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I am a lazy GM and I rely a lot on published adventures. Particularly shorter ones: I get a lot of pleasure from tweaking and arranging them into a coherent narrative frame for a campaign.

I've been playing a long time and have a lot of material from old magazines that are no longer published (or no longer feature RPG content) such as White Dwarf, Imagine and Dungeon, mostly from the early 90's.

I have started to take some of my favourites and convert them to 5e. However, it seems a shame (as well as a demotivation factor) to do this just for me. I'd like to post them online for free, for others to use. Especially given the relative dearth of quality 5e material at the moment.

AFAIK this is illegal. Copyright still exists on these articles, although I'm unsure whether it belongs to author or publisher (or both). I can't forsee any way in which the rights holders would end up using or being able to profit from the material. But GW in particular has shown this is no barrier to being litigious.

Is there anything I can do to make this material available for free, without getting myself slapped with takedown notices or otherwise infringing copyright issues? Would it be enough to perhaps change cosmetic details like settings or names while leaving the core narrative intact? Ideally I'd like to credit the original author, but might that increase the chance of landing myself in hot water?

For clarification, what I was hoping to do was retain descriptive text, narrative and maps from the old adventures, but replace stat blocks with mentions of 5e creatures that can be found in the Monster Manual. Because the balance of encounters has changed, it's not as simple as replacing four 1e kobolds with four 5e kobolds. Not to mention more substantive changes to classes, races, skills and spells.

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While I'm not a lawyer, I'd suspect that part of your liability here is determined by the method you do the 5e updates. Are you talking about republishing them, including maps and flavor text? If so, I'd be very cautious, especially given WotC's proclivity to shut down 3rd party resources for older versions of the game.

However, a simple listing of changes gives you a much larger footing here. Many of these changes should revolve around monster and trap changes, so I'm thinking something like

p. 2, Kobolds become 5e Kobolds (MM p.whatever)
p. 3, Greater Golem becomes Iron Golem (MM p.whatever)

and etc.

While Wizards might still send you a cease and desist, it seems an awful lot less likely. The maps and original text are almost certainly under copyright, so I'd be extremely cautious about republishing them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking about republishing them in full, but with updated encounter statistics. This is a good possible alternative, but some of the material I had in mind is quite obscure. I was hoping to make it available to a new generation of gamers. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thrower May 11 '15 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattThrower: Simply letting them know where to try to dig up a copy, and motivating them to do so, is a service in itself. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 May 11 '15 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are forums on ENWorld dedicated to this style of update. List of changes, with none of the original content. \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus May 12 '15 at 1:51
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Your stated motive is to make the old material available to a new generation of gamers. You're not really interested in just writing conversion notes that require the originals — you want to include the maps, descriptive passages, and all the rest of the creative content that makes these adventures awesome.

The correct, ethical, and legal means of doing so is to obtain a licensing agreement from the owner of the copyright.

That's hard. That requires tracking down the ownership of old articles, which may be muddy or unclear to even the principals involved, let alone a fan, but it's what upstanding publishers do. It may cost some money — or it may not, if the copyright holder would just be happy to see their material get a second life.

But the alternative — copying the creative content while updating the non-creative portions for 5e's rules — is 100% illegal in Berne Convention countries. Most people will also consider it unethical, including many of your potential fans, which will materially impact your goal of exposing a new generation to these adventures. At best a few people will be fans of the bootleg updates, and they'll talk them up — and then they'll disappear into a legal black hole and years later will only be talked about, not seen or played.

Even if the chance of them being republished legally is vanishingly small, making a bootleg conversion is still 100% illegal. And hey, the chance of someone republishing them legally might not be vanishingly small — you could be that person!

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Publishing the old content in full is illegal and unethical, just as it is for new content.

  1. It's owned by WotC or GW or whoever, and if they wanted to sell it they would (they're making more old adventures available over time in PDF, actually).

  2. Those authors, artists, mapmakers, etc. were compensated by TSR/WotC for their work and have no explicit or implicit expectation that their work is now freely distributable since it got published once. In fact, because of how similar 5e is to previous editions, I would think authors that still have rights to their work (a minority, but they exist) are dusting them off to crank them out again under 5e to make some bank (several 3pp companies are already doing this).

However, game mechanics can't be copyrighted. So it's legal and ethical to post conversion guides that require having the original adventure. You don't really need to worry about posting 5e stat blocks either, that's legal as long as you're not using specific trade dress (icons, formatting) found in WotC's works.

Republishing content from the original adventures may or may not get you a cease and desist from WotC depending on your visibility level, but even the community of D&D web folks that like sharing content may not look favorably on pure reprinting of other authors' content. I'm not going to tell you "don't run a pirate site for hard to get content," that's a legal/ethical decision you have to make for yourself, but just to be clear you're basically describing running a pirate site, with some conversions added on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The material I have in mind has a near-zero chance of every returning to publication. It's mostly from White Dwarf and I can't see GW suddenly deciding to embrace their competitors systems again any time soon. This doesn't materially change the value or accuracy of your answer, of course: it's just that your making my intentions sound far more morally dubious than they are. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thrower May 11 '15 at 16:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattThrower The chance of returning to publication has zero impact on legality or ethics considerations. It's relevant, just not to those issues, which are the ones you asked about. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 11 '15 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yes, I appreciate that and I +1'd your answer as a result. Just felt the need to make my motivations clear, for obvious reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thrower May 11 '15 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ It could in theory make a difference if the rights in the work revert to the author once the material is out of print. This is common for short stories published in (e.g.) SF magazines, but I don't know the situation for RPG material in early White Dwarf. I'd be surprised if later White Dwarf articles (for WFRP) ever revert to the authors, since that was a core GW property and I'd expect them to own the copyright as work-for-hire. Anyway, you could perhaps try to contact some of the authors to see if they have any idea what the status is. The difference is merely who you talk to. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop May 11 '15 at 17:31
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Ask, do, oblige.

That's what I'd do, anyway. And let's get that disclaimer out of the way ASAP: I'm not a lawyer and have no professional acumen.

Since you're referring to the age of magazines, I'm going to assume these are 10+ year old articles. There's a small chance that those are now out of copyright, but I certainly wouldn't rely on it. Instead, I would write to Wizards of the Coast (or whoever the original publisher was). Tell them of your intentions and your aims - odds are they'll give you a measure of respect for both your consideration as well as your goodwill towards the community. They might even be excited that someone is willing to do what is effectively free promotional work for 5e.

They probably won't reply - that's fine. You went out of your way to make your good-willed intentions known. In that case, I would publish them. Despite the public view on legal matters, a company is rarely waiting in the wings for the opportunity to sue someone. In fact, it's usually the opposite case. Naturally, if they respond and do not give you permission, you should not publish the adventures.

In summary: Their motivation to punish this behavior is absent, and you're probably far beneath their notice anyway (no offense.)

You're acting out of goodwill, attempting to ask permission, and providing a free service to the community. Don't be too afraid.

I want to say that your greatest copyright threat is not from the old material, but from the new. Publishing 5e stat blocks is exactly what WotC doesn't want, because then people don't need to buy their materials (as much). So, as has been demonstrated in other answers, you should only post references to new creature stat blocks. That way, you're not potentially taking away money from WotC, but people can still use your material.

If you want to go the safest route possible, your only option is to state a general equivalency chart/system so that people can take whatever content they want and move it from AD&D -> 5e or 3.X ->5e. This way you do not infringe any copyright since you are not actually publishing any content - only references to it. Despite the dubious nature of publishing WotC's older content, I would stick to my original suggestion of asking and publishing, always being ready to pull it down if you find that you have displeased someone. I think this has a high likelihood of getting approval from WotC (or whoever) if you ask them directly though, especially since it broadens the shallow pool of 5e content.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Legally, 10+ year old articles are definitely not out of copyright. The default terms for old published articles are author's lifetime + 70 years or for corporate-owned content 95 years after publication. This implies that all of rpg-related content is currently under copyright, as the whole genre is not so old. Of course, all your other points are valid and in practice this is not likely to be prosecuted. \$\endgroup\$ – Peteris May 11 '15 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ And since I'm tired of editing - don't take away copyrighted material from WotC. If you have completely custom-made a new creature (that approximates an AD&D or 3.X creature but doesn't exist in 5e), then you can probably provide a stat-block for it, but be aware that this is inherently more risky. \$\endgroup\$ – WannabeCoder May 11 '15 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Peteris Technically, material from before 1963 can be out of copyright due to the renewal requirement. Still not quite enough to apply to anything D&D, but it's not as simple as you're making it. \$\endgroup\$ – Random832 May 11 '15 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Peteris - If they're third party publishers, wouldn't the dissolution of a company effectively release the copyright? Obviously if said company was acquired (i.e. TSR) the copyright would transfer to the new owner, but if the company owning the material outright closed up shop and no longer existed as a legal entity, they wouldn't have the legal right or means to mount a lawsuit. As for the morality of this...well, you're on your own there. \$\endgroup\$ – ilinamorato May 11 '15 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ilinamorato: Usually someone owns the copyright, even for a discontinued company. They might not be in a position to notice or approve use, and sadly that does mean old and good content can be lost for many years to legal use, due to inability for anyone to obtain the rights. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater May 11 '15 at 22:24

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