Copyright works a bit differently in the roleplaying industry than in most ot
hers. Think of it this way: You’re writing about a shared world. If the authors each held the copyright to their own work, then every time an RPG book came out, the RPG company would probably have to go back, try to figure out what material that book built on, and get permission from each author of each of those books to put out the next one. The company would have to get permission any time it wanted to do anything like revised editions. (Since in my experience RPG authors have a disturbing tendency to disappear into thin air, this could make life prohibitively difficult.)
More importantly, much RPG work is done at the instigation of the companies. They come up with the basic ideas and then give outlines of those ideas out to the authors to be developed. Even when they do accept outside proposals, they’ll usually have a hand in deciding the final form that the book will take. Most companies have their books planned a year or three in advance. So it seems a bit odd that the author would hold the copyright when someone at the company came up with a number of the ideas.
Many roleplaying books are written by more than one author (main rulebooks may be written more-or-less by committee). Often the “developer” (or “line editor”) of a book, who usually works full-time for the company, writes or re-writes portions of the books he develops. This further complicates the copyright matter.
Add on top of this the fact that it would be inappropriate for the author to re-sell the material to anyone else, which he could if he owned the copyright. Gaming material is part of a company’s proprietary world, which they have spent a great deal of time and money developing. The company also owns any trademarks involved.
In most freelance writing industries, the “all rights” and “work for hire” clauses have a phenomenally bad reputation. They mean that the company owns the work you made, and can do anything they want with it. If they want to put it on the web, they can. If they want to have another author re-write it, they can. In most cases, the author did all of the work, including coming up with ideas–so why should the publisher hold the rights?
In the RPG industry, work for hire is often appropriate. The company was involved with the idea generation, they need to be able to build on the work, and they hold the trademarks on a lot of the words you’re using. For the author to hold the entire copyright in these circumstances is inappropriate. If that bothers you, then you probably need to find a different industry to write for, or you need to put out your own RPG.
Note that this does not necessarily apply equally well to fiction, magazine articles, artwork, and the like. These sorts of items are much easier to purchase specific rights for. Also, the advent of the d20 phenomenon has resulted in more authors publishing work generated from their own ideas (and which can be applied equally well to multiple gaming worlds), which similarly muddies the water. In these cases, the best advice I can give you is to be aware of your rights, don’t give away the house for free, but also be aware of the differences between RPG markets and “normal” fiction markets–and don’t expect one to necessarily pay like the other.
I feel it necessary to say that I’m not supporting “all rights” and “work for hire” contracts in general. I’m sure I’ll get a few pieces of hate mail from the mainstream writing community for this article; as I said, in most sectors such contracts are entirely inappropriate. Some people believe that allowing them under ANY circumstances encourages companies that shouldn’t use them to use them. I remain steadfast in my belief, however, that such contracts were created for a valid reason, and that within certain guidelines and under certain circumstances they are appropriate.