,” which a) hasn’t ever been tested in court and b) has been used to effectively close content based on the OGL. On the latter point, there are major RPG publishers who designate game mechanics as Product Identity, which has always felt like a bit of a stretch to me.

There’s at least one practical reason to use the OGL, mind you. I’ll get back to that in a minute. First off, I want to share my semi-clever trick for using a Creative Commons license to open up your game without making the entire thing open — i.e., how a publisher can effectively preserve their logos, game worlds, and whatever else they want to protect while still making some portion of the game open.

People tend to assume you can’t do that, which is reasonable, since there’s nothing about partial openness in the Creative Commons array of licenses. It’s very all or nothing. However, what you can do is publish your game in two versions, one of which is CC licensed and one of which isn’t.

In other words, first you do your main book or books. It’s copyrighted, there’s no special license associated with it, and so on. Then you extract the material you want to share, and you publish that as an System Reference Document under whichever CC license you prefer. Bam: you’ve protected your private stuff while letting people build on everything else. This isn’t what Eclipse Phase did, by the by, but it’s directly analogous to WotC’s SRD and works basically the same way.

If you want people to be able to build commercial games on top of your SRD, you use the Creative Commons Attribution license. You have an interesting choice there: you can either go with the Share Alike version, in which case people have to make their material open, or you can pass on that in which case people can make closed material based on your open material.

The one thing the OGL gives you that this method doesn’t is the ability to let people share some but not all of their work based on your game. This is where the lack of Product Identity may become a problem for some. I personally believe that the OGL doesn’t force anyone working with the SRD to share anything: there is nothing stopping people from declaring absolutely everything in their game to be Product Identity. The OGL is thus the equivalent of a Creative Commons Attribution license. But I am not a lawyer, and I recognize that there’s room for disagreement there.

Personally, I think the value of using a common, actively-supported license outweighs the slight problems; I wouldn’t use the OGL. But that’s me. What’s more important is the recognition that a CC license is viable for gaming and does provide a great deal of flexibility in both what you give away and what you allow people to do with it.

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