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Glare, Grouchy

[Rant] Copyright

As this has been getting discussed in the discussion groups of both Katherine Kerr and Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb) over the past few weeks, it's been on my mind lately. Today I got a note on a game I help keep running that a couple users were using one of the communication venues in the game to discuss how best to trade around cracked games and whatnot.


There are some zealots, I admit, who really do believe that authors should release books for free and copyright shouldn't exist at all, or that all software should be free. Putting aside the question of 'if it's free, you are unlikely to make money on it, and there's no incentive to actually work on it as opposed to getting a different job,' there are other considerations.

Without copyright, for instance, someone could take a book and decide they want to publish their own version of it. They alter it -- cutting scenes, and adding a few they think are better -- and release their own revised edition with the same byline. The author's message is no longer there, and you no longer have any guarantee that you're getting the actual /book/ and not just someone's mutant edited copy.

Add to that the fact that our copyright laws were specifically altered some time ago to adhere to the Berne Convention guidelines, so that our copyright would be enforced and upheld by other countries who are signatories to it.

Really, what it boils down to, I think, is that the majority of people who pirate stuff do it because it's simple (just download something!) and it's free (and people are all about the free stuff). And all the arguments about how it 'doesn't hurt anyone' or how it 'only hurts the publishers' are largely just justifications. And 'I wouldn't have bought it anyway' doesn't really count for anything. If you wouldn't have bought it anyway, that's no excuse for theft. Hey, I wouldn't have bought that DVD player, but that makes it okay to steal it! Bzzt.

If you can convince yourself you're taking a Moral Stand against Big Business or whatever, you don't have to think about the fact that you are stealing from the people who wrote that game you're enjoying so much, that piece of software you use every day, composed and performed those songs you just downloaded in MP3, or wrote that book you just downloaded in eBook format.

The immaturity shows in a number of ways in the pirate community. Witness people who cheerfully accept acclaim and praise for making pirated goods available; the eBook scanners who cheerily accept the acclaim and thanks of the various pirates, acting as if the books were their own work. Hell, think about our Russian hacker friends who have an entire site devoted to Trillian as if it were their work, when all they're doing is distributing pirated copies of Trillian Pro and plugins.

I'm halfway tempted to talk to some of the authors, game developers and so on who I know, and ask them each to write a short essay on copyright and piracy, and collect them into a freely-available eBook to distribute on the net...


First thought: Once the pirates had skimmed the e-book, nobody would distribute it anymore. It would be an ongoing distribution failure; you'd have to have people constantly re-releasing the ebook.

Second thought: I buy more games, books, and music because of pirated software/books/music. I get a chance to try it out, to hear what it sounds like, to skim a few chapters... and that makes me buy it. If publishers would actually release a test version anymore, I have a feeling piracy would decrease. If there were people who would play more than the top 40 music on the radio, I have a feeling music piracy would decrease. As for books, if there were chapters released for reading online, piracy would decrease there, too.

Yes, I've been known to use pirated software before. But if I use it for more than one or two test runs, I buy the sucker, because I obviously need it for something... and most pirated software isn't all that well-pirated to begin with. The exception is stuff that I know is good quality (i.e. anything released by Maxis, anything released by Trillian, most necessary MS products). Games, I'd rather try before I buy, for certain.

Same applies to music. If I can't hear it, I'm not going to get it. This is why we took almost all the music we sell at the store and MP3'd it; we can put it all on one MP3 player or one computer and play it for the customers on demand. Every so often, we'll dump one song out on the net for people to hear, and almost every single time, we get orders for the CD when people want more. And there are online success stories galore for this, if you look for 'em. I mean, c'mon... who hasn't listened to the 30-second blips of music on some online site to see if they like the sound of an album? It works, and it works well.

Books are a little more tricky subject, as someone who isn't appreciative of the material will likely not lay out money for the book. But on the other hand, thousands of people sit in Barnes and Noble and practically read the entirety of books there, and never spend a penny on 'em. I know college students who will go into a Barnes & Noble with their homework, and who will literally spend time in there doing their homework with the books on sale, rather than go to a library. If someone's not going to spend money on a book, they simply won't.

There's another problem; secondary sales. Keep in mind that virtually everything - software, books, music - is resold used somewhere or other. The publishers never get anything from a secondary sale, but the owner can legitimately say they owned the item at one time. So Joe buys a CD and MP3's the contents. He sells it to Jane for a penny, and she MP3's the contents, and sells it to Bob for a penny... repeat as desired. Who can prove that it's not legitimate? I mean, even Amazon sells cheap used books/software/music...

So there's a lot of problems facing all these industries. Personally, I think that if there's a freeware or test version of an item on the market, it will sell the paid version a heckuva lot better than not having a freeware version.
The problem is not, as I said, the try-as-you-buy folks. And secondary sales have little to do with people who are downloading DVD .ISOs off of BitTorrent, or cracked versions of videogames.

I hear this 'if there were only free versions, piracy would stop or be reduced.'


Every single game I worked on while I was in the games industry had a free demo version released online, and also on CDs with game magazines, and so on. And how many of those games were pirated? All of them.

There are plenty of bands who /do/ release MP3s from their albums on their websites. And while there are some folks who listen and decide, 'hey, I like that' and buy the CD, others go and find the rest of the tracks off of Gnutella or eDonkey or whatever.

Obviously, a free trial demo does not stop the actual pirates. It stops the try-before-you-buy folks, but if they're /really/ "try before you buy" folks, then they wouldn't keep the pirated tracks/game/software/whatever around /anyway/ if they didn't like it. They're not the problem, and free trial demos don't stop the ones who are.
Further examples:

Microsoft Office. Has a 30 day free trial. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Corel Painter. Has a 15 day free trial. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Maya. Has a fully-functional 'personal learning edition,' which very generously never expires and does nearly everything the full one does, but puts a 'Maya' watermark on all of your finished work. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Half-Life 2. Has a free demo version out there for download. Is it pirated by folks anyway? Yes.

Trillian. Has a free 'Basic' version out there, and a free 15-day trial if you want to use Pro. Is it pirated anyway? Yes.

I really, really remain skeptical that offering trial versions cuts into the actual piracy in any significant way. If you have numbers or anything to back this up, I would honestly love to see them. Prove me wrong! But right now, I look at all those examples, and I remain skeptical.
Every single one of those programs is too expensive.

The price of an item has to be the price of what the market will reasonably pay for it. If that price (and the amount sold) isn't high enough to pay for the development of the item...Too bad. You don't have a product that people are willing to use.

Where this hurts the most is niche groups where massive sales at a lower price point aren't reasonable to expect;

I'd also like to point out that the number of people with the comfort in technology to easily and routinely pirate games is not as high as you think, and that if you think piracy was the only factor in the death of small game houses then you're probably quite mistaken. (Though I have no doubt it contributed.)

Want to know why Monolith got sucked up by a big publisher? Because I, who lived in Seattle and read game magazines and am not an atypical representation of a Person Who Plays Games, had heard of ONE of their games. One. That would be NOLF. The financial requirements for making a successful game in the industry -as it stands- means that small publishers can't hold up. They just can't. They can't pay their employees, they can't have advertising, they can't get the market penetration they need.

And self-publishing really did hurt Monolith, yes. Though I imagine you heard of other games 'lith did that got published under other labels (Matrix Online, for instance).

However, congratulations, you just answered your own question from earlier in this about 'why do companies need to make so much money.' "The financial requirements for making a successful game in the industry..."

That money doesn't materialize out of thin air. You either need investors (who will expect to be paid back out of the game revenues), or you need profit left in the bank from a previous hit to allow you to make the next one.
My original comment was aimed at the twin beasts of the MPAA and the RIAA, not at small companies.

However, with Cerulean, the sales figures with which I am familiar seem to indicate that even without investors, your overhead is sufficiently low that EVEN FACTORING IN the generous salaries, benefits, technology allowances and travel your company gives its employees, Cerulean is in a good state of solvency.

But look at EA Games. Where does the money generated by that company's dominance of, well, the games industry, go? Certainly not to the salaried grunts working code in their offices. It goes into the coffers of the parent companies and the corporations and more and more crap gets thrown back out again in response.

My original point stands. If your company can't make a product that people are willing to pay money for, it should fold.
I don't think you're actually familiar with any sales figures? Regardless, we're lucky -- moreso than many small companies -- inasmuch as we can make our bills and so we're not about to vanish. We are not, however, a company that's raking in the profits. We keep costs down; folks telecommute rather than relocating, the office is a teensy little space above a dance studio in the middle of nowhere, we make sure to book the cheapest tickets we can and use frequent flier miles when we do the 'get everyone together to brainstorm for the next version' meetings, and stuff like that.

Your argument that if people aren't willing to pay for your product you deserve to go under is sadly shortsighted. There are excellent programs out there, shareware, worth every penny people charge... even when it's only $5. And people still crack it. Because, when you get down to it, the majority of pirates are not people stealing because they want to make a point about the quality of modern commercialism, viewing themselves as some sort of digital Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to themselves.

They may justify it that way. But the majority of pirates are people who just want something for free, and like to seize on those arguments as justification. And "free" is a price no company can beat; that's a market reality.