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OGL, SRD, STL, SRD, OGC, PI, FLGS, TMI…?, posted by CJ Ovalle

It’s not a secret that I respect many of the concepts behind the Open Gaming License (OGL), and that I think WotC made a misstep when they moved to the less consumer/publisher-friendly Gaming System License (GSL). (Dont’ get me wrong; I’m critical of the OGL in some ways I’ll discuss later, but I appreciate the open gaming concept.) I’ve recently been going over older blog posts on the subject from various gaming designers and players, and as I started writing about it and throwing out a bunch of acronyms, I realized that a lot of people- even people who used these systems- probably have no idea what all of these things are. So, here’s a list of some terms and acronyms that might be useful before I get into that post…

GPL (GNU General Public License)
The GPL was the first of the “copyleft” licenses, which (oversimplifying a bit) allows the use of GPL-licensed material provided that the user also shares the new work under the GPL. The standard GPL is usually applied to software, although there are other forms of GPL that can apply to different types of media. The license was created by Richard Stallman, an advocate for Free Software. Most “open” movements are based or inspired by this work, including Creative Commons and Open Gaming. A great deal of open source software uses the GPL, although there are other recognized open source licenses.
OGL (Open Game License, Open Gaming License)
The license that reflects Wizard’s of the Coast’s 2000 movement into “open gaming,” with the advent of D&D 3rd edition. It’s not quite an “open” license in the strictest sense of the open movements- it allows a mix of open and proprietary content. Like most open licenses, however, it is not revocable.
OGC (Open Game Content, Open Gaming Content, Open Content)
A term from the OGL, open game content was content designated by the person using the license as the material that could be used by others- basically, the “open” part of the content.
PI (Product Identity)
A term from the OGL, product identity was content designated by the person using the license as material that could not be used by others- basically, the “closed” part of the content.
SRD (System Reference Document)
Strictly speaking, the System Reference Document is the official document that describes the usable content for a specific product, such as the d20 SRD used by 3rd edition D&D. However, there are several other product SRDs and several unofficial SRDs that are basically all referred to as SRDs. The most important part of the SRD, in my opinion, is that they contain information about the content that can be used from a given product. The 4th edition SRD only contains descriptions of the material that can be used; most OGL-based SRDs contain the actual material that is designated open content, and are often used as handy online rules references.
STL (d20 System License)
The d20 System License was a license which allowed people to use the official d20 logo from Wizards of the Coast in order to indicate that their product was compatible with 3E D&D. The license gave them some specific permissions and restrictions related to the use of Wizards of the Coast trademarks and copyrights. It could be changed without prior notice or revoked, and it was.
GSL (Game System License)
The license that covers the 4th edition of D&D, which was not as open as the earlier OGL and is incompatible with the OGL. Early terms included a prohibition on the use of both the GSL and the OGL for the same products. Users must adhere to the most recent version of the GSL, and it can be modified or revoked at will.
FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store)
The local shop that carries your gaming goods.

Common areas of confusion (because, well, it’s confusing):

  • The law is not black and white. That design is intentional.
  • Game mechanics aren’t generally covered by copyright. The specific expression of those game mechanics may be covered by copyright depending on the non-factual creativity involved in that expression. The bar for expressive creativity if pretty low. If you create a derivative of the creative parts (say, for example, you slightly alter the textual description of a creature), you may be infringing copyright. If what you copy specifically covers only the mechanics, you may not be infringing copyright.
  • When you agree to a license, you are bound by the terms of that license (probably…). If you don’t agree to that license, you aren’t bound by the terms of that license. If you don’t agree to the license, the full range of rights and exemptions granted under the law to the rights holders and to you as a user of those materials still apply. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything with the those materials, it just means that you have to fall under those exemptions in order to use them.
  • Trademark law can be confusing. While the d20 logo was trademarked, and you had to agree to the d20 STL to use it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t say that your product is compatible with the d20 system. Although commercial trade may be involved, it gets into that tricky area where game mechanics aren’t covered by copyright, and you can actually use trademarks in describing the actual products. For example, a company that makes toner ink cartridges can say that those cartridges are compatible with HP Laserjet printers, whether or not HP wants them to (and usually it doesn’t). That doesn’t mean HP doesn’t have any kind of recourse or legal strategy they could trot out; they might say that the quality of those products is so bad that it’s hurting their reputation, for example- but that would probably be seen as anti-competitive and would have to involve some pretty specific circumstances (as all cases do). Anyway, when it comes to the d20 license, you probably wouldn’t be able to use the special d20 logo or any of the other things that d20 STL let you do, but you can still probably give factual information about how your product might relate to other products. This is one of the confusing areas of the OGL, though, because it has terms about using OGL content and indicating adaptability using trademarks.
  • As with anything, there’s a certain amount of risk involved in these decisions as they apply to legal matters. I use “probably” and “maybe” a lot here because these things aren’t absolutely certain, and of course you can be sued no matter how good or bad the legal argument is.
  • Here’s the essay question: If the OGL basically allows you to create derivative works of mechanics (which generally aren’t protected by copyright anyway) but excludes content designated as product identity AND prohibits your uses of certain trademarks that you may have been able to use otherwise without agreeing to the license, then isn’t it just a glorified covenant not to sue? (I don’t quite think so… but I can see the argument. More on the subject later.)