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Revenge of the License: Dragon Magazine Archive

No, the Dragon Magazine Archive is not a game, it’s something better–it’s knowledge. Following up on last week’s absurdly difficult adventures article, we’re keeping with the D&D theme and presenting this look at how a concern over copyright led one of the most awesome pieces of software ever to arrive on store shelves to vanish just as quickly into the ether and become an instant collector’s item. This, my fellow gamers, is the story of the Dragon Magazine Archive and how it changed the lives of two publishing companies forever. Maybe the title of the column this week should be “Revenge of the Un-Licensed”?

 

If I had to pinpoint my personal choice for ‘best year to be alive as a gamer’, I’d have no difficulty pointing to 1999. Developers are maxing out the PS1’s specs to create classics like Syphon FilterFinal Fantasy VIII, and Silent Hill. The Sega Dreamcast is blowing everyone away with its power and potential. Sony’s making all kinds of waves with their pre-release hype for the PlayStation 2. How could it get any better than this? How about Wizards of the Coast putting together a complete digital archive of the first 25 years of Dragon Magazine complete with every comic, letter, article, ad, and cover? Two hundred and fifty issues stuffed on five CD-ROMs, and sold for $50? I couldn’t say “HELL YEAH!” fast enough.

Dragon Magazine's precursor

Cover price: $0.50 Cost today: $75. Bet you wish you had a time machine.

Dragon Magazine began its life in the Spring of 1975 as a small, black-and-white, six-page newsletter called “The Strategic Review” published by Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. So, yes, TSR published “TSR”, much like the companies who published Nintendo DS games with titles that included, or could be abbreviated to, “DS”. Marketing, amirite? In any case, the newsletter lasted seven issues, concluding in April of ’76. But The Strategic Review wasn’t a failure. Quite the opposite in fact–Strategic Review was too successful. By the seventh issue, it had grown to a 24-page behemoth with a color cover and $1 price tag. Instead of being comprised solely of in-house work by Gary Gygax or other staff members, Strategic Review was now publishing campaign helpers, fiction, optional rules, reviews, and historical pieces written by people not employed by TSR, Inc. What a difference one year makes!

Pile of Dragon Magazines

(c) theMarySue.com

The first issue of “The Dragon” debuted in June of 1976, with a simple illustration of (what else?) a dragon on the cover. The price went from $1 to $1.50, but that extra fifty cents bought you eight additional pages of material, including a short piece by established fantasy author Fritz Leiber. No longer content to be simply a house organ like The Strategic Review, The Dragon was the first publication of the newly-formed TSR Periodicals. While it looks laughably basic these forty years hence, the industry was exploding faster than anyone could keep up. In video game terms, TSR in 1976 was like the Nintendo of a decade later, riding a wave of popularity no one could have predicted, with a legion of fans desperate to get their hands on more information, more history, more rules, more suggestions, more ideas, and more fun.

Legions of other newsletters and hobbyist publications sprang up in Dragon’s wake, just as new video game magazines exploded around the publication of Nintendo Power. To browse early issues of Dragon, just like early issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, is to watch history literally unfold before your very eyes. Publication of the Dragon Magazine Archive could not have come at a better time: the 25th Anniversary was a major milestone, and to those worried about a change of direction when TSR, Inc was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997, this was Wizards extending an olive branch. “We’re not trying to rewrite your history, and here’s the proof.” For most enthusiasts, those early issues of Dragon Magazine might as well have been Sankara Stones or the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. Long out of print, they commanded insanely high prices on the second-hand market and yet here was Wizards of the Coast offering the entire back catalog in digital format for less than the going rate of issue #1 on eBay. The Dragon Magazine Archive jump-started my love for digital acquisitions, and after hours of happily poring over those old issues, I asked myself the question so many others must have been asking: “Why doesn’t every publisher in the world do this? They’d make a fortune!” Wizards of the Coast soon learned the answer.

Untangling the complexities of intellectual property and copyright law without a lawyer to assist is like learning to ski by strapping on a pair of jet boots and jumping off a cliff. Businesses have legal departments to keep them from making stupid, painful mistakes like that, but nobody can stay safe forever, and the sticky world of digital reprint rights caught up with Wizards of the Coast with a vengeance. Most pieces submitted to Dragon Magazine over the years became the property of the publisher, as is common practice, and thus could be reprinted at the publisher’s whim. Unfortunately for Wizards that didn’t apply to the fiction they published, or the comics that ran in the magazine, the authors of which maintained their ownership and expected compensation. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA) secured a settlement for a number of authors to clear the way for the Archive to go forward, and everything seemed hunky-dory until Wizards stepped on the toes of Kenzer & Co. over the right to reprint a little comic strip called “Knights of the Dinner Table“.

If you laughed, you just found your new obsession…

While WotC was able to pacify the fiction authors into not suing over what would have amounted to a giant pile of copyright infringement, Kenzer & Co. was a different story. Owner Dave Kenzer came from a background not in publishing but in law. What’s more, Kenzer happened to specialize in Intellectual Property, a subject he was happy to school Wizards of the Coast on. Given that “Knights of the Dinner Table” saw publication in Dragon Magazine starting in 1996 with issue #226, continued through issue #250 (and beyond), and was not produced for the magazine as a work-for-hire, Kenzer wanted compensation for those twenty-five strips. None was forthcoming, so Kenzer used ‘Lawsuit’.

You saw this one coming a mile away, didn't you?

You saw this one coming a mile away, didn’t you?

The result of the suit, which was settled out of court, saw the Dragon Magazine Archive pulled from circulation, and established a gentleman’s agreement between Wizards of the Coast and Kenzer. This allowed Kenzer to use the old 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules as a foundation to create a brand new RPG. ‘Hackmaster’, the parody of D&D played by the characters in “Knights of the Dinner Table”, became a reality much to the delight of KoDT fans who had for years begged Kenzer & Co. to publish a real rule set so they could play along. Hoody-hoo!

The upside: if you own a copy of the Dragon Magazine Archive, you have a major piece of gaming history that will never be printed again (alternately, you have a quick and easy way to get a couple hundred bucks via eBay). The downside: the copyright and licensing debacle ensured there’s no way we’d ever see anything like this for Dragon’s sister publication Dungeon Magazine, and if you want it you’ll have to fork over the equivalent of a car payment…which is still cheaper (not to mention lighter) than building a steel storage rack to hold all 250 issues once you’ve hunted them all down.

You can also be a butthole and download it illegally which, let’s face it, is what you’re likely to do after reading this, assuming you didn’t have your torrent program open already. Enjoy your ill-gotten gains, ye landlubbers.

Hit Ebay for some physical copies of Dragon Magazine.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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