Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Essay: Comments on the Unexpected Release of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

The release date of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition isn't until June 6th but last week, Wizards of the Coast took some hard hitting blows. The first was that was releasing some of the books ahead of the release date. The second, and perhaps more impacting event, was the fact that a printer-ready PDF of the books was released on torrent sites. The following are my commentaries.

The first is quick and easy to tackle. Retailers do sell books ahead of time (and distributors should distribute them ahead of time if they want retailers to actually be able to sell the product on the targeted release date), either by mistake or unintentionally. As much as possible, publishers want to avoid this, especially if there's a huge marketing push related to the book's launch (i.e. Harry Potter). In other circumstances, I don't think the author or the publisher is going to mind if their book gets sold early (and if a mid-list author finds his book available two days before the release date, he or she will probably tell you buy them rather than chide you for reading them "ahead of time"). In this case however, there was a marketing program planned for it. Ultimately, I don't think sending one or two books is going to harm the overall release but the bigger problem is how a retailer such as disregards release dates. And as popular as Dungeons & Dragons is, they're not really a J.K. Rowling which will take parties who break agreements regarding release dates to court. Perhaps one thing people should realize is that while there may be a contract forbidding parties to release a book ahead of time, it's another thing to enforce it. Rowling will take you to court. Anyone short of her will probably resort to other methods, such as sanctions on the retailer, either because litigation is not worth the expenses, or the fact that they'll be alienating too much one of their potential sources of revenue ( for example is starting to push its weight around and I'm sure the reaction to will be very different if was the one who released books prematurely--how would publishers react?).

The distribution of the printer-ready PDFs on the other hand is the bigger issue of the two and has spawned numerous threads on various message boards. Most people tend to focus on the premature release of the book for free but I'd also like to draw attention to a more distressing concern. People keep mentioning the inevitability of such books going up on torrent sites, and there's a part of me that agrees with that assumption (although that does not make it any less legitimate), but a big issue here is that the PDFs uploaded to the Internet weren't scans of the book (which is the usual format of pirated RPG books). Instead, they were most likely the actual PDFs sent to the printers. So this becomes a trust issue because either someone in Wizards of the Coast or the printers were responsible for leaking the files. It's one thing for another party to be pirating the stuff you sell but for people you have a professional relationship (i.e. you're paying them) to do so is another matter. Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?

Another topic brought up is whether the incident is good or bad overall for Wizards of the Coast. I'm sure Cory Doctorow has a lot of insight into the matter but for me, the leaks both have beneficial and harmful effects (which is the nature of piracy) but that's besides the point. The point is that the choice wasn't in the hands of the publisher or its staff. Instead, it was made for them by someone else. Right now, there are authors who put up material under the Creative Commons License and those who don't. Most likely, those that practice the former are selective about it (i.e. not everything they write is under the Creative Commons License). While making material available for free has its own pros and cons, the point is that they were able to make that decision for themselves. Similarly, that's why some authors are touchy on the subject of fan fiction: some want absolute control over their "babies" while others are more obliging. It's about the ability to choose for themselves rather than others making the choice for them. One of the Philippines's former presidents best encapsulates this idea by one of his more famous statements: "I prefer a country run like hell by Filipinos to a country run like heaven by Americans. Because, however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it."

One of the theories out there is that Wizards of the Coast themselves leaked the file to the torrent sites and I find this ridiculous mainly because while such an action would make great propaganda, the company would probably get more mileage out of it if they "leaked" the file on their own website, drawing attention not only to their product but to the entire company as well. Suffice to say, there are better ways to execute legit viral marketing, and the execution of this leak isn't that.

Another crazy solution was to plant viruses/worms/malicious programs into the PDFs but isn't that doing more harm, if not more, to computer users everywhere, as tempting as that solution might be.

There are also those who undermine the release of the PDFs but saying that they don't use PDFs in games anyway and prefer the actual books but that goes back to the issue of control. I mean some people do make use of PDFs and a lot of game companies have released and made a profit on PDF sales. The PDF leak might not affect you and your gaming group, but it will have an effect (whether for good or for ill) on other gaming groups, and this is a vector completely taken out of the hands of the publisher.

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