You’ve Loved The Carrot – Now, Meet The Stick

This ICv2 report has a (precious) few more details about the WotC d20 crackdown we reported on early in the week. They say: “Is this a laudable attempt to standardize procedures and enforce a necessary discipline on sloppy publishers, or is it the stunned reaction of an organization that has created a runaway train?” I say it’s nothing so glamorous in either direction – WotC is simply acting with the automaticity of a corporation bound by rules.

What they’re trying to do is avoid the Yo-Yo effect – that is, the means by which a company loses control of a brand by failing to protect it. The word “Yo-Yo” wasn’t always a generic term for that toy that comes on a string; it was once a corporate brand name. Long ago in the hazy mists of the 50’s, courts ruled that, when the Duncan toy company failed to assert its dominance adequately over the term “yo-yo,” they forfeited their copyright on the term. (They got the domain, though.) This is why a number of entertainment companies have sent cease-and-desist letters to Internet fan sites and such – whether or not they recognise the value of fans who do their promotional work for them, they leave themselves open to a legal attack on their copyright unless they guard against every little offense. The OGL is WotC’s attempt to let third parties publish D&D material without running afoul of this trick in copyright law, so it’s no surprise that they’re staying on their toes when it comes to enforcement of the license.

The d20 System Trademark License, on the other hand, is a diabolically shrewd play that keeps other publishers from being able to benefit too much from the OGL’s largesse. Under the OGL, you can use all of D&D3’s rules, but to use that precious d20 logo – and to otherwise take the all-important step of telling people you’re D&D-compatible – you’ve got to leave certain things out. When I first wrote my analysis of the OGL and d20 for, I noted this little piece of brand warfare somewhere amid my general fog of confusion. What we’ve seen since reveals a possible counter-strategy: companies like Atlas Games and Sword and Sorcery/White Wolf have established their own, easily recognizable brands (Penumbra and Scarred Lands, respectively). There may come a point at which those brands will be as strong as the d20 logo, making it possible to produce, say, a Scarred Lands core rulebook, with all those nice OGLed rules and no d20 restrictions. Whether a smaller company would risk WotC’s wrath like that, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out someday.