On the Principled Profit

I just. . . He put on a mask? Why? I don't even. . .
I thought to myself;

"Don't steal from me, or my friends!"

I thought it so hard, I snapped out a post* saying "What the hell is this!?" and wrote a scathing review accusing the publisher of theft.

Impulsive? Definitely. Wrong? I had nothing but ignorance and error to back up my reaction.

The facts? They are a little more complicated.

The Strange Case of the One Page Dungeon

The One Page Dungeons are one of the highest peaks of the Old School Renaissance. The idea is you can put everything the Dungeon Master needs to run a game on a single page and use it right in play. It's spawned a megadungeon, abstract microdungeons, and it all stems from the yearly contest in which people submit their creative ideas. All entrants are hosted online, and all authors that submit their entries do so, under the Creative Commons - Share Alike 3.0 license.

What does the CC-SA mean?

  • You can share it
  • You can hack it
  • and You can sell it
As long as you attribute the original work to the author and release your work under the same license. 

Precis Intermedia run by Brett Bernstein did just that. Collaborating with Alex Schroeder, one of the people responsible for the One Page Dungeon project, Brett produced a full color 116 page softcover book containing all of the 2013 One Page Dungeon entries, along with 32 winning entries from 2010 & 2011. There is also a 2012 version.

"Hey!" I thought, "He's profiting off the work of those One Page Dungeon authors! They don't see a dime of the money he's making!"

Thought that is in a literal sense true, the entire reality of the situation is a little different.

Precis Intermedia is publishing the 116 page full-color softcover book for 29.95. The cost to do a comparable product through lightning source (Lulu or various other print on demand services) is 28.96. This doesn't include any of the work required to address font embedding, transparency, file size issues, and distribution issues. Precis Intermedia is actually taking the time to do the work to get this out on physical store shelves in the real world.

Are the One Page Dungeon Authors OK with this? The truth is, it doesn't matter if they are or not. One would assume that they looked up the CC-SA license. They know that anyone could use or sell their work. 

So why was that the license used?  

Alex Schroeder says "As far as I am concerned, the reason I want to keep using the CC-SA license is precisely this. I want to enable others to participate. I don't want to [do] it all by myself" and "The simple act of asking everybody if they are ok with it (again, since authors already agreed to the license), the format wrangling, and the time it takes, make it definitely not worth [it]."

And how much money is Precis Media going to make off this project? 500$? 1000$? With tight margins, how many copies with this actually sell? The problem isn't the money made, the problem is how difficult it is to find people to do the work to actually get something like this in print, not to mention the difficulty of actually getting it on store shelves in front of purchasing eyes.

This firmly seems to fall under the definition of a service -- are you taking the time to do this? Well, Brett Bernstein did. 

Still, the authors work is getting sold, and they aren't seeing any income from it. What do they think about it?

The erudite and estimable Gus L of Dungeon of Signs says "My stuff is surely in that book, but I don't care.  What will it make the seller? $250? $500? $1,500?  It's not going to be a lot for the amount of hours spent formatting it and preparing it for publication. As always, one does not make gaming products for money."

Jason Morningstar says "I'm not a huge fan of seeing my work used in this way but it is perfectly legal. . . [T]he real strength of the Creative Commons license is not just dumping the pages together, anyway - it is remixing them, recontextualizing them, doing cool new stuff with them. It'd be fantastic, for example, to see the best entries stitched together into a campaign, or placed in a coherent world with new CC content connecting them. That'd be worth paying for!"

But in the end, if you submit to the license, you are bound to it. Here's a link witten by Alex announcing the print version. It contains a short list of Frequently Asked Questions put together by me regarding the project. The FAQ is duplicated below.
Isn’t the content of this book available for free? Yes. The contest is available here.
Are the authors receiving any of the money from the PDF? No, but that is due to the terms under which they released their work, the Creative Commons Share-Alike License.
Is this legal? Yes. It is allowed under the terms of the license. You have the same option to do this as anyone else.
Do the contest managers know? Yes, this work was done with their knowledge and by request.
Can’t I do this at Lulu? Yes, the cost for a 116 page full color softcover book will run you 28.96$. Other complexities due to the nature of the contest make printing this book not easy, due to possible font embedding, transparency, and file size issues.
Is there any new art or content? No, it is the entries from 2013 along with the winners from 2010 and 2011.
Is this printed using lightning source or a local printer? The publisher has no comment on internal logistics.
Are the authors aware of this project? Some of them, those that have been contacted [by Brett] were supportive.
Will this be available in stores? Yes, retailers can order it through Ingram. Hobby stores that don’t use Ingram will also be able to order through Indie Press Revolution in the next few weeks.
Why doesn’t Amazon mention any of this? They take text from various lookups, which don’t always contain the latest information. Changes can be suggested, but that doesn’t mean they will be made.
The series "On the Principled Profit" continues tomorrow when we look at an "open" magazine.

*If this returns, "Post not available" add me on Google Plus and I'll put you in the appropriate circle. I wish I had made it public, but once posted, I cannot change the post status, AFAICT.


  1. The idea that everyone who contributes anything of value to a piece of intellectual property needs to be compensated in some tangible way has killed more worthwhile projects than any other single principle or idea. Thank god people are slowly coming to adopt CC licenses as a standard for publishing work whose stand-alone profit potential is negative (i.e. it takes more work to edit, publish and distribute it than you'll ever make up in sales), but which could potentially break even if compiled with other works or adapted as part of a larger work.

    1. If they died, and the people weren't willing to contribute to the work without compensation, doesn't that ipso facto indicate that the project wasn't worthwhile?

      Clearly even without that license the fanzine and free magazine market is thriving. There are plenty of people working on things without compensation.

    2. I'm composing a response to a direct message I received regarding this subject but until its complete I wanted to basically high-five Picador because I couldn't agree more. If I required actual compensation for everything I've ever done for the gaming industry or just plain in general, half of the things I've accomplished in life never would have even gotten started. Sometimes some people do just to do with the theory that if they're good enough, people will notice and they will be compensated in time. You can't start off the CEO of a company usually you start at the bottom or even as an unpaid intern. You put in your time, work your butt off, and then take success by the throat when you see it within your grasp. But yes, this is complicated and I especially note the truth of your statement "it takes more work to edit, publish and distribute it than you'll ever make up in sales." The amount of time and effort put into that step alone is often far more tedious than the amount of compensation you can ever hope to gain in terms of actual money.

    3. I mean, you are commenting on a blog that's been written for 4 years and started it's first month with 8 views.

      The issue isn't doing things that you enjoy without pay, collaborating on a free project, or "paying dues", right? We're all in agreement about that.

  2. This is a good post, there are a lot of issues surrounding the murky waters of POD and .pdf and PWYW and other exciting acronyms and file types. Being online as a creator is a different context than traditional publishing, and there are a lot of ambiguities to it.


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