Creative Commons: (Part of) Why We Give Our Games Away

On an industry mailing list I subscribe to, a few days ago, someone pointed out a site that contained pirated PDFs of thousands of gaming books. I sent off a flip comment:

Damnit. Eclipse Phase stuff, which can be legally shared, isn’t there. I wonder if I can just upload it… 😉

Someone sent me an off-list message questioning whether EP could be legally shared. I said yes, absolutely, and they asked:

[Are you] shooting [yourselves] in the proverbial foot by basically giving away their materials. If it’s free and legal to do so why would anybody buy the materials?

Here’s my replies to that email, edited only slightly to combine a couple emails into one to tie together some subject a bit better:

Well, we sure haven’t shot ourselves in the foot so far. First print run sold out in only a few months, second print run is roughly about half gone (haven’t seen September numbers yet), and our first two print supplements were both 1/4 sold on pre-orders alone.

Our PDF sales have also been exceptionally strong; partially due to the low price point (1500+ sales of the core PDF at $15 — exact numbers impossible to know due to our divorce from Catalyst) and partially because of the Creative Commons licensing. People can check out the game, whether that be from our free Quick-Start Rules, downloading from a torrent (we seeded it ourselves to some bittorrent trackers), or by being given it from a friend. If they know they like it, $15 a low price for a full PDF RPG, and while RPG print prices have crept up to where $50 is a very normal price for a 400-page full-color book, nobody needs to buy it “sight unseen” now.

Our ad-hoc research shows that almost every EP gaming group has multiple copies of the print rulebook and multiple copies of the PDF at the table.

People are good. They want to support the things they like and they want to be treated as individuals and be respected. Creative Commons licensing allows us to do that; we’re giving them gaming material and allowing them to use in the way that gamers naturally want to use it. It allows fans to support us without worries of legal hassles, and it’s given us alternate revenue streams — like the Hack Packs, where we charge a few bucks extra for access to high-res artwork and InDesign files of our material.

Another great factor for Creative Commons and Eclipse Phase is the themes of EP and the spirit of CC collide rather nicely. Hackers and info-junkies and copyleftists also tend to be interested in sci-fi and transhumanism!

And, of course, no publishing company can successfully fight piracy. The RIAA hasn’t, the MPAA hasn’t. Piracy is going to happen unless we say “nope, you can’t pirate our stuff, cuz we’ll just let you give it out!” — and that makes the file-sharers like us and buy from us. I don’t think pirates are evil and immoral people. I know many people who pirate many things and these people also buy many things. They just tend to buy only things they already like. So, of course, giving away your material will only work if your material is good quality!

I’d much rather have someone read our game for free and not like it than buy our game and not like it. In the first case, they’re only out their time. In the second case, they’re out time and money and are more likely to resent us and/or not buy any other games we may release.

Furthermore, Creative Commons isn’t just about “downloading for free;” it’s about giving fans permission to hack our content and distribute those hacks. Permission to do the things that gamers naturally do, without fear of lawsuits or complex legalese or requiring our approval. Our fans have built and distributed complex character generation spreadsheets, customized GM Screens, converted our books into ePub/mobi format, and all sorts of neat things. When they do things like this, that gives us guidance as to what we should be doing: because fans aren’t just saying they want something, they’re putting their time where their mouth is … a strong indication that they and other fans would be willing to pay for those things if we produced them.

And in the end, if licensing our material Creative Commons is not financially successful: it’s the right thing to do, socially. We have to build the future we want to live in. Giant corporations locking up intellectual property is dangerous to society and culture.

Our next RPG will be Creative Commons-licensed as well.


  1. And it works.

    I read Eclipse Phase after downloading it (I should admit however that I would have bought it anyway just based on what you guys were doing on the website) – and bought it as soon as my FLGS had it in stock. In fact it was the best selling New Game they had that year. I havn’t bought the sups yet, due to my FLGS not having got them yet (I prefer dead trees to PDFs if I really like the game, and I’d rather give the local guy the money than Amazon), but they are very high on my list of game books (Competing with the 40K-RPG line for top space).

    There’s a german translation project going on that I’ve heard of, plans are in place to do the sups, and there has been quite a bit of buzz about EP on the german side of the net (Hell, I’ve done an NPC as Download on my other Blog, and I’m cooking up an adventure at the moment).


  2. I was delighted when I found out that I could download rulebook pdf for free and read it before buying. Then, after just a few chapters I knew it was solid and worth buying a hardback copy. So I did and never regretted that decision.

    I agree with your view on customers being treated with respect. I bought the book because I felt that you’d gave me an opportunity of a test drive. And I liked the feel of driving the game 🙂

    The one big flawed assumption on piracy is that everyone who illegaly downloaded an item would purchase it if only copyright control were tightier. In my opinion it isn’t so. I think that quality content defends itself and people will pay for it anyway. Just to support the authors.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective; this is the reason why I am trying to release all of my materials as Creative Commons. Heck, I am even planning on releasing all my products into the public domain 10 years after publication which is sure to make a number of copyleftists very happy. 🙂

    I suppose I am curious about the two follow up questions. Is there a specific reason why you chose to use a non-commercial license? Why did you add in a viral share-alike component to the license? I haven’t decided on which of the variants I want to use so I would appreciate your perspective.

    • Hey Jason,

      1. We use share-alike because we simply think it’s the right thing to ask for; if someone builds something really cool based on our material, other people should be allowed to build something super cool from theirs!

      2. We use non-commercial because at the time, just the leap to Creative Commons was a big step; I don’t think we would have been able to convince our previous publisher to allow commercial use. We also weren’t sure if it would make it harder for us to strike deals with regards to foreign translations and other licensed stuff.

      Of course, we can still extend a private license to any party that a) exempts them from SA and b) allows them commercial use. So our options are still open there, and in the case of B, have been exercised a few times and will be more in the future!

  4. Adam, thank you so much for the elegant and eloquent explanation of why Creative Commons is good. Personally, I have felt that the reason some games suffer large amounts of piracy is because of the ethics of the company that makes it.
    I also feel that, by offering Eclipse Phase and other games through Creative Commons, one is eliminating one section of the pirates: the ones who pirate things because they want to just be rebellious and pirate.

    I fully admit, when Shadowrun 4th Edition first came out, my first copies of the core book and Street Magic were pirated copies, because I was not sure about what I heard about the system. I did after reading both PDFs turn around and buy them. Wizards of the Coast has moved to a “If you want our PDFs, or PDFs of product we do not even make any more, the only choice is piracy” which I completely disagree with, as, for me, PDFs make it easier to carry LARGE amounts of sourcebooks, or are a great way to get out of print books.

    With the licensing, I have shared Eclipse Phase with several of my online friends, and, to my knowledge, one has bought it, and one would buy it if she wasn’t on an extremely tight budget. Then again, I share PDFs with most of my group, as they are how we often run games before the dead tree versions come out, and, I know that every person in my group I have shared a PDF with has turned around and bought the Dead Tree version within months of it becoming available (unless the book is out of print).

    • For what it’s worth, I think pirates who pirate “just to be rebellious” or to “have a giant collection” are complete non-factors with regards to sales. The only thing they do is they keep pirated goods more widely-available for other people. But I bet they actually read less than 5 percent of what they download.

  5. I can speak for several copies of the game that you’ve sold thanks in no small part to the CC license.

    I saw the book sitting in a local game store and liked the cover and the exterior blurb enough to be curious, but didn’t really get the chance to look at it at the time. I jotted the name down to research online later, and liked the sound of it, but would probably never have actually purchased it since I’ve largely stopped buying games unless I also play them. When I found out I could check it out for free, though, I was intrigued enough to hunt down a torrent and take a look. I was pretty impressed with what I saw, shared it with some of my friends, and ultimately found an EP game, at which point I bought PDFs of the core rules, the NPC pack, and Sunward.

    So your CC license has helped sell several PDFs to me (I prefer electronic format, since I tend to travel a great deal, do a lot of my gaming online, and usually have my laptop with me even if I’m gaming in person) and at least a couple of copies of the hardback to friends I shared it with who also liked it.

    The fact that I also happen to really like the principles behind Creative Commons — very nice bonus.

  6. Adam, you are right on about Piracy and I think that slowly, the older business models that support the MPAA and the RIAA will be chipped away to allow the more modern, smaller publishers more market share.

    Valve is the leader for digital distribution in gaming, and Gabe Newell (the president) has some fascinating ideas about Piracy, ideas that should be listened to. His main point is that he views games as services, and that Pirates are beating all the publishers and distributors at their own game. Pirates are able to strip out the always awful, sometimes draconian DRM and offer up the package online. They are winning the distribution war. It’s so much easier to download a game without the DMR and just play it. If, as the distributor, you can offer up the same experience, you win and the pirates don’t have an edge.

    Also, his second main point, which always gets swept under the rug: pirated games are not lost sales. If Publisher X is complaining that their game has been seeded 500,000 times, they will follow up with all of the profit they they have lost due to piracy. This is a false step in logic. It is this misguided ideology that gives rise to the RIAA and the MPAA, the same engine that alienates its own user base.

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