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Context

This is in relation to this question here:

Is there a limit to how much stuff you can carry?

And in particular this comment from a mod:

[...] Age of Rebellion is not open licensed and quoting its rules here for everything not in the beginner book is piracy pure and simple, don't do it.

...which basically says "don't answer this question (in any meaningful way)". The exact same comment also appears on a different question with the same tag.

Interestingly enough, other users question the rationale, and are basically threatened with having their answers deleted if they ignore the "don't answer this question" advice. Which I think is wholly inappropriate, and also contrary to the accepted policy on this issue, which is to:

  1. Avoid playing armchair layer.
  2. Take down content if and only if a copyright holder complains.

...and ironically enough was put forward by the same mod who's leaving behind these boilerplate comments and making preemptive threats about deleting people's answers.

I left my own comment pointing out that the rationale in the mod's comment was not technically sound, and it was silently deleted. And...well here we are.

Is ANY discussion of private rules piracy/copyright infringment?

I know the answer to this one and it's just plain "no", for many reasons.

  1. Fair Use doctrine allows for summaries, paraphrasing, and direct quotation from copyrighted works, provided that the amount summarized, paraphrased, or quoted is reasonable.

  2. While the rulebook itself is a copyrighted work, individual rules are not. Certain things just cannot be protected by copyright. Individual rules/game mechanics tend to fall into that basket (similar to mathematical formulas and recipes). A specific explanation of a rule (or recipe, or formula) may be protected by copyright, but the rule itself generally can't be. It's copyright infringement if you reproduce entire sections of text (and graphics) verbatim. It's not if you explain the same concept in your own words. For instance, if I give you a photocopy of a cheeseburger recipe from Mickey's Awesome Cookbook, that's copyright infringement. But if I tell you in my own words how to cook a cheeseburger, that's fine even if the end result is the same as what you'd get by following the cookbook recipe.

  3. Copyright doesn't protect against knowledge transfer. For instance, a GM reads his core rulebook to learn all the rules he needs to run the game. At some point, he'll probably need to explain some of the rules to his players. Is he committing piracy by explaining to them how the game works? No, of course not. No more than I'd be committing piracy if I read a book to learn how to program, and then go on to teach someone else how to program based upon the knowledge that I've gained. Copyright covers specific works and their derivatives. It doesn't give you absolute authority over a concept. The closest thing to that is a patent. Though to suppress discussion of a game's ruleset, forcing everyone you tell your ruleset to sign an NDA first is probably the best option. But we're not here to discuss (or enforce) NDA's.

  4. It's up to the rights holder (or their nominated legal representative) to enforce copyright claims. And there are established procedures for doing so. We should not be co-opting those procedures, nor acting on behalf of rights holders without their knowledge or consent. Perhaps they'd actually like to have answers like "Yes, there's a rule for that and it's basically X, you should go and buy an official rulebook because this is a super-fun RPG with deep mechanics and there are lots more rules that you need to play it properly", particularly as opposed to "all discussion of this topic is verboten because we think the creator is a vicious copyright troll". Which is what it sounds like what you've got moderator comments that basically say "don't answer this".

Is there ANY validity to the boilerplate comment?

Well yes, if you interpret it literally and ignore the surrounding context. Quoting rules for everything not in the beginner book would indeed be copyright infringement/piracy. But the question was asking for information about a specific rule, not a dump of all the rules. Or even a dump of that one.

So maybe there's a slippery-slope argument being made? In the vein of "if a question is eventually asked for every rule, we'll end up with a collection of answers that copy every rule out of the book, and that collection will constitute piracy"? Which is true, should that slippery-slope eventuate.

But even if we set aside the general issues with arguments of the 'slippery-slope' variety, there are at least a couple of issues with that.

  1. We're not even close to the nightmare scenario yet. There are a grand total of 18 questions with the age-of-rebellion tag. And as far as I can tell, only two of those 18 have answers which contain direct quotes from the rulebook.

  2. Preemptively discouraging, suppressing, or deleting content goes directly against the currently accepted site policy. What good is the policy if the very person who proposed it isn't going to follow it?

So while technically correct when viewed in a vacuum, the boilerplate comment seems inapplicable in the contexts where it's been used, and its message of "don't answer this" and especially the threats of "answers will be deleted" strike me as heavy-handed and inappropriate, bordering upon abuse of power.

Should there be a clear and consistent policy on this issue?

I think yes?

What should the policy be, if any?

This is what we're here to discuss.

My suggestion is that the current policy is fine:

I think that we need to do only two things.

  1. In the FAQ or other prominent place, warn people against plagiarism. (and/or copyright infringement, blah blah)

  2. Take down stuff IF a copyright holder complains or issues a DMCA takedown notice.

We as moderators/site people do not need to be engaging in unschooled Lawyer Junior behavior. In fact if we do we become more legally liable for policing the content on the site. Plagiarism is bad, and we should say "don't do it," but should not try to make our own "calls" about it beyond the clear remedy by US law (DMCA).

It just needs to be followed.

The alternative appears to be a lot of cleanup, deletion, and censoring of existing content, followed by a long and pointless game of trying to preemptively stop people from talking about the things that they come here to talk about.

Or has a takedown notice actually been received? My assumption is not. I don't see how one could have been, given that the comments were cropping up before any answers were posted.

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You'll notice, if you look around the site, that most of your concerns aren't reflected in our answers. Rules are discussed, quotes are posted, and knowledge is transferred. Copyright-enforcing mods don't regularly jump out and discourage answering. This example is an exception, for reasons which I hope will become clear by the end of this post.

Current practice

We should not be quoting text wholesale from books. Quotes are for demonstration purposes and should be selective and supportive of the answer's points, not the point. Gratuitous quotes are regularly edited out (but not purged from the edit history, note).

It's also noteworthy that the site governance has evolved since September 2010 (the infancy of the site and more than five years ago). The discussion then was mostly theoretical because we had no experience running this place. We have more practical experience now with what people are tempted to do and what works here.

Things that are OK

Paraphrasing and explaining rules in original words is fine. Rules themselves are neither copyrightable nor patentable, and paraphrasing is necessary and fine. But when possible, do avoid providing everything necessary to enable someone to avoid acquiring a book — we are not here for pirates and don't want to attract nudge-wink-I'm-not-a-pirate-I-just-want-help users. The existing answer to the question in question is a good example: it paraphrases a lot of the rules by way of explaining what the asker is missing out on by not having the full game, but leaves out critical things that are neither useful to the editorial explanation nor reasonable to provide (i.e., a list of encumbrance values necessary to use the rules discussed).

Quoting rules for demonstration purposes is fine — highly encouraged even. If a quote is the most expedient way to make it clear what is being discussed, it's warranted and improves the answer. Quotes should be minimal for that purpose, but “minimal” for a purpose doesn't always mean short: sometimes a whole block of text needs to be shown, maybe with bits emphasised, in order to support an argument or discuss a rule in its precise context. Generally it's obvious when this is necessary (and when it isn't), because it will be needed just to make the answer make sense.

Why we remove gratuitous quotes

Removing gratuitous quotes is for a few reasons, in rough order of importance:

  1. They actively inhibit quality.

    Anyone can read the book if they want the rules. Our strength is explanation and exegesis. By those lights, an answer that is mostly a quote (especially if it's a large quote when only a small part is relevant, and no editorial emphasis has been attempted) is low-quality indeed and needs improvement. An easy improvement is paring down quotes to the relevant part and adding original explanatory material. Quotes that are wholly unnecessary when a simple page cite will do can be removed entirely.

    The only people helped by editorial-free text dumps are those who don't need explanation and just need free access to the rules. We're not here to help that demographic, and answers that engage in zero-expertise-requried text-sharing degrade the purpose of the site and its overall quality. The shared-editing process here routes around that quality-damage to the site, naturally.

    Of course, such text dumps don't happen very often. The point is to illustrate a failure mode that we're aware of and which in part motivates the “don't just paste the rules” point of view.

  2. Gratuitous quoting makes us bad RPG community citizens.

    We're a foremost result on Google because we're trusted. We aim to be a bright spot in the RPG community where people can get or provide help and expertise. (That latter includes game creators who are excellent sources of expertise.) For many reasons, we wish to avoid shady behaviour that plays by the letter of the law but which is insulting to creators. There are enough sites out there that engage in shady appropriation of game materials, so it's not like we need to serve that market anyway, even if we wanted to.

    Besides, how many games have creators/companies who can afford a lawyer to write a DMCA takedown notice once, let alone every time someone copies text beyond fair use? The number is probably is the single digits or low doubles, when the number of games themselves is in the thousands.

  3. It's often a violation of copyright.

    Do we really need to find out what kind of copying is OK and what kind isn't by testing it with our collective face? Not really. We have sufficient users educated in practical and nuanced application of copyright & such that we have no need to learn via being slapped down. Copyright is arcane, but we're gamers — we handle arcana well. Yes we're amateurs and not lawyers, but knowing the law, discussing it, and following it doesn't require misrepresenting oneself as lawyer any more than reminding someone that speeding is illegal (and a bad idea for a host of non-legal reasons) is practicing law without license.

So we have no need to flirt with the line between acceptable and unacceptable copying, and many reasons — inherent to our mission — to avoid even being near the line.

So why was that comment written?

Normally it wouldn't be necessary, but from experience a question about a starter set of rules that is answered by knowledge of the full game is a temptation for people to just paste the rules into an answer and call it a day. Without that particular context the comment likely wouldn't have been left.

Our citizens aren't all regulars or long-time members, and out there in the wilds of the Internet there's a belief that anything goes so long as it's on the Internet. People have some strange beliefs about copyright law's application.

The comment was aimed at those people. Most of our regulars know full well that someone coming here with questions that aren't answered by their Beginner Box material shouldn't just be handed a fish the missing rules from the full game, but all it takes is one of the many low-rep users passing through or lurking to make a mess that will need high-rep or diamond-mod users to clean up.

Not only do we not want to be cleaning up copyright messes that could have been easily avoided, but we also want to be putting forth the message that we're not the Wild West Internet playground that some places are. The opportunity to pass on site norms is useful, especially when it does double duty preventing unnecessary cleanup.

A note on open-license material

There is a belief that it's OK to quote large swathes of OGL content here without considering fair use and such. In actual fact it's just as not-OK legally as any other game's text! The problem is that the text is still copyrighted and we don't follow the license it's available under (the OGL is technically incompatible with CC BY-SA, so we can't freely mix the texts, and answers don't have room to include the OGL statement itself as it otherwise requires).

As a consequence, our typical practice of being nonchalant about quotes from OGL material is rather odd. However, in practical terms it makes sense: it's mostly fair use and only the odd borderline case might not be, so the legal issue is mostly theoretical; WotC, WEG, or whoever is unlikely to send a C&D over text that they've already decided to put out there, since anyway we're not the people they're worried about abusing the license (competing publishers); and how we use those texts for quotes doesn't make us a poor citizen of the RPG community.

Arguably sometimes large quote blocks degrade the answer (they become hard to read, unfocused, and the editorial explanation is sometimes lazy and leaves it as an exercise to the reader to interpret the quotes themselves), but there are only so many battles that need to be fought. Our handling of OGL material quotes could be better, but it's good enough to more-or-less satisfy our underlying motives for how we handle quotations.

The take-away here isn't to panic over how we handle OGL quotes; the point is to demonstrate that our handling of quotes is focused on what is holistically best for the site's health and quality.

(These concerns also apply to some other open licenses than the OGL (excepting CC licenses compatible with ours, of course), but the OGL is by-and-large the most common one encountered in RPG publishing.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ In context, this is true, but we should be clearer than saying something to the effect of "quoting rules is piracy" when a) it often actually isn't and b) there are other situations in which, as you note, quotation is desirable here. This seems to be an issue of clarity. \$\endgroup\$ – Pixie Jan 22 '16 at 18:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pixie Yes, clarity's important, and an off-the-cuff comment to put a lid preemptively on something can sometimes do the job but not have the clarity that a fundamental policy statement needs. That said, the statement was more specific than that though: “quoting its rules here for everything not in the beginner book”. I can see how that could be quickly misread to mean that quoting at all is being declared piracy, but misunderstandings are sorted by the slower discussions that happen on meta, like this. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 22 '16 at 18:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Therein lies the issue, though. It's not actually correct to say that quoting from everything not in the beginner book is piracy, unless the comment does literally mean "you can't just post the entire book" (in which case that's neither obvious nor particularly relevant, as no one is going to post the entire book to answer that question). What the comment really does appear to be saying is that no non-open-licensed content can be quoted at all, and that's what we need to avoid. \$\endgroup\$ – Pixie Jan 22 '16 at 18:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pixie A blanket ban on quoting from non-open texts is not what I get from the comment. Further, quoting all the rules necessary for the OP to add the complete encumbrance rules to their game would definitely not be OK; if the comment is perceived as saying that, then that's good. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 22 '16 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ The comment flat out says that quoting everything (read: anything, unless the situation in my last comment is true) not in the beginner book is piracy. To me, the implication is that this only wouldn't be the case if it had an open license. That may not be the intent, but either way, it's unclear. If the issue is with gratuitous quotes and answering beginner box questions, comments should address that. The comment being directed toward people who don't necessarily understand copyright makes that even more important: such a comment can't adequately communicate to them what is and isn't piracy. \$\endgroup\$ – Pixie Jan 22 '16 at 19:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pixie Ah, I see the misunderstanding. Not that "everything in the full book is off limits", the comment is saying that "writing a quote that contains everything a beginner-box-user needs to avoid having the full game is off limits." \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 22 '16 at 19:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I find one of the later comments on What is food for? somewhat disturbing. In fact, I found it troubling enough that I took a screen shot of it in case it gets deleted. It reads like moderating-to-personal-preference rather than moderating-to-community-standards. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jan 22 '16 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SSD Which comes back to my original point: moderation should be clearer about that when addressing these situations in the future. Neither I nor this meta's OP seem to have gotten the intended message from the comment, and OP of this meta now has 8 upvotes. That is all I'm saying. Intent doesn't really matter if the message isn't clear. \$\endgroup\$ – Pixie Jan 22 '16 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. +1 very much reads like "I'm'a do what I do's," rather than "I'll be enacting the policy evenhandedly." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 22 '16 at 20:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I endorse this answer, without us even discussing it SSD nailed every point as I intended. Comments are very short and not suitable for full explanations, hence me saying ask on meta if you want more explanation. Success. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 22 '16 at 23:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I tend to agree with @Pixie; the original comment reads more like "posting any content not in the beginner book is piracy" as opposed to "posting everything in the rulebook is piracy". I'd think the latter goes without saying? I commend your concern for the site's overall health and quality, but wonder if that end wouldn't be better served by leaving SE's legal team to do the lawyering, and taking independent action only in cases where a clear and obvious copyright violation has occurred. Also, good discussion regarding how copyright applies to OGL rulebooks too. \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Jan 23 '16 at 0:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Our strength is explanation and exegesis. +1 for this sentence alone, as it is both sound and a good use of that word ... a rare thing. The rest of the answer was very helpful to me, and I'm not a low rep user ... but am often unsure of "how much rule citing" is OK before I commit a foul. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 23 '16 at 0:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Anecdotally, yes. But telling users that the only acceptable answer is "there's not a rule in the beginner rules" and implying that answers that go further than that will be summarily deleted strikes me as being closer to 'exploratory surgery' than 'prevention'. It's a question of degree, I suppose. Though in fairness I note that the question linked in the OP got a good answer that does reference the rulebook (without directly quoting it), and it hasn't been tampered with. So maybe the 'summary deletion' thing never actually happens. \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Jan 23 '16 at 5:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aroth I'm sorry this has been your first interaction with this site. It's been unnecessarily strifeful as far as introductions go. I do think your concerns are valid; if these fears were manifest in our site I'd be concerned too. Hang out for a while longer and I'm almost certain you'll be reassured that the initial impression, that we've given you in those comments, of how we handle copyright et. al. won't be borne out. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 23 '16 at 6:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aroth Good point on how the message came across, and may I add a hearty "Welcome!" even if it is a belated one. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 23 '16 at 16:00
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Yes and No

While it is legally fine in most countries, even the copyright-paranoid US, to quote parts of copyrighted products under fair use, a significant number of long-term high-volume users of the site are, and feel the need to be seen to be as, staunchly "anti-pirate". Which is defined as going above and beyond copyright law in order to remove or discourage anything which could remotely be seen as reproducing copyrighted content in any form.

Further, there is both a culture of rpg designer/publishers being extreme about copyright issues, fostered in part by WotC, the publisher of DnD's multiple takedown notices, threats of legal action, etc, and a culture amongst rpg players above the norm of fearing illegal action and wishing to be seen as law-abiding in every possible way, that I have no real explanation for but have witnessed due to long association. The actions of the long-term users may be founded in these two cultural aspects.

This makes answering some questions significantly harder, and is likely to result in less quality of answer to the site, but the firmness with which these views are held by these users, some of whom are moderators, others of which post answers or questions on a nearly daily basis, means that attempts to change this status quo are unlikely to result in anything but strife and argument.

As a result, rules quotes in answers will be looked on unfavourably, deleted, or otherwise disincentivized, unless they are extremely minimalist. This will result in some rpg questions not being answered in a satisfactory way, but as long as these users hold these opinions, their degree of involvement in the site will give them the ability to enforce them.

Since I believe the likelihood of them changing their opinions as regards reproducing rules in answers is low, the answer to your question can be summed up as so: While neither the site rules, the law, or the previous meta questions forbid you from reproducing relevant sections of copyrighted products in order to answer questions about that copyrighted product, in practice, reproducing relevant sections beyond a certain length (a few sentences) or beyond what some individuals consider the most directly relevant rules (no way to predict what will come under this) will likely lead to your answer being deleted and/or mods or other individuals posting to censure both you and others thinking of writing an answer with content they believe is 'too much'.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This isn't reflected in our answers or our deletions. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 23 '16 at 5:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Except I've got to assume good faith, so there must be experiences underlying Jack Lesnie's beliefs. Jack: can you share experiences that lead you to believe this? Can you include representative examples, without necessarily "attacking" any of the mods involved? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 23 '16 at 17:48

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