What is this?

OpenWorld is a set of legal and technological tools which attempt to facilitate genuinely open, public shared-universe creation across all media.

OpenWorld legal tools

OpenWorld technological tools

OpenWorld creations

Um… without the jargon?

Shared-universe fiction is basically any fictional setting in which multiple creators work. They are more common in fantasy and sci-fi genres; obviously extremely common in the comics industry (especially mainstream superhero comics); and when you take into account the extraordinary volume of fan fiction in the world, a great many nominally “single-author” continuities are de facto shared.

Most are heavily licensed, which is to say that a single entity holds the copyright and subcontracts individual creators to work in the world (Marvel, DC, Star Trek, Dr Who…). Some are more collaborative, where a group of creators gets together and agrees on predetermined setting elements, and possibly a tighter or looser overall plot framework, and then either assigns specific subplots to specific authors (Wild Cards) or just lets people loose in the sandbox (Thieves’ World).

Both these models are fine, but both predate the internet, and I want to share my setting freely – I want to make it effectively public domain. I could just publish under a Creative Commons public license, but there are two conflicting imperatives to reconcile. One is that I want the entire setting to remain in the public domain – i.e. I want to insist that every part of the setting be as freely usable as anything else, without anyone having to worry about getting permission to add to it – and the other is that I want creators who use the setting to be able to profit from their work.

If this doesn’t quite make sense, think of the spate of Pride & Prejudice sequels and re-imaginings we’ve seen in recent years. Those authors do not have copyright in the characters, places or events they describe – the elements of the setting, which are all in the public domain – but they do have copyright in their own original work using the setting, meaning they can sell the work to publishers, license adaptations into other media, and so on. I want to achieve a similar state of affairs, where anyone who wants to write in the setting can immediately use characters, objects, places etc that have gone before, without having to secure hundreds of separate permissions and without everyone having to be dead for 70 years (or whatever the copyright industry has managed to extend it to lately) – but where they can still profit from their work.

Sounds complicated…

Not really. The basic idea is relatively intuitive – the parallel to P&P sequels (or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) isn’t exact, because the whole point of the license is to allow for aggregation of new material for the setting, and new characters introduced in works derived from public-domain texts would potentially be covered by copyright. But clearly copyright in a work as a whole is possible without copyright in its constituent elements – which means the two are legally distinct. The license asks people who use the material to separate the copyright they hold in the “setting elements” – individual characters, objects, events, places, organisations, in-setting memes, etc – from the copyright they hold in their works, and (in exchange for being able to use others’ setting elements in creating their work) license the former – but not the latter. So what complexity there is inheres in current copyright law, not in what’s proposed here.

So any character (or place, or whatever) I create can be used by anyone?

There are some restrictions, but basically, yes. They have to give you credit if you want that, and spell out that they are solely responsible for anything they do with the character, but provided they do those things and share the character back into the community, they can do whatever they like. That’s kinda the point.

The big exception is that the license doesn’t allow for the use of setting elements for “promotional” purposes – where the primary object is not creating a new work for the setting but encouraging particular behaviour or beliefs – so the odds of CocaCola-Amatil, or a random political party you dislike, putting out ads featuring an awesome popular character that you created are reduced. (Of course, the ad industry pinches other people’s memes all the time, so even fully-locked-down copyright isn’t ironclad protection from such theft.) Of course, if they get your permission another way, they can get separate licensing… but that’s up to you.

The other exception, which is worth repeating again, is that substantive duplications of existing works in different media are not permitted: you can’t make a film of someone’s comic or short story.

How does continuity work when anyone can write anything?

Good question! If you write a story that features the tragic death of a character and someone else can have them appears in a story set 5 years later, you are approaching comic-book levels of continuity malleability. But as that last remark indicates, tightly-controlled IPs are not immune from retcons and shifty “it-was-a-twin/robot/illusion/clone/mistake/magic” tricks. So our answer is that there will be NO official continuity. Instead, people who have an interest in the setting(s) published under this framework will be able to assemble and share their own continuities from all the works on offer. One of the web tools I want to develop will support precisely this sort of activity.

Additionally, the first setting I plan to initiate as a proof-of-concept will be a fantasy setting called “OpenMyth”, precisely to allow for magic-based wiggle room; and the first part of the setting I plan to open up will be the mythology of the world, because real-world myth is absolutely full of “it happened this way, except some people say it happened this other way”. (E.g. read Robert Graves’s Greek Myths – or even just try to pin down exactly who and what Loki is.)

If the idea takes off, I’d fully expect that one or two continuities in a particular setting would develop into full-fledged “sub-settings”, or traditions in which particular things did or didn’t happen, which people would then use as a basis for creating additional works that still share a coherent universe – and that’s completely fine.

How do I get involved?

See the various pages sitting under this one (linked at the top), but at this stage, we need pretty much everything – translating the plain-English license into legalese, setting up the web tools, designing and testing the user interface, writing up setting elements. I have some possibilities for hosting, but I’m interested in options for that too. If any of this (or just the idea itself) sounds interesting, drop me a line at:


[Remove all hyphens, and substitute as appropriate.]

(or just the idea itself)