I feel like DC/Marvel have the same problem that WotC has, or at least a similar one, in that they own this thing that everyone loves and knows about and looks like it ought to have all kinds of money in it, but in reality is fantastically hard to make money off of because they don't own the part of it that people really care about. They own the names, but they don't own the DMs or the artists or the writers.This is something I've been thinking about and talking about with people for a long time. I don't really know how serious of a "problem" this is for WotC at the moment -- the internet wisdom is that their corporate masters are desperately unhappy with the level of profit they're generating, but the internet wisdom, generally speaking, isn't.
Still. I think it's interesting that, with the rise of Paizo and Pathfinder, we're getting a look at just what it is that Wizards owns in "D&D." Fundamentally, it's not much.
They don't own the concept of roleplaying, or any of the fundamentals you need to run a game. At one point maybe they owned the rules, but even that's kind of dodgy given the way U.S. copyright law handles game mechanics. They clearly don't now. They can't own the vast majority of what you need to run a game, because that basically comes down to a particular set of skills and talents that aren't all that hard to pick up, if you're willing to work at it.
They don't own dungeons. They don't own dragons. They don't own most of what makes up "standard D&D fantasy" what it is, because most of that was based on older sources to begin with. They claim ownership of illithids and yuan-ti, but it's not like you can't easily make your own without referencing their versions. Which leaves... what, beholders? Rust monsters?
These days, what they own is the ability to put "Dungeons Ampersand Dragons" on their books. What they own, really, is the ability to sell a particular set of tribal signifiers to geeks. They own the best way to sell something to someone who's never played an RPG before. They can sell the stuff that says "D&D" and makes you a part of "D&D." As Zak put it:
I;d say--they own the part that people who will buy shit whether it's good or not want, but not the part that matters to people who actually want it to be good care about.