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So you want to license…

(Partial) License Pokedex

The following is an ultra-brief summary of open licenses easily available to the lay person – its not a complex legal analysis, just the bullet points so that you can think about them. Again, not specific legal advice, I’m not your lawyer.

All of these open licenses, and pretty much all open licenses are intended to grant ongoing access to parties, and you can re-license so it’s highly recommended to use the least restrictive license you are comfortable with at the time. You can always re-license with a more generous license later – you can’t take it back once its in the wild.

ORC (and ORC AxE)

Paizo’s One License to Rule Them All by Azora Law, it’s specific to games and works best with games that have clear delineations between the mechanics and the fluff. License is intended for global use, but is quite US specific and comes with its own declaration of intentions (ORC AxE). It’s intended as the successor to the OGL and create a virtuous circuit of sharing, so use of it is a statement of support of this philosophy.


  • There is a share-alike which was applied to try to implement the spirit of a community who are all dedicated to sharing and building upon one another’s work. So, anyone who builds on your material will be obligated to let others build upon it too.
  • As part of the share-alike it automatically sorts material into licensed and protected, so there is a clear distinction on what people can use. You can add extra to it, but that is optional.
  • It’s linking to a neutral, external, source for the wording and its additional interpretation information makes it relatively robust against claims of changed arrangements or double dealing.
  • It has brand recognition that a community may build up around – including being eternal and unchanging so that once you understand it, you don’t need to worry about updates.


  • The license is very USA-centric and the ORC AxE cites USA specific intellectual property tests. This gives it a few specific drawbacks.
    • If you are outside of the USA, the license may lose its precision or viability; and
    • If you are not familiar with US standards like “sufficiently delineated” then you can easily be confused or intimidated by the wording; and
    • Depending on your jurisdiction’s opinion on US Law, the court may simply decide that those don’t apply to any extent and start from scratch
  • The inclusion of the ORC AxE means that all the intentions of the license are spelled out in an extensive document, which may conflict your own intentions for your product and – if it pleases the court, overrule your personal intentions.
  • The license is intended to be eternally unchanging, which means it can never adapt to changes around it or correct mistakes like the ones that inspired its creation.
  • By design, it is limits and discourages the use of litigation and the seeking of damages for misuse – which means that if someone unjustly profiteers off your work – you will either have to spend big on lawyers or settle for halting it after the fact.

CC BY 4.0

The most basic of the Creative Commons licenses, its very simple – anyone can use it and its broadness is tailored to give it a lot of credibility in various jurisdictions. It is the product of Creative Commons, and is intended to encourage the sharing of materials for the benefit for all.


  • The simplicity of the license makes it very easy to apply and for others to understand, especially since it has a plain English version.
  • It has, arguably better brand recognition than even ORC.
  • Extremely versatile for potential downstream creators as all that is required is that they credit you when they use it – they can adapt it, sell it, etc.


  • You cannot incorporate any sort of “share alike” condition, so if you wanted downstream creators to have to share their work like you did… sorry, that isn’t going to happen.
  • If you have content that is to be shared, and content that is not to be shared in the same document… then you’ll have to work out a way to manually signal that very, very clearly.
  • Intention is clearly prescribed, and it actively attempts to wave moral rights, etc. Basically if you use this you’re giving up any ability to control who uses it for what.

CC BY-ND 4.0

The “no derivatives” version, which means that they can’t make their own works based on it, they can only republish copies of your work with minimal alteration.


  • Gives you pretty much total control over how it is shared, and what the contents of that shared material
  • That makes everything really straight forward


  • For obvious reasons, there is limited appeal for third parties to just straight up reprint your work – particularly if they can’t add any of their own work – so basically it’ll only work for core rules type materials

CC BY-NC 4.0

This is the non-commercial version of the license, meaning people cannot use it for commercial purposes such as selling products for money, etc.


  • It provides a wide open license by which many products may be produced using all or part of it, all with the low barrier of entry of simply attributing you.
  • Nothing they make with it can be sold commercially or used for purely commercial purposes, thus it can’t end up being someone else’s cash cow


  • The non-commercial aspect naturally makes it less appealing to people who cannot afford to not receive compensation for their work, small shops that must make profits on each product etc.
  • Non-commercial doesn’t do anything to guard against people making general or even offensive trash content – it may in fact make those arguments less viable

CC BY-SA 4.0

The default’s Share-Alike cousin – it incorporates an obligation for any party who uses it not just to provide proper attribution, but also to make their own creations under the same license in a very jurisdiction agnostic way.


  • Brand recognition is not quite as strong as regular CC-BY 4.0 but is still strong enough that many people will recognize it instantly.
  • Is probably the most up front way to let people know that they can make derivative products if they also agree to share with downstream creators.


  • There is no way to reliably create a split of material in the same document, anything made using the SA variant has to be shared in whole. It can incorporate material from CC-BY 4.0 etc but the obligation to share alike if you cite that work as the source of the license etc.
  • There is also no way to limit how it is shared alike – if someone wants to make a cool variant but doesn’t want to forfeit control on how others share it, they’re best off not touching it.


The non-commercial Share-Alike version, essentially it requires that parties not only make the content open for others to share in… but they cannot sell it.


  • Basically this is the license for you want to make something a promotional meme – it will be very easy access for people to build upon, share, reshare, etc.
  • Making it non-commercial protects against it being exploited for money making purposes, should it take off and being share-alike means there’s a good incentive for our corporate overlords to not dive in


  • Moreso than the other non-commercial license, it can be tricky to enforce enforce since there are now extra issues with making sure people don’t have to pay to share-alike it either
  • As with the other, non-commercial means people shouldn’t just not be making fat profits off it, they shouldn’t be making money at all – not even to cover their costs. This can seriously impede people’s capacity to make things and make it an undesirable option.

Public Domain

If you really want everyone to use something, with no morality clauses, no limitations, etc – just put it in the public domain by waiving all ownership of it. Yeah, you can do that. Just say so on the thing you’re sharing.


  • it’s super easy. As mentioned, you just make a product and declare it’s public domain on the product. All done. No paperwork to deal with, it’s just done.
  • You get to feel very generous.


  • Like, it’s out there… you did it… anyone can use it now and they don’t even need to credit you!
  • Unless you’re in a jurisdiction with inalienable moral rights, there is literally nothing you can do to stop the worst person you know having a field day with it.
  • There tends to be a general perception of lower value for things in the public domain, unless they are things that established a strong brand in the past. This is in part because there is zero enforcement or control over it.


The exciting thing about contract, is that literally anyone can draft a contract (the terrible thing is also that literally anyone can draft a contract). That means that you too can write your own license, which is just a contract. All it need is:

  1. Offer – you have to make it clear it’s available, and under what conditions (commercial/non-commercial, sharealike, etc)
  2. Acceptance – you have to make it clear how they signal that they agree (include a copy of the licence ala OGL, or just a form referencing it ala ORC, etc)
  3. Consideration – both parties have to benefit from it, this can be as simple as them promoting your work by mentioning it


  • You can put whatever terms and conditions you like in it. Require particular types of content, ban other types, set a requirement to donate to a non-profit or always depict clowns as evil – the sky is the limit.
  • It makes for a fun conversation point and bit of branding (why else do you think Paizo and Wizards of the Coast did it?)
  • If you’re not going to be financially in a position to enforce it through lawyers… you may as well have fun with it


  • While the basics of contract are basic, the devil is in the details and, as the original OGL debacle demonstrated – it is surprisingly easy to make a simple contract a disaster
  • If you’re self-conscious about this its easy to delay things indefinitely by worrying about scenarios or problems that might never happen
  • For the love of all that is (un)holy if you are working on something that involves risk to your own financial well being or status, hire your own lawyer!

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