With some interest in the blogosphere lately for an OD&D "Clone", the main obstacle to seeing such a thing come to light seems to be copyright law. With later editions, there seems to be enough material that is easy to "recreate" via the D20 SRD, which allows you to "release" an OGL version of your favorite game.
With OD&D, the problem is that it is literally so light on rules, that most of the stuff that makes OD&D different from the later editions is what we normally think up as "fluff" or "flavor text". OD&D has a whole booklet devoted to wilderness and underworld adventuring, which I think most folks will agree is the meat of the set, and this is not an easy thing to reproduce without treading in some very gray waters. Throw in a whole pile of other idiosyncrasies you won't see anywhere else, and you get a package that is fun to reproduce in spirit, but damned hard to reproduce in substance.
So why not just use the real thing?
Well, unless you've got a few hundred bucks to blow, you're not going to get the real thing. True, you may get lucky, if you've got the time, and hunt down one of those collectors reproductions, TSR released later on, for less than a hundred bones. But Hasbro/WotC won't produce any new "legacy" copies (even though game companies crank out "vintage" or "classic" editions of games like Risk and Monopoly every couple of years), and they've shut off the whole .pdf-version tap.
Of course, there are plenty of electronic copies floating around. But is it legal to distribute these? Could you dress up a copy of the booklets and put them up somewhere like Grognardia for free public consumption without drawing the ire of some corporate attorney? And could you reproduce the rules in "retroclone" format so long as it was done non-profit?
To answer that question you have to take a look at the US Copyright Office's qualifiers for what is termed "Fair Use". Basically, Fair Use is the assumption that you're distributing something for criticism, curiosity, research, or educational purposes, as opposed to attempting to use it to turn a profit or hinder the copyright holder's ability to profit. If its "Fair Use", you don't need the copyright holders permission to distribute or reproduce the material. "Fair Use" is typically determined through "four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:
- The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
- The nature of the copyrighted work
- The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
- The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work"
1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes. Obviously, no one is going to "sell" a free .pdf, so no worries there. Nonprofit, educational purposes? Well, sure. The current owners have made it very clear that what they consider to be "Dungeons and Dragons" bears very little resemblance to what existed in that woodgrain boxed set, so by that measure, any attempt at playing the "original" edition would be a study in the historical development of a game, as well as the culture that grew up around that game. Sounds educational to me - or am I stretching that too far?
2. The Nature of the Copyrighted Work. Its a game. Again, it is also a version, of a game, that the copyright owners consider to be obsolete.
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. This, in my opinion, is the trickiest of the rules to consider. If someone shares an electronic copy of D&D with someone else, could it be argued that copy is a copy regardless of edition? Regardless, if you do take D&D "as a whole", it seems to me that the original set (or the text-heavy book 3 in particular) is a very small part of the whole body of published D&D works.
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. This, also in my opinion (I'm not a lawyer!), is the least tricky of the qualifiers. If five million copies of OD&D were downloaded or shared tomorrow, the effect on the potential market would be "zero", simply because WotC in no way tries to sell the thing. Strangely, by removing OD&D from the market altogether, in electronic or printed format, it would seem they have removed their ability to claim that say, handing out free copies of the woodgrain box at the next GenCon, could cause the company any financial harm.
Again, I'm no copyright attorney, so my little review here must perforce be taken with a grain of salt. But it could be worthwhile having someone qualified take a serious look at the situation. For you armchair copyright attorneys, here is a good read.