When I started blogging about all things D&D 4E almost three years ago, I never imagined that I might one day be writing a political commentary about anything more serious than which side of the Edition Wars you should be on. And for the record, I don’t care which D&D Edition you’re playing as long as you’re playing the heck out of it, in any form, and sharing it with your fellow RP gamers!
But sadly, there is something dark and terrible looming on the horizon, it’s called SOPA or the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it’s a bill being proposed to Congress that is an attack on the very foundations of Free Speech on the Internet, and on due process of so-called “internet piracy” in the courts. And let me assure you, fellow gamers, if this piece of legislation is finally signed into law, it could be as destructive to the online D&D gaming community as dropping a rabid tarrasque into the middle of an unsuspecting halfling village!
Divine Retribution has never been easier!
On the surface, a law which prohibits online piracy would seem like a “very good thing”. It would allow owners of copyrighted material to protect their property, thus preventing the loss of their material to downloading and sharing without their permission. I myself had a recent experience with this sort of piracy, when I found PDFs of adventures which I had self-published on RPGNow were being posted to 4Shared.com for free, allowing anyone to download them. At the time, I remember being outraged, particularly when the price of the PDFs are nominal at best, and yet my hard work was being copied and downloaded by anyone who wanted it.
Thankfully, there is a mechanism in place on the Internet, called the DMCA or Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which allows me to contact 4Share and request the copyrighted material to be taken down. Sure, it was a pain, and outrageous that I would have to go to such lengths to protect my own work, but in the end my work was removed from 4Share, and that was the end of the crisis.
Unfortunately, SOPA goes far beyond the DCMA in scope, and would have allowed me, as an aggrieved publisher, to make a complaint against 4Share, and actually cause the entire 4Share website to be shut down, all because someone posted a couple of three-buck module PDFs without my permission! And further, under SOPA, I would not have to hire a lawyer to shut down 4Share, or any other similar “piracy” site, because all I have to do is complain to the DNS hosting company about the copyrighted materials being shared illegally, and 4Share would simply vanish from the Internet as an entity until it proved itself innocent of wrongdoing!
The wording in the SOPA legislation is so vague that due process has almost been entirely forgotten in a rush to protect against piracy. The current draft, which will be debated tomorrow in the Judiciary Committee before being sent to Congress, allows anyone to shut down a website by simply making a claim that a site has copyrighted material on it, and the law literally forces the hosting services, DNS, and search engines to “disappear” the website until it can be proven that the site is not a pirate!
More merciless than any Mind Flayer…
So at this point, you might be asking yourself why this law should be so threatening to the D&D community and to fansites and bloggers discussing their favorite fantasy role-playing game?
Sadly, the greatest loss to the D&D online gaming community could be that having some really great FREE advice and content removed from the Internet… forever! As quick as a mind flayer sucking out a startled Wizard’s brain, the thoughts and ideas of any number of D&D bloggers, as well as posters on D&D forums, could be simply be devoured and lost, never to return, all from a single complaint about copyright infringement – whether or not the complaint is even valid, I might add!
The Internet has done some great things for the online D&D community, and it has grown and expanded into a wondrous tapestry of ideas, advice, and new fan-generated conten,t which many of us reference and use in our D&D games week after week, year after year. Sites like Sly Fourish, Critical Hits, EN World, and my own humble Neuroglyph Games, just to name a few, have been writing advice blogs and content articles for the benefit of the online D&D community now for years. But it takes only a single complaint – valid or invalid – under SOPA, and all those blogs and articles from a site will be gone, possibly never to return.
Could the online D&D community really continue to thrive and grow if its Internet supporters and fansites start vanishing unjustly?
Legislative Dungeons & Dragons
Of course, some might call my ideas paranoid, because even under such a draconic law, even where a single infringement of copyrighted material can amount to a felony and jail time, no one would ever target a D&D fansite, right?
I’ve thought long and hard about that since SOPA first came to my attention, when I realized that it was being railroaded through Congress, and now has the potential to be signed into law. And at first, I simply dismissed my concerns, because we D&D bloggers are just publishing fansites for our favorite game – and really, come on now, who could possibly want to shut us down?
But then I realized that there are plenty of “who’s” that could want to shut a D&D blogsite down. In fact, I had the realization that anyone with an axe to grind could potentially do it, and all the hard work, all the hours of writing and content, could simply be removed from the Internet on a whim and a bad attitude.
For example, let’s say that a D&D 4E blogger writes an article criticizing a facet of the Edition Wars, and makes a snarky off-hand comment about Pathfinder or D&D 3.5. (Editor’s Note: For sake of this argument, it could work either way – could be a snarky comment about 4E from a Pathinder fan too.) And let’s say an angry fan decides they don’t like the snarkiness, and decides to make a complaint, alleging a copyright violation… and BAM! That blog and the entire blogsite are annihilated from the Internet like a minion caught in a fireball!
Don’t think it could happen? Have you read how vicious some of the Edition Wars fights have been on various forums?
Ok, so, how about if a D&D blogger uses a picture from a D&D book as an illustration in an article supporting the game, and maybe even promotes buying a particular book and using it to run D&D campaigns better? But then let’s say that sometime down the road, that blogger writes an article criticizing Hasbro and WotC for their corporate decisions, such as laying off popular writers at Christmastime, or for rolling out D&D 5E in a crappy way. Under SOPA, all it takes is an anonymous tip about that image on the fansite… and BAM! The site disappears, and the blogger is facing a possible felony charge for daring to disparage D&D’s corporate paradigm.
And what about D&D product reviews?
To date, I’ve personally written a couple hundred reviews of D&D, Pathfinder, and other roleplaying game supplements, not to mention fantasy books, fantasy movies, and a few video games. I’ve always tried to be fair in my reviews, but I don’t always give the product a glowingly positive review, and in a few rare cases, have had to be fairly honest and not recommend the product for one reason or another. I know for a fact – which I can state based upon the angry emails I’ve gotten after my post – that some publishers and authors have found my review assessments “harsh” and “unfair”. In fact, in one case, I was actually accused of having some strange negative agenda to undermine the GSL community of publishers – and this charge was leveled at me despite the vast number of positive reviews of 3PP materials I’ve written over the past couple years, and that I myself am a GSL D&D 3PP publisher and proud of it!
But all it would take would be some angry publisher or author to take retribution for a bad review, and make one complaint about my site, or about EN World where I publish many of my reviews now… and BAM! No more offending review, no more Neuroglyph Games, and no more EN World!
I guess that would be one way to get rid of a bad review, huh?
Battling the Demon
If these scenarios sound a little paranoid, and even a little frightening, well I don’t think you can blame me too much. In its current form, SOPA represents the single-greatest attack on Free Speech that this country has ever seen, and it will affect not only how we enjoy our online social networks, such as Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and Flickr, but also how we choose to express ourselves on the web on fansites and blogsites like the ones we have for our favorite roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons.
With the wording in the bill so vague and open to interpretation, and the frustrating lack of understanding of the Internet that the Congressmen who are behind the bill have – by their own admission – SOPA could be used in so many mean and petty ways to undermine Free Speech in this country, and to affect us all on every level that we use the Internet. (see this Washington Post article about the level of Internet ignorance in the Judiciary hearings.) Certainly, if this law gets passed, it will make bloggers and online pundits from all areas – including D&D – think twice about what they want post, worry who they might offend, and most likely will censor themselves in fear of the repercussions for posting their opinions on the blogsite. In fact, it would not surprise me if many blogsites –whether D&D fansite or a fansite of any other type – simply disappeared if SOPA passes, from their owners and authors fearing possible felony charges for making an unknowing copyright infraction while trying to support their favorite hobby or cause.
If this isn’t what a degradation of Free Speech looks like, then I don’t know what does!
So fellow D&D gamers, I urge you to write an email to your Congressmen, or post a tweet, or do anything else you can think of to raise awareness of the dangers of SOPA to your family, friends, and fellow gamers! We might just be gamer nerds to the rest of the world, but we all have a voice, and SOPA threatens every one of us, nerd or not, who enjoys online content, and uses the Internet to interface with our D&D community.
If there was ever a Chaotic Evil monster worth pulling out your +5 Holy Avenger against, it’s SOPA – don’t let this Evil from Washington destroy our online D&D gaming community!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!