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*                         CYBERSPACE                         *
*         A biweekly column on net culture appearing         *
*                in the Toronto Sunday Sun                   *
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* Copyright 1999 Karl Mamer                                  *
* Free for online distribution                               *
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TSR is a company that makes role playing games. Since the craze 
began in 1975, TSR has been the overwhelming market leader with 
its Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) rule book series.

TSR really took off during the recession of the early '80s. 
AD&D appealed to imaginative, cash-strapped university 
students. Theoretically, AD&D is a cheap hobby, requiring a 
one-time investment in a set of rule books and some special 
dice. Using the rule books, gamers can then create and share 
their own adventures. It doesn't quite work out that way, mind 
you. Once hooked, most role players dump a few hundred dollars 
on rule supplements, miniatures, dice bags, and other 
"essentials".

Probably the biggest actual requirement, besides the manuals, 
is paper. Role playing requires lots and lots of paper, mostly 
for recording character stats and writing adventures. Gamers at 
university found that their other pastime, hanging out in the 
computer room, offered access to garbage bins full of paper. 
Role players also discovered that computers made great gaming 
aids. Modules and rule supplements could be created, stored in 
public directories, and when the Internet came online in a big 
way, these works could be shared over ftp and the web.

The relationship between TSR's success and university students 
appeared to be a strong one. Universities hosted role playing 
conventions. Like-minded gamers formed campus clubs. 
Universities Internet sites housed vast amounts of these home-
made materials. An Internet newsgroup called rec.games.frp.dnd 
was created to further the spread of the hobby.

One would think that this is an example of a perfect win-win 
relationship. TSR gets loads of free publicity, TSR's coffers 
get topped up as more people are attracted to the hobby, and 
gamers get access to the works others have created.

TSR thought differently. In 1994 TSR representative Rob Repp 
informed the readers of rec.games.frp.dnd that distribution of 
derivative works using trade-marked terms via public Internet 
sites must stop! It was an infringement of TSR's copyrights. 
Simultaneously, TSR issued letters to system administrators 
informing them to either remove the material or face legal 
action. Administrators, not wanting to facing a costly legal 
battle, dutifully complied.

A howl of protest erupted immediately on rec.games.frp.dnd. 
Gamers on the net view themselves as some of TSR's best 
customers and wondered why the company would return loyalty an 
insulting slap.

Early in its growth curve, TSR experienced a nasty backlash 
from the Religious Right. Fundamentalists -- spooked by the 
game's demons, elder gods, and wizardry -- began letter writing 
campaigns, asking school principles, church priests/pastors, 
and public librarians to ban D&D clubs. Stores that carried the 
game were threatened with pickets. TSR's founder Gary Gygax 
made a personal appeal to the game's adherents to help counter 
the anti-D&D campaigns. Loyal gamers answered Gygax's call and 
patiently explained to their local school officials, priests, 
and library superintendents that the game wasn't creating baby 
killing Satanists but was fostering in many kids an interest in 
history, probability, writing, and literature.

TSR, forgetting that the company would have amounted to nothing 
without these evangelical efforts, ostensibly saw the issue as 
going no deeper than a fear that allowing users to distribute 
"derivative" works put TSR's ownership of certain copyrights at 
risk. Netizens **didn't** quite buy that explanation. Id 
Software doesn't stop people from trading home-brewed additions 
to its Doom and Quake games. Wizards of the Coast, makers of 
the highly successful Magic: The Gathering card game (aka 
Magic: The Addiction), didn't seem to be chasing down users 
putting up pages featuring rules modifications.

Many suspected TSR, which was no longer in the hands of its 
founder Gary Gygax and had gone "corporate" in a big way, 
simply wanted to shake down gamers. Some felt TSR was afraid 
"amateur" authors would offer works superior to TSR's 
increasingly diluted product line. Others suggested the company 
wasn't so much out to protect current copyrights but future 
copyrights. Movie companies return all unsolicited manuscripts 
unopened to maintain plausible denial should they be sued for 
theft of intellectual property rights. TSR, with a demonstrable 
net presence, would have a harder time arguing such ignorance. 
It's not too hard to image a corporate lawyer suggesting TSR 
risked a lawsuit every time it published a module because 
someone had publish something similar via a web page.

Users miffed by TSR's action called for a boycott and 
questioned whether or not TSR had a legal right to put the 
kibosh on netizens distributing derivative works. After all, 
the game is unplayable if one cannot distribute works using 
trademarked terms. TSR representatives online counter argued 
that there was a difference between playing the game by sharing 
works with few close friends and distributing works to anyone 
and everyone on the net. Netizens retorted that sharing these 
works was simply a new facet of "playing" the game. So who the 
hell was TSR to tell people how they should play?

A lot of debate about trademark law passed back and forth on 
the net, but gamers eventually had to admit that they didn't 
know enough about the law to say anything useful.

In what maybe TSR viewed as a conciliatory move, online reps 
suggested that gamers could still distribute generic fantasy 
material, as long as they didn't use TSR's trade marked terms. 
That did little to stop the flame wars on rec.games.frp.dnd. A 
particularly nasty one was touched off when, in an act of 
supreme idiocy, a TSR online rep known as "TSRKeith" compared 
consumers dissatisfied with the company's products and 
net.policy to members of "the Hitler Youth". Not a good move. 
People were pretty pissed off about New Coke, but the good 
people of the Coca Cola Corporation never, in public, called 
its more emotional critics "Nazis".

TSRKeith's remark confirmed that the once pioneering game 
company had lost all connection with its dwindling fan base and 
certain realities. Being number one for so long had imbued the 
corporate culture with a supreme arrogance that made the 
company lose touch with some obvious facts. Gaming culture was 
moving online. Few software companies would dare release a 
computer game without a network play feature. A pencil and 
paper role playing game in an era of word processors and the 
net was not much different. Users want to play games they 
**can** tweak and then share with their peers on the net. 
Creating a cool new monster or a cool new spell can you win you 
your fifteen minutes of fame in the halls of gaming. Since TSR 
wasn't letting anyone do it (save for a single public ftp site 
that admitted only a handful users at a time) role players 
moved to games produced by companies with more enlightened net 
policies.

On June 3, 1997 came the announcement users rec.games.frp.dnd 
of had been predicting since TSR stumbled onto the net back in 
1994: TSR was bankrupt. It was being bought out by a company 
who had used the net to its success, Wizards of the Coast, 
makers of Magic: The Gathering.