In which our intrepid hero tries to clear the air.

In the past couple of months, Wizards of the Coast, creators of the last two (and a bit) editions of Dungeons & Dragons, have issued cease-and-desist letters to two fansites.

Ema’s Character Sheets offered a range of character sheets and generators for various d20 games. However, they also offered power cards for D&D 4e and allowed users to save characters to their servers for a fee. 4epowercards also provided users with—as its name suggests—power cards for 4e.

Predictably, the blogosphere is up in arms, accusing Wizards of Gestapo-like tactics, and generally running around like chickens with misplaced heads. Even some of the more level-headed commentators lay the blame for the current predicament firmly at Wizards’ feet, citing their continuing lack of a fansite policy.

Some companies are friendlier than others with regards to their games, but the fact remains, if you obtain any sort of reward or payment or compensation, whether it’s monetary or in the form of goods and services, in connection with your gaming materials, then you’re a commercial operation.

If Wizards allow their intellectual property to be used for commercial purposes without charging a licence fee, then any of their other commercial licencees have grounds to sue Wizards for unfair treatment. After all, the other licencees had to pay (probably substantial amounts) for what you got for free.

Similarly, if you provide hundreds of pages of text from roleplaying manuals without permission, then what you’re doing is in no way fair use. You’re stealing, and you’re depriving the rightful owner of sales.

Wizards were justified in what they did: acting to protect their business and their property.

It doesn’t matter whether or not a company—like Wizards of the Coast—lacks a fansite policy. Just because they don’t have one, doesn’t mean you can do whatever the hell you want. You’re still bound by intellectual property law, and as with other laws, ignorance is no defence.

Granted, Wizards should have had a fansite policy (and, for that matter, a complete Game System License) in place before they released 4e; regardless, however, they’re protected by international law and by the laws of the United States of America and of the state of Washington.

Although they’re hotly debated topics (particularly in the music world), the basics of fair use and derivative works are fairly widely understood. You’re not violating intellectual property by posting stats for your cool new monster, so long as it’s yours, or if at the very least, you have permission from the owner to post it. Most publishers won’t pursue you for this sort of behaviour, and the ones that do don’t stay in business.

The other stupid misunderstanding at work here is the idea that cease-and-desist letters are legally binding, in and of themselves.

Legal dramas might suggest otherwise, but very little of most lawyers’ careers consist of court time; the bulk of their business is in sending threatening letters. If Wizards issue you a letter one day, demanding that you shut down your blog, then you’re well within your rights to ignore it.

What happens next varies by jurisdiction, but in general, it’s up to Wizards to decide whether they want to fight you in court, make life difficult for you in general, or give the whole thing up as a bad joke. Chances are, though, they won’t do the latter, because it legally amounts to much the same thing as giving it away for free.

In short, save yourself the trouble: exercise a little common sense, and if in doubt, ask the company concerned where they stand on fan material.

UPDATE: Long-time designer and roleplaying historian Shannon Appelcline wrote a very informative essay on the subject last July.