Nov 22, 2010

Piracy and DRM

The issue of piracy in gaming is one that's been getting a fair bit of attention lately, and is quite controversial for obvious reasons. Today I'm going to write a bit about my perspective on the whole issue.

The issue of games piracy is essentially two-sided, with very few people taking a grey stance. You can find a lot of people who condemn anyone who ever downloaded a piece of software illegally, even if they couldn't buy a legitimate copy because it's out of publication (and remember – buying a game second-hand gives exactly the same amount of money to the people that made it as does illegally downloading it), and you find people who believe that DRM is the result of incredibly greedy corporations who have to snatch at every dollar they make from their stupidly overpriced product, instead of just accepting the fact that people are going to copy their game, often using this to justify piracy or even to claim that everybody should download their games illegally (no, I don't know why they hate game developers). There are relatively few people who would say that piracy is SOMETIMES okay.

I'd like to start off by making a clear distinction between piracy and stealing, because although it's not that important if you look at the issue from a legal standpoint, I think it's very important if you want to talk about the issue from an ethical or moral standpoint. The main thing is this: theft takes something away from the victim. Piracy only makes a copy. When you steal something from someone you're taking that thing away from them. You have actually cost them money because they now have to replace what they've lost, and you've inconvenience them as they no longer have use of that object until it is replaced. But when you illegally download a piece of software, you aren't actually taking anything away from somebody else that they previously had. You aren't giving them the money you would've had to pay if you'd bought it, but you aren't actually taking anything away from them. You aren't hurting them. It's pretty easy to make an argument that piracy is a victimless crime.

 For the record, I'm going to say here that in principle I don't think piracy is okay. If somebody spends time and effort to make a product for other people's entertainment, they deserve to be paid for that hard work and that service they are providing for their consumers. But, as we've established in the previous paragraph, the only way you're actually hurting these people by obtaining their product for free is if you would have bought it if you couldn't get it for free. And this is the reason that I think that the harm caused by piracy can often be vastly overstated.

I believe that the majority of copies of games obtained through piracy would not have been copies legitimately bought if they weren't available for pirates. Ubisoft has recently started using a very invasive type of DRM, and it's actually been fairly effective. It took the piracy community much longer than it normally does to get a full, working crack of the game. That's pretty much the best you can hope for with DRM – you generally have to accept that your game will be cracked eventually. The question is, did this fact significantly boost sales in the opening weeks, when the game couldn't be downloaded illegally? It's very difficult to prove one way or the other, seeing as we have no way of knowing what the sales would've been like if the game had been cracked more quickly, but I have a feeling that you wouldn't find a particularly striking disparity in sales between AC1 (which didn't feature this kind of DRM) and AC2 in the opening week, for example.

Ubisoft's DRM was very controversial. It requires a constant internet connection, and drop-outs or similar unpredictable issues could result in lost progress, the game locking up, or any number of other problems. It has a real chance to make the game experience worse for legitimate users, although the majority likely won't encounter any difficulty. A lot of people decided not to buy the game because of the invasive DRM – either they really felt it would restrict them, or they didn't want to support said system.

The point I want to make is that, at this point, after somebody has decided not to buy the game, it doesn't matter if they pirate it or not – either way, they're doing the same amount of damage to the developer's income by not buying the game. This doesn't mean that I think you can use invasive DRM as a valid excuse for pirating a game. All it means is that I think that invasive DRM leads to some people who would otherwise have bought the game to decide not to buy it, and that some of these people might choose to pirate it if they can. What this means is that an invasive DRM scheme not only has the potential to drive away customers, but it also has the potential to increase piracy. This in turn gives publishers the impression that piracy is on the rise and they need to take more extreme steps to protect their property, increasing the severity of the DRM. It's a vicious cycle.

Who really loses? Not the dedicated, hard-set pirates – they just have to wait a couple of weeks to play for free. The people who lose are the developers, who drive consumers away, and even drive some of these consumers to becoming pirates, and the legitimate users, who have to put up with DRM that is disruptive to their gaming experience.

So what's the answer? Well, I don't really have any kind of straightforward one. I believe that publishers and developers have a right to – and should – protect their investment of time and money in any way they can that will not negatively impact on the end-user. I think releasing your games tied to Steam is a decent middle-ground – it's generally non-invasive, and it discourages piracy to a middling extent (although the games are still cracked relatively quickly). Another good way is by having some kind of substantial online content that is basically piracy proof by way of requiring an account and a valid CD-Key (there are ways around this for pirates, but it's not straightforward). I guess the best way forward is for developers to focus on offering more content for legitimate, first-hand (because second-hand purchases are essentially the same as piracy from a commercial standpoint) buyers that is very difficult for pirates to access by way of hosting it in a relatively secure section of the tubez.

The wrong way to go is through ham-fisted methods that punish legitimate users. Developers, reward your true fans instead of kicking them in the groin, and it will repay you in spades!

This is an issue that I think pretty much everyone has an opinion on, and I'd love to hear yours, so leave a comment.

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