Wizards of the Coast Ignites the Great PDF Controversy of ’09

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Wizards of the Coast announced this morning that they’ve filed lawsuits against eight people for illegally uploading pdfs of Wizards’ copyrighted products, specifically Player’s Handbook 2. But it was what didn’t appear in that press release that caused fan uproar and a flurry of press releases from other gaming companies – WotC pulled all digital downloads of their products from online stores. Why all the fuss?

The lawsuit thing is not exactly a surprising tactic, although I’m not sure it’s really worked out so well for the RIAA. Wizards is certainly within their legal rights to do so, whatever effect it may ultimately have. Pulling all pdf content from the “shelves” of online stores is a bit of an eyebrow raiser, though.

It’s not that the move has generated the usual message board outbursts of nerd rage and dozens of “they’ll get no more money from me!” rants. It has, but that happens pretty much any time a gaming company does just about anything, particularly if it’s a business decision. The problem is twofold: 1). It isn’t going to stop the problem. People are just going to scan in the books anyway, like they do with all the old, out of print stuff that came out before pdfs existed. 2). It’s cutting off your nose to spite the bathwater, or whatever metaphor you want to use here. There are a lot of people who like digital copies and happily pay for them.

Adding to the brouhaha, several game companies and retailers chimed in with their own press releases regarding pdf sales. Paizo seemed to be half reassuring their customers, half chastising WotC with their announcement of a 35 percent off sale on all pdfs (except Wizards of the Coast ones, of course):

We at Paizo Publishing understand how important PDFs have become to most roleplaying gamers. We know that PDFs allow you to easily carry around a large library of books on your laptop, PDA, or cell phone. We know that PDFs are great for searching for that piece of obscure information. We know that PDFs are a great way to keep out-of-print products available. And we know that PDFs provide a great way to check out new products.

White Wolf, who has turned the release of pdf versions of their books into an art form lately, had this to say when asked if they might stop digital sales:

“Quite the opposite,” says Eddy Webb, the Alternative Publishing Developer for White Wolf. “I believe this is a growing market with potential we haven’t yet had a chance to fully explore, both as publishers and as fans of role-playing games.” Eddy remarked that he has dozens of upcoming PDF-exclusive products on his schedule in addition to continuing to provide PDF versions of upcoming products, and that White Wolf is still actively looking into returning to the print-on-demand arena.

The fact that they have an Alternative Publishing Developer at all certainly says a lot about their commitment to digital releases. What says even more is a free download of the Exalted 2nd edition book and 10 percent off of any White Wolf pdf offered through DriveThruRPG and RPGnow (two companies that will be hit hard by the sudden absence of D&D from their sales reports). Enter the coupon code “wwlovesyou” until this Sunday to score. Here’s the link to paizo’s downloads page.

The end result of this teapot tempest will likely be Wizards offering pdfs again in a few months, but this time with extensive watermarking and Digital Rights Management (which isn’t going to make anyone happy). Whether the whole thing turns out to be a good idea or not, there’s just one thought that keeps popping into my head: did Wizards of the Coast just now find out about file sharing?

6 Responses to Wizards of the Coast Ignites the Great PDF Controversy of ’09

  1. Pulling the PDFs due to piracy concerns is kind of silly. It does nothing to prevent people from creating pirate PDFs – have they never heard of scanners? What it DOES do is remove a legitimate source for PDFs of their products. Now, if you want an electronic copy of one of their rule books, your only source is an unauthorized copy.

    I love that White Wolf is exploiting this for all it’s worth. Exalted is under-rated and deserves more attention. Giving away the core rules is a great way to do that.

  2. More & more, creative processes are being pushed into the basements of fans. By the fans, frankly. I don’t know– on one hand, a guy who downloads .pdfs of the PHB2 probably already owns the PHB, right? So that is one sale. Me, I can’t use .pdfs to play; it doesn’t work for me. I DO wish I got a copy of the .pdf for every book I buy though (those goes for WW et al too), so I could print out the powers/rules sections that apply to me. Course, now, if I want one, I’ll HAVE to get an illegal copy…as with a lot of things like this, I think the trick is to make things cheaper & easier, not harder. Give me a free pdf download with every hardcopy purchase, give me free .pdf of some sections of the books?

  3. What struck me funny about the press release is that all this really did was inform everyone that they could download D&D stuff on the various file sharing sites. If they didn’t already know this, now the do.

  4. I have heard rumours that Wizards’ pulling of the PDFs was something they are doing mainly because they want to DRM everything, and the whole thing with a stripped PHII appearing on rapidshare via 4chan within like hours of the release was an excuse, because they’ve intended to do it for a while, because they have a DRM-based content initiative coming soon. Or something.

    I am not sure if I believe that rumour, but I thought it worth repeating.

  5. Coming back to this topic, I’ve discovered that I tend to use the PDFs as a demo, if a system seems like it’ll be interesting, I’ll download the PDF and check it out. I will pick up the book afterward if I can get a group together to play or if it’s Shadowrun, cuz no one wants to play that and I love it.

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