Examining open source and copyright from a different angle

I muse periodically on open source and copyright issues and I happened across a great non-software example of how letting things fall out of copyright is generally good for folks. Star Frontiers is a sci fi themed pen and paper roll playing game that reached the height of its popularity in the 80’s when Star Wars hype was at its peak. It was originally published by TSR, the folks who introduced Dungeons and Dragons to the world. TSR dropped the game from its product lineup in the mid-late 80’s, and eventually it became freely and legally available for download. A small fanbase have been keeping the product alive ever since. Recently one of those fans took it upon himself to do some major updates, ironing out issues with the rules, fleshing out areas that had been unfinished or vague, working on the aesthetics of the downloadable rulebook, and launching a ‘dungeon‘ like fanzine to accompany all this work. This has caused a bit of a renaissance of interest in the game, bringing a moribund product back into the limelight at places like rpg.net and exposing a new generation of gamers to a solid, fun game that had become unavailable due to the economics of publishing.

If this game was kept in copyright it would be dead now, sought after only for nostalgic reasons by collectors and played by no one. Instead it’s a living, breathing product with a fanbase and new content to keep it going into the future. This whole conception of reuse remix burn doesn’t just apply to music or digital media is the point I’m trying to make here – it’s equally applicable to dead trees and other kinds of intellectual property. And lest you think this is an edge case I’ll observe that things I’ve linked to in the past like Librivox (fan created audiobooks of rights free material), source code releases to game engines like Quake 3 (and the various fan projects these spawn) and other things I don’t think I’ve mentioned (the Marvel Super hero role playing game, the downloads, and the fan plans to revamp it) also illustrate the issue.

This is not about anarchy and fighting against rights owners opportunity to profit – this is about recognizing that it’s a complex issue and there is value to all of us on both sides of it, and our challenge is to find the right balance between protecting the interests of rights owners and the interests of everyone in a vibrant, flexible, imaginative marketplace of ideas. In my opinion we’re failing miserably at this at present.

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