Open Settings, Closed Stories, and Creative Commons

The following is a guest post from Corey Reid, creator of the Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island shared story world. In this post, Corey talks about the benefits of combining an open world setting with traditional, linear  stories and why (and how!) he’s using Creative Commons to integrate a collaborative world building framework with a structure for commercialization of stories set in that open world.

This is a great follow up to my post about Creative Commons earlier this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing Reform School Ninja Girls – the first comic from the Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island – hit the presses!



Launching the “Traditional Narrative”

Parties developing shared story worlds face a complex challenge: licensing. Establishing legal conditions that foster collaboration can make it difficult for anyone to make a profit off the material, and without any revenue stream, maintaining the story world relies on the largesse of individual creators, leaving the whole operation in a precarious position.

The open source software world prospers largely via consulting and services; companies use open source material to base their services on, and charge clients to develop solutions using those open products. Their solutions provide value on top of the existing open source technology. But this model doesn’t appear to translate very well to entertainment. Nobody needs a consultant to come in and help them make use of a new open world entertainment property.

Or do they? It’s my belief the traditional view of an author is analogous to a “service provider” — an author uses existing reality to develop a “solution” (think “story”) that has its own unique value apart from the setting (world) it’s based on. Think of a novel or a movie as a path into the shared setting or world, something that helps viewers understand it and that generates a valuable context (in this case, a story) within the setting (in this case, a shared world).

The recent Marvel movies, culminating with the huge success of “The Avengers,” will introduce swarms of new fans to the complex comic book universe that Marvel writers and artists have developed over the years. A strong narrative is easy to engage with, and it draws audiences into the larger setting from which it emerges.

Traditional narrative can provide the “engine” that supports collaborative setting design, but the licensing has to be carefully constructed in advance. Here’s how DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, the collaborative setting that allows contributors to define their own tropical islands full of pulp adventure, is doing just that by releasing a brand-new comic book: REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS.



This comic book is the first traditional narrative project undertaken by the DINO-PIRATES team and represents the establishment of a true transmedia approach for the DINO-PIRATES entertainment property. Up to now, the DINO-PIRATES setting has supported role-playing games (i.e., defining locations and people that gamers can use to tell their stories and build upon the supplied material).

But traditional media has its place in this property, too, and it was always our plan to develop key content offerings based on the world of DINO-PIRATES. What does this mean from a copyright/legal standpoint?

Well, the DINO-PIRATES world and its content will remain a part of the Creative Commons, available for anyone to build upon. But now we’re introducing non-Creative Commons DINO-PIRATES content published under traditional copyright.

The Creative Commons license for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND (CC BY (Attribution)) was chosen to make perfectly clear what rights creators have, but it’s not a “strong” open-source license where all derivative works must also be licensed under Creative Commons and made similarly open from a legal standpoint (that flavor of Creative Commons incorporates a “Share Alike” component). As a result, the REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS comic book will be released under a standard copyright license, even though it’s using material released under the CC BY (Attribution) license.

This means that although the comic book is set on Ninja Island, a location in the Creative Commons setting, the book itself is licensed under traditional copyright (with no additional Creative Commons licensing). Other people can set THEIR stories on Ninja Island, if they like, but reproducing the comic book is still illegal, just like with any copyrighted work.

This structure provides the best of both worlds (pardon the pun): an open, available-to-anyone collaborative foundation which can be used commercially (the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND world) and the commercial benefits of traditional copyright for all works based on that setting. We all share the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND world, but we individually own the works we create within that world and solely enjoy the revenue generated from our works.



We believe that while open collaboration produces fun and fascinating products (especially settings), people naturally engage with straightforward narratives. For some people, the collaborative and non-linear qualities of the DINO-PIRATES setting are off-putting or confusing. The REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS comic offers an alternative but more traditional story experience as a way of discovering and exploring the DINO-PIRATES world.

Also, we love comic books, and the idea of marrying this storytelling form to the DINO-PIRATE aesthetic seemed like a natural fit.

And besides, who doesn’t love ninja girls?



The DINO-PIRATES setting has no explicit or internal revenue model, so there was no funding in place to launch a comic book. Producing the script, finalizing the character designs, generating content we can use as previews and so on – all this we were able to fund just from our own resources. But getting a full-time artist to produce the finished book is going to require more folks helping out, so we’re about to fire up a crowdfunding campaign (using Indiegogo) to raise the necessary funds for producing the first issue.

The REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS concept has been around for a while, first manifesting as a game run at GenCon several years ago, and now embodied in several role-playing games (available for free on the website). As a strong narrative with a great, easy-to-grasp identity, it makes sense to extend REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS into the comic book medium and lead the whole DINO-PIRATES setting into a new era of transmedia entertainment!

Combining Creative Commons licenses with standard copyright allows us to maintain a very open, collaborative setting, but also to produce high-quality narrative works protected by traditional copyright and able to provide a revenue stream. This model has already been proven in the tabletop gaming world, where it is now common to provide the rules under an “open source” type of license, but to sell rulebooks that include examples, descriptions and helpful explanations of the rules.

One of the more popular tabletop role-playing games is Pathfinder, an RPG game produced by Paizo Publishing and built on top of the open rules of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (which were published under the Open Gaming License, a license that allowed commercial use of new content which used the D&D 3.5 ruleset).

To use the open source software metaphor, the D&D 3.5 ruleset was the open source code, the Paizo Publishing was the consultant, and the solution was the Pathfinder rules and series of adventures built on the D&D 3.5 setting.

Creative Commons licenses can be used alongside copyright to enable open collaboration, while allowing traditional publishing revenue streams to flourish. That revenue can go towards developing the setting even further, which in turns allows new narrative projects to emerge. A self-reinforcing cycle improves both the commons and the private venture.

At least, that’s the theory!

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