Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

But It’s Wrong!

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What may be the single most talked about article on Rock Paper Shotgun’s pages is a raging debate on piracy, DRM and the fate of the PC gaming market. Par for the course, and anybody who’s played PC games through the years has a number of horror stories about Starforce, SecuROM or other intrusive pieces of “security” malware installed without the permission of the user with the expressed intent of denying them the ability to reverse-engineer, reproduce or otherwise crack the program but with the effects of rendering their computers slow, vulnerable and unstable, but folks are hung up on the idea that piracy is unequivocally wrong.

This is the wrong way to go about that discussion. It’s an economics discussion, not a law enforcement one. The product (or “license” bullshit they propagate) isn’t worth the price companies are charging. There is insufficient desire for the product at the price listed, but alternatives abound. Filesharing’s easier than CD-swapping, but the principle is still there.

The music industry as it was – the CD album format with a single’s worth of content – was a cabal. That cabal was broken once people found viable alternatives: Napster, Gnutella, WinMX, KaZaA. The music industry’s inability to adapt was not the consumer’s fault. One can’t go on saying how it’s the consumer’s fault the businessman failed to realize just how untenable his business model was, like it’s our job to line his pockets.

To go back to the “licensing” remark, it’s really not a model of selling a product to a customer – indeed, customers get extremely angry at the number of blocks in place on a piece of software after they’ve bought it, because they expect it, like other products they’ve bought, to be owned by them and used as they please – but instead an information service (content updates, patches, online multiplayer support), and as such those companies are competing with piracy on just that service model. The funny thing is, that’s very much a viable industry. iTunes took over and is beating out pirates not for price (and not by DRM) but by service. Steam is beating out pirates by service.

Bittorrent is clunkier than Steam. There, I said it.

To put it another way, we buy water in bottles! Water is the single most common thing in this world and is nothing if not free, and clean water is as simple as boiling it, yet people spend a dollar a quart on it because it’s convenient. Likewise, we now have the cheapest, most powerful information system the world has ever seen. That’s a revolutionary boon for anyone willing to cash in on its convenience, and lo and behold those people are succeeding.

Instead, the companies have, to their inevitable doom, taken an antagonistic stance against an Other they view as utterly wrong and indefensible, like inner city crime or Hamas. Instead of doing the obvious, which is to stop making these people want to do those offensive things, they put up barricades. And so, as bombing apartment blocks and erecting walls makes people support hard-line militants more, putting up more intrusive pieces of DRM just makes people pirate more.

After all, all that DRM never hurts the pirates. Can’t blame the pirates for doing what they do, because even if they stopped it’s not like the companies would suddenly shift to a viable business model. And until that model shifts, the lid cannot be sealed on piracy, however “wrong” each pirate may seem.

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