RPG Piracy

YAAR! Or not. In the last week the SOPA and PIPA legislations were pretty much sunk. As is usual for such things there’s two perspectives you can have on this: one is that it a victory for civil liberties and privacy, and that such things are pretty much unworkable. The other perspective is that again heavy-handed  actions by legislators that don’t understand the technology involved have again missed an opportunity to protect people’s intellectual property.

File share sites aren’t going to go away overnight. As soon as a product is released in digital format, it will be pirated. Unfortunately, there’s no way to stop this happening. When the Secret Fire RPG came out, a pirated copy surfaced on the Internet within 24 hours: unfortunately for the dopey git concerned, he’d left his email on the PDF, so I suspect his account with DriveThruRPG was shut down as a result.

I’ve said it before: I don’t condone piracy. Downloading a PDF with a view to buying the hard copy book is very different to knowingly downloading a pirated PDF. The obvious truth is, without product sales, many of the small press games will simply stop producing games or go out of business. Only a handful of companies can afford the legal fees to get sites shut down, and even then, they’re not in the same league as record companies. Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to stop people ripping you off.

One of the creators of Cthulhutech, Matthew Grau, summed up the current situation for small-press games last October on the Cthulhutech website.

I remember a day when a mediocre release of a game book sold 3000-5000 copies, with healthy restock orders. Now, a successful release might sell 1000, if you are lucky, selling through the rest of your 3000 unit print run in three years – many companies print far less. Not only is the industry shrinking, but people don’t have to pay for their gaming books any more if they don’t want to. Unfortunately, unlike the music industry, we are not made of money. It costs a surprisingly large amount of money to develop a well-written and attractive gaming book and the return is not so hot. Without those extra sales, the traditional model of core plus regular supplementation isn’t really viable.

– Matthew Grau, Wildfire LLC

Now, here’s the thing: D&D, Eclipse Phase, Pathfinder and FATE have all released their rules on the internet, either OGL (Open Gaming License) or through a SRD (System Reference Document). These systems largely make RPG piracy minor as everything can be found online, although it does still take place. When you buy the book, you’re usually buying background information, the “fluff”, from these companies. Also, many folks resort to illegal PDFs when they’re unable to source old material – which is why Wizards have likely re-released their 1st edition publications. Although I wonder if any of the artists and contributors to those works will receive any royalties?

As such, I ‘d considered the best way to prevent piracy of the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG. In short, I’m not: instead, I’ll make use of it. As I’ll be using FATE, which is already OGL, there’s very little that won’t already be out there, either as part of the OGL for FATE or material that I’ll make available on the site. Copies of the rules may crop up on the ‘net, but this could help as a sort of viral marketing, especially if they are quick-start rules.

At one point Wizards of the Coast had their old adventures in PDF form, free to download. Then they dropped it and sold them online. Then they stopped making them available, citing piracy, which only made their products pirated more. Unfortunately the business model of having one form of product for sale just doesn’t work any more: when Wizards dropped their PDF sales, they made a serious mistake in my view.

Simply put: if there’s no reason to pirate your work, why bother? Although I have a few rulebooks in PDF, they’re no substitute for a hard copy version during play! With that in mind, the solution to RPG piracy is pretty clear: make your rules, or any antiquated or dead product, available online. Anyone that then pirates your work is clearly doing something illegal – so you can rain down whatever kind of legal hell if you want.

Unfortunately, RPG Piracy is here to stay, legislation or not. Until the internet becomes a police state – hopefully never – piracy will exist. If you’re a publisher, use it to your advantage.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk and regularly play RPGs.