[Featurama] The Piracy Debate: A Lack of Compromise

So everyone has their own opinion on the Piracy debate, and most people feel very strongly about it, one way or another. Note that the following article only contains my personal feelings on the matter, which may very well not reflect the collective opinion of Twinfinite as a whole. Most people who comment about the issue on sites like Reddit are going to be biased pro-piracy, or at the very least towards Internet freedom. Those that receive the most mass media publicity, as one would expect, are usually media publishing companies, and congressmen (congresspeople?) in the companies’ pockets, who would understandably be very polarized towards the anti-piracy side of the debate. I feel as though there are a lot of people in the middle, who are less likely to be heard. This is a common problem with many debates, like birth control, healthcare, and immigration, because let’s face it- most people are childish and unwilling to compromise. They fail to come to a consensus on complex issues.

It’s a major reason that we elect congressmen- society can focus on other, more important things, while these stoic, impartial representatives take the time to learn the issues, cast their vote for the common interests of their constituency, and when necessary, compromise some of their values to come to the most mutually beneficial decision. Unfortunately, these days, it seems that many congressmen are, in fact, truly representative of the American people- just as childish and selfish as we are. They can justify abdicating responsibility for half of their elected term, just to focus on re-election. Companies can literally bribe them to vote in their interest. “Hold it right there, the politicians can only use the money to support their campaigns, not their personal expenses.” Oh, so you mean that all a company can do is ensure the politician’s future livelihood? What a relief. And, given that publishing companies can legally bribe politicians to improve their bottom line, can you blame them for doing so?

These publishing companies (and of course, the congressmen they fund), of course, support SOPA- the Stop Online Piracy Act. There’s plenty of information available about this bill on the Internet, so I’ll just give a quick recap (and please, correct me if I’m wrong on any point)- it basically holds any site accountable for any pirated material hosted or linked on that domain, regardless of the site doing their due diligence towards removing that content (user-reporting systems, etc.). They also provide harsh punishments for those failing to prevent the posting of illegal material. Apparently, those in favor of the act have no understanding (or concern) that the most important sites on the Internet are effectively generated by the community- it is absolutely impossible for Youtube to police every posted video, it is absolutely impossible for Reddit to police every post, it is absolutely impossible for Google to police every posted link- just as it is impossible for the government to police the Internet. In fact, the only silver lining is that these resolutions are mostly unenforceable. All that will result from this bill is a few unfortunate pirates (or potentially innocent websites) being martyred for the world to see.

Those who advocate for piracy are equally responsible for the lack of progress on this issue. They lay all the blame on publishing companies for the entire conflict. Despite the fact that video game companies are almost certainly being hurt by piracy, if they make any effort to protect their intellectual property by modifying their product, the denizens of the Internet form lynch mobs to band together and destroy the game’s Amazon rating with 1-star reviews (despite likely not having ever played the game, or even having played and enjoyed it). They lay all responsibility on the company for solving the issue. Gamers are effectively saying to publishers “Fix the problem yourselves without inconveniencing us in the slightest- offer us a more enticing package than downloading the game for free.” Hell, many of those who participate in the mass negative reviewing campaigns of games with DRM are the pirates themselves, effectively making it impossible for the company to fix any vulnerability in their software without shooting themselves in the foot. Pirates can be extremely self-entitled, and you frequently find pirates justifying their actions as noble:

“I am spreading publicity for the game, INCREASING the company’s profits!”

Yeah, I’m sure everyone who pirates a game convinces 1-2 friends to buy it. If everyone pirated all of their games, the fact is that developers would get exactly zero revenue.

“I only pirate games because I want to avoid DRM- it’s the publishers fault for fighting it”-

I bring up the unfortunate example of a game called World of Goo- an immensely popular and award-winning indie game by developer 2D Boy. The publisher deliberately released the game on almost every platform without any sort of DRM, to make a statement. They were literally as user-friendly as they could possibly be, and they later released data saying that up to 90% of copies of the game were downloaded illegally. The company was forced to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy four months later. Despite this, they stood by their ethics by offering the game as part of the charitable, DRM-free Humble Indie Bundle #1 the following year. I do acknowledge that this data is unverified, as far as I know- we are relying on the developer for its veracity.

“I wouldn’t have bought the game anyway, so I am not hurting anyone”

Either way, you’re relying on paying customers to fund developers so you can continue your gaming habit. Please, at the very least, admit this is unfair, so we can stop arguing about it. Don’t make paying customers feel like fools for paying for games, like the only baseball player not doing steroids- just say “I don’t give a shit, and I wanted a game for free” so we can move past the issue of whether or not piracy is noble, and work towards a compromise in which both sides can be happy.

“I’m not stealing it, I’m just making a copy! The company still has the original!”

Oh, this condescending cartoon has made this issue perfectly clear; piracy isn’t a problem at all! This is the most terrible pro-piracy argument I’ve ever heard, and it is intuitively silly. Anyone who uses this as an argument is either simply arguing the semantics of the word “theft”, or being willfully ignorant. Either way, it has no bearing on whether or not piracy is harmful to the industry. It doesn’t matter if Blizzard still has a warehouse full of copies of Diablo 3, they aren’t benefitting from those copies in any way unless they sell them. If piracy results in lost sales, then piracy is harmful to the company. They benefit from the exchange of money for a game, and you are stiffing them on that exchange. This argument is like going to a store and asking why a copy of a game should cost more than the disk it’s burned onto. It’s like saying that a digital copy of a game is not a real game. A lot of work goes into making software, a book, music- and it’s worth something. Argue that the price is artificially inflated, and that these products should be cheaper, but don’t argue that anti-piracy measures are introducing “artificial scarcity”. Saying that all intellectual property or creative media should be free is tyranny of the majority- we may as well vote that all doctors must work for free. Do you think that inventors should be rewarded for inventing? That artists should be rewarded for making art? That developers should be rewarded for developing? Or are you so naive as to think that they will continue their craft for free, while you continue getting paid to do yours? Answer me, imaginary straw man that I’m yelling at!

The reason that piracy is met with such a fierce debate is that the entire issue is one gigantic grey area. “Media industries and the United States lose billions of dollars every year from piracy”- the industry almost certainly loses money, but exactly how much is entirely unquantifiable- a pirated game is not necessarily equivalent to a lost sale. “Piracy actually increases industry profits by increasing publicity”- while probably not accurate, there is some element of truth to this. “Industries are operating under an outdated business model”- certainly true, but does this justify taking their product and not paying for it, or are they the ones who should get to decide how to go about selling their product?

I fully disclose that I am not innocent of piracy. I even find myself agreeing with some of the common pirate arguments that I argue against earlier in the article. I have watched television shows online, because, yes, I think that many television networks have an “outdated business model”. I will happily watch a show online with just as many ads as they have on television, but yet, there are only a select few shows that host their episodes online. I have torrented a college textbook before, because I, yes, “wasn’t going to buy the book either way”- I could learn the material from the lecture notes or the Internet, and I didn’t feel like paying $300, going to the library or bugging a friend just to know what my own homework problems were. I admit that these were wrong, to a certain extent, but I was still willing to do them. On the other hand, I would not download an entire television series to my computer to watch in high-resolution ad-free whenever I want, and if I plan on using much of a textbook to actually learn something, I purchase it. And some pirates would pay $30 for a new game, but not $60. My point is that it is impossible for a publishing company to navigate everyone’s personal line of ethics when they introduce DRM, make sweeping legislation, or price their product; if they could, everyone might benefit. But, acknowledging that this issue still needs to be addressed somehow, and also that heavy-handed legislation like SOPA is wrong- what, then, is the solution?

Who is doing it wrong:

• DRM-crazy companies like EA and Ubisoft:
These companies shoot themselves in the foot by being uncompromising and acknowledging only their own rights, not those of their paying customers. Games like Spore reap their own painful reward in the form of terrible Amazon reviews.

• Congressmen / Companies who support SOPA:
If passed, this draconian piece of legislation has awful implications for all frequent Internet users. It threatens community-supported websites, by far the most important websites on the Internet.

• Those who advocate for unrestricted piracy:
Even the least-computer savvy users are learning to easily pirate music, or watch TV and movies online. In a society where piracy is legal and ubiquitous, there would be almost no profit to be made in the development of media, and development of new media (books, music, games) would be unsustainable.

Who is doing it right:

• Pay-what-you-want events like The Humble Indie Bundle: These events have been wonderfully successful, and even sometimes support charity. The events simultaneously compensate developers and contribute to the widespread exposure of games (particularly indie games), which is beneficial to the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, this sort of practice has yet to be tested on high-production value video games, or on a widespread level. Left to their own devices, would gamers pay more for a game like Battlefield 3 than the Humble Indie Bundle, or would they still pay $5 or less? If every game was sold for donations, would gamers still pay the same amount for each, or would progressive donations slowly decrease to an unsustainable level?

Now with tacky Microsoft WordArt!

• Valve: after games have been available on the digital video game distribution service for a while, Steam will often sell them at progressively reduced prices, slowly homing in on the price that each individual gamer is willing to spend on a game. All games are offered through digital download, and Steam sales have become hugely publicized events. The gamer gets more games, Steam and the developer get more money, and the service wins more loyal customers. Although gamers were at first hesitant to join the service because of the built-in DRM, they are now overwhelmingly willing to ignore their reservations due to the low price and convenience. Valve also offers it’s popular game Team Fortress 2 for free, and relies on micro-transactions to make a profit.

Hulu / The Guild: Hulu compensates television companies, and is generally more convenient than pirating, despite sometimes lacking the content that you want. Similarly, The Guild is a popular web-series that makes all of its profits through advertising and distribution deals.

• Blizzard: Now we’re getting into the more controversial ones. Despite Blizzard taking flak for requiring their customers to remain always connected to the Internet to play new games like Diablo 3, they have enacted some of the most generally unobtrusive (in my opinion) methods for preventing hacking and piracy. They have been subjected to hacking, cheating, and pirating from the beginning. Games like Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 were hacked to chaotic levels, and Blizzard has grown and adapted to these issues in some fairly clever ways. Through their experience with WoW and D2, they realized that they could prevent most forms of hacking and piracy by requiring the player to always remain connected to the Internet. The benefit of this is that players can login to their accounts from any computer. Blizzard has also always consistently used a fairly innocuous, surprisingly effective method for combating piracy- the use of CD keys. An account is tied to one CD key, and only one player can be logged into an account at a time. The strength of this system is equal to the strength of their key generation. This is Blizzard’s attempt to ensure their security, while hopefully minimizing the user’s inconvenience. The provision also benefits users, by combating many forms of cheating.

IP rights legislation with Safe Harbour and Fair Use Clauses– The Digital Millenium Copyright Act is the major copyright law currently enacted in the United States, and although it is subject to much legitimate criticism, and has historically been ambiguous and inconsistent in its rulings, users have successfully combated some violations of the act with certain laws that introduce flexibility and consideration into each case. This offers some amount of reassurance to online users with good intentions. “Fair Use” allows every case to be weighed by several factors, which may mitigate or defeat the copyright infringement claim. For instance, a Youtube user is generally able to use under 30 seconds of copyrighted music in a video. “Safe Harbour” refers to several provisions of the DMCA that protect Internet service providers and hosting domains from liability for the actions of their users. Namely, if a site like Youtube or Reddit makes a concerted effort to remove this content, like having a “report unsuitable material” button, they should be protected from legal action. If SOPA is passed in its current form, these providers will have no such protection.

• The Microtransaction Model: Offering convenient, cheap, small iterations of content (instead of one large chunk of software for a large chunk of money) makes it extremely inconvenient to pirate a game, while also allowing users to only purchase the amount of content that they are interested in playing. This model has received criticism from some gamers who contest that they aren’t receiving the full game at launch, but it is a perfect example of a compromise- it combats (not solves) piracy by only slightly inconveniencing the user (if at all). Even successful services like iTunes have become extremely successful using this model. When each download is reduced to $1, it’s hard to justify the effort of torrenting and organizing each one.

• Burnout Paradise: Criterion games employed a number of interesting tactics through Burnout Paradise, a simple, fun driving / crashing game. They offered the game on a several different platforms, they progressively offered the game at a cheaper price, they used the micro-transaction model, and they even hired advertisers to put ads on the billboards within the game, allowing them to offer the game at a cheaper price. Advertising within the game in this manner doesn’t really detract from the experience; in fact, it makes it more realistic. Recent advertisement and microtransaction-based free-to-play games have been met with relative success.

There are several strategies that mitigate the effects of illegal digital activity while still being relatively convenient for the user. Sure, they aren’t perfect, but neither the publisher nor the gamer should be assured a perfect experience. Widespread availability of digital content admittedly introduces problems for publishers, but they must remember that with these problems come opportunities. Valve has recognized this, and they’ve made “mad stacks” while simultaneously encouraging widespread distribution and exposure for indie games. Despite the many issues with Origin (okay, it’s just awful), we can hope that it becomes EA’s attempt to meet the user halfway, and that it will be improved in the future.

Users will generally act logically- if a game is readily available for free, and they risk almost nothing by downloading it, and everyone else is already pirating it- there’s a good chance that they will pirate rather than buy it. Therefore, the responsibility of fixing the problem is ultimately on the developers/publishers. However, I think that we, as users, can all stand to be a little more patient and ethical while we wait for developers to find the right balance of security and convenience.

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