We cannot change anything unless we accept it.
Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
- Carl Jung
Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
- Carl Jung
Software piracy is one of those perennial problems that just refuses to go away, no matter what we throw at it. On one extreme of the debate we have the lollards who proclaim "Piracy is EVIL! Pirates are SCUM!" and say it'll be the death of the industry, despite strong evidence to the contrary (i.e. the industry isn't dead). On the other extreme we find those pirates that seem to warp space and time itself, not to mention logic, to justify their behaviour with ludicrous claims, such as "games are too expensive, so I am right to pirate them" or "I wasn't going to buy it anyway". Obviously such dogmatic approaches are useless and, as with most things, truth and solutions can usually be found somewhere in between.
The way I see it, piracy is just another example of the economic and philosophical problem of free riding. On an individual level it is extremely hard to condemn piracy because if you can get something for free with ease and pretty much no fear of repercussions there is no way somebody could be convinced to part with his money anyway. Of course it is in the interest of the consumer to pay for the product, as that translate into profit for the publishers and developers who can use that money to create more of the products you enjoy, but the free rider problem recognises that short-term individual gains outweigh the long-term effects of the masses. If enough other people pay for the game anyway, it'll make up for you not doing so yourself. It's a little like paying taxes. For the individual there is plenty of reason not to pay your taxes, especially as so little money can't have much effect, positive or negative, on the whole nation, but people must nevertheless be made to pay taxes for the greater good. With games, we must find ways to compel people to pay for them, not just expect it.
Part of this problem I think lies in the perceived monetary value of digital data, i.e. none. Because video games have for so long relied on tangible media carriers, from cartridges to cassette tapes to discs, they have taken their place in society as a commodity, a tangible product. However, what makes the game is, to put it stupidly, a series of 0s and 1s that can be transferred easily on a media carrier of your choice and propagated without loss of quality.
I remember reading "Being Digital" and being struck by an anecdote wherein the author had to give the police an estimated value of the laptop that had been stolen. It has been years since reading the book, so apologies if I don't hit all the finer details. His conundrum was that beside the value of the laptop itself there should be an assigned value to the data on it, namely all his material, all the things he had written. But somehow this is difficult to do. As a society we still see digital data as intrinsically without value. It's just there, you can't touch it, you can't see it, it is worthless.
So when anti-piracy preachers shout out nonsensicals as "you wouldn't go to a shop and steal a DVD" they miss the fact that data isn't tangible. Software piracy isn't at all like going to a shop to shoplift a material item. It would be more like going to the shop with audio recording equipment and recording the music they are playing through the store's PA system to be enjoyed at home at a later date. This lack of a sense of value is not the reason people pirate software but it's the facilitator that makes it easy to justify to themselves. And as society becomes more and more plugged in, even if that is wireless, this is an issue that will need to be addressed. Data has a monetary value. People need to change their thinking to incorporate this philosophy.
So as software creators we need to find other ways to compel customers to purchase our goods, as opposed to simply copying them. How do we go about this?
DON'T try to appeal to or blame pirates
It simply doesn't work. It's a classic free rider symptom that it's difficult to compel someone to pay for something for the greater, long-term good if the alternative appeals so much more. Why pay for a game when it's "freely available"? Of course attacking the problem at the source doesn’t work either; every group of hackers or torrent website that closes down spawns several new ones to take its place. Stopping piracy this way is like nailing a jelly to the ceiling and bombarding all users, including the legitimate ones, with patronising adverts and tedious copy protections simply doesn’t work, as time has told us.
DO entice customers
One of the reasons I have more Gamecube, Wii, GBA and DS games on my shelf than anything else, apart from being a horrendous Nintendo fanboy of course, is because of the wonderful Club Nintendo. Even today I am much more likely to make an impulse buy of a Nintendo game simply because I know I will receive a code which turns into points with which I can get free, tangible gifts. Hell, I've even bought games I've only played once or twice just for such codes! In the old days I would much prefer to own a copy of Ultima than pirate it just so I could have the tea-towel map and excellent bestiaries.
If you can give extra value to your game by adding something only legitimate customers can receive you will still encounter piracy, of course, but at least you're giving something to your customers rather than punishing them with copy protections.
DON'T muck around with annoying copy protection
Copy protection will be hacked. No matter how clever your limited pool of programmers, there are a large number of highly talented hackers out there up to the challenge. The strategy is, of course, to at least try and prevent hacked copies of your game being available in the short period just after the game's release when boxed titles traditionally sell most. If you can have a copy protection system that will at least hold up for the first few weeks you'll have made the bulk of your sales. This is, however, harking back to an increasingly outdated economic model and we have only to look at the record industry to see what happens to businesses clasping to old models, refusing to embrace the new.
On top of that, you are punishing your legitimate customers with all manner of annoyances, from having to have the disc in the drive at all times, having to keep track of numerous codes and keys or even installing malignant software.
DO think of new business models
The brick and mortar, boxed copy version of the game is on its way out, we all hope. But it is exactly these lingering older models that require these Draconian copy protection systems. Downloading games is easy and convenient and, so far, not that expensive. They could in fact be sold cheaper as you are dealing with a different kind of distribution that requires fewer overheads. Korea has seen some success with free-to-play games that rely on advertising and micropayments for additional features for income. Q Entertainment was sadly lambasted for its innovative segregation of Lumines on XBLA, where aside from a basic game players could but the additional parts they wanted for a lower price and ignore those they weren’t interested in. Valve are seemingly building their own download network with Steam, as Sony has PSN and Microsoft has XBL, and Nintendo…well, Nintendo.
Many of these newer models seem at this moment in time more secure and, though not entirely piracy-proof, are a step in the right direction. Though I possibly have the know-how, or could at least acquire the know-how, to hack my systems and play pirated copies of downloadable games, the prices are so low as to be in the impulse-buy category and with the added convenience of instant access I have seen no reason to go through the bother of mucking up my system, especially as automatic system updates could easily negate all this hard work.
Just as iTunes set up a new business for digital music distribution while record companies were clasping at straws to keep the status quo, so are we seeing the gaming world change. With IP addresses, system serial numbers, credit card information and user accounts hopefully the annoying and costly problem of copy protection and piracy can be alleviated if not entirely circumvented.
DON'T keep harping on about the Evils of piracy
We know it's bad. We know studios have closed down ostensibly because of it, though how true that is remains questionable. We know some people like to bandy about words as "scum" and "thieves". Piracy is a fact of software development. Screaming about it won't change it. Changing our business models and the way we look at our customers just might help at least somewhat.
As far as I can tell piracy in Japan would seem to be similar to that in the West. I remember my very first visit to Japan and seeing small stalls on the streets of Akihabara selling “multi-game Gameboy carts”, but these days such blatant illegalities seem to have been replaced with more shady, backstreet affairs. The R4 was being openly sold in shops and has been netting increasing prices due to Nintendo’s legal threats.
All being said and done, there will always be people who refuse to pay for software. There are laws in place to punish these but the effort usually outweighs the rewards, and they know it. In the end all we can do is entice, not pressure, as many people as possible to pay for games legitimately in new ways and accept some people will just never remove that padlock from their wallets. Preaching the Evils of piracy is as constructive as a Japanese progress meeting and vastly oversimplifies the situation to the point of being actually damaging to the debate.
(250th post, hurray for me!)