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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...


If you honestly think that try-before-you-buy, or fair use copy of things you own are the majority of piracy, you are sorely, sadly mistaken. You /are/ the minory. The /vast majority/ of software piracy is not people going and 'trying before you buy,' but outright pirates. The /vast majority/ of people downloading DVDs from the internet are not going to go buy the DVD afterwards; they'll just burn it on their DVD burner. The /vast majority/ of people who download a pirated game (and c'mon, games almost /always/ have freely downloadable demos on the game developer's site) are not going to go buy it.

People who try-before-you-buy are not the problem. They are also not the majority. Sure, some people will justify it as 'well, I'll buy it if I like it,' but then they realize, well, this is a $50 program, and there are other things I'd like to spend the money on right now, and I already /have/ it on the drive...

From what I've seen, Robin's complaint is not that people download a PDF of her book after buying it. It's that they download the PDF of her book without buying it at all. And then give that PDF to friends. (And Kit's complaint is actually a different one, based on derivative works.)

Movies... how can you test to see if a movie is to your taste before you go to see it? That's what reviews are for. I've never understood the people who download the pirated-from-theaters copies of a film to watch first to 'see if the film is worth going to see,' because every single one of them I have encountered goes, 'nah, I'm not going to go to the theater, I already saw that film when I downloaded it.' Test-driving software is one thing, test-driving movies before a theater is another.

As for purchasing a DVD, that's what rentals are for, to my mind. I'm gonna watch the movie one way or another. If I really like it, I buy it. If I think it was fun but not worth owning, eh, at least I watched it.

If you want people to stop going 'piracy sucks' and painting fair-use or try-before-you-buy folks with the same brush, then stop defending the other pirates as well. Media companies and lawmakers may not understand the difference, but at present they have no incentive to understand the difference. They see people stealing -- and I don't care what you want to say to justify it, it's still theft -- and then they see the fair-use crowd and try-before-you-buy crowd defending them as standing up to the man. Why should they see the groups as two instead of one?

People like to try and make piracy a moral stand. "I'm doing it because it's overpriced!" "It doesn't really hurt anyone!" "Information wants to be free!" "It's not really theft since I'm only taking information!" It's just rationalizations.

All throughout history, people rationalize things to get their way. From little things, like, "Well, maybe SUVs pollute, but mine is only ONE, so it's not really a big problem," all the way up to thin justifications to invade countries, take other people's land, and so on. Because as long as you can feel morally justified, it alleviates the guilt.

Is the system flawed? Yeah. The RIAA are idiots. The MPAA overreacts. But are they being stolen from? Absolutely. Are people being hurt by it? Just ask the smaller publishers, smaller distributors, smaller developers who have been hard-hit enough by piracy losses to go out of business, or been forced to sell themselves to the very same big 'evil' corporations the pirates object to.

Sure, there are flaws in the system. It doesn't, however, change the fact that it's still theft. And it's damned hard for the software pirates who claim to want to reform the system to take any sort of moral high ground in the courts when they are, in essence, still thieves.

And that's what bothers me the most. The hypocrisy. The people who claim, 'it doesn't hurt anyone.' The people who claim, 'the publishers are evil, so I'm in the right.' All those are just flimsy justifications to make themselves feel better. But I'll bet you that with these same advocates, if someone took their work, hacked it apart, and then spread it around while taking credit for it -- as pirates often do -- then the advocate would be singing a different tune soon enough about 'piracy hurts no one.'
I've been burned several times by the limited demos that game companies put online.. The demo will work in Windows 2000 (or whatever flavor I happen to be running) but the actual release doesn't at all. (Ooops, sorry, that was a flaw we'll be fixing any day now...)

But that's not half as annoying as the business programs I've purchased that claimed one function on the box, but upon running it I find out that, well, that was a feature that didn't make it into the final verison of the program. That's why half my computer is filled with registered shareware programs - they do what they advertise, they offer a reasonable method of payment (and distribution) and are usually priced to match their value.

I got really lucky when I convereted most of my records to the CD versions - most of them actually had some small value added to the CD version that made it worth the cost of buying that music all over again. Those that didn't (and there were many of them) I was able to return, until the music companies forced the retailers to refuse music returns.

Most of my DVD purchases are to replace VHS tapes. Since I'm buying something I already have, I do expect there to be some value added. Director commentary, etc. If the movie quality stinks and there's no added value, I, as a consumer, get ripped off with no alternative - after all, the movie distributors have forced the retailers to refuse returns of movies.

You know what? The music companies assume that if I return an album it is because I'm copying it and ripping them off. The movie company assumes the same, so does the software company. Whoopie if I steal first then buy later; they've already made the assumption I'm ripping them off.

Yet the only one between me and these companies who actually loses money is me. Because I'll still sometimes buy a CD without having listened to it first, or a movie on impulse and it turns out to be of even worse quality than my old VHS tape, or the software program that sits on the shelf for the rest of eternity because it doesn't work.

As for having my work stolen and pasted with another's name and taking the credit - yes, it's happened. Multiple times, and those folks made much more off of it than I ever did. It sucks, I've griped, but I'm not going to assume that I've lost income because of it. They're good sales people; I suppose if I made much of a mistake along the line, it was in not hiring these folks to sell my works.

And on Robin Hobb - I'll wager that she loses more book sales from the sale of used books than she'll ever lose to electronic distribution. Heck, she's probably lost more income from the used sales of Assassin's Apprentice than from all the electronic distributions combined.

And on the random topic of small publishers - as a group they posted three times the profit of the most profitable major label in music; in books small publishers, again as a group, posted twice the profits of the largest book publisher. (Both only taking into account North American sales, during the 2003 year, as reported by Editor and Publisher magazine.) The industries themselves need to reexamine how they are conducting business, or they'll go out of business. The small publishers have already done this; the large publishers and labels need to do the same.
First of all, now suddenly free trial versions aren't sufficient? You're changing your argument, Gary. What you want is not a free trial version, you want a free version of the full thing, with an honor system that you'll buy it afterwards. The majority of the pirates out there have already demonstrated that they don't work on an honor system; a free download of the full game will just get it sent around faster. (And time-limited downloads are a joke; turning off the countdown timer routine so that it always returns true is a matter of twenty minutes and SoftICE.)

As a side note, the reason game demos may work on a machine that the final game doesn't (though more often it's the other way around) is that the game community demands the demos before the game is out. As a result, the demo is almost always from two or three builds -- at least -- before the final version of the game engine. It's quite possible that they discover they have to add some new Direct3D trick, and then only discover after the fact that it breaks things on 2/3 of the Windows 2000 machines out there. Trust me, speaking from experience, trying to test things on every single possible configuration of machines is a bitch. It's not as bad now as it was five years ago, since things are a little more standardized in the Windows world (and a lot of game dev happens for consoles, which have really taken off more now that we have DVD-based console systems).

As for the sales figures? That's a rather skewed statistic. I can state that taking every independent sales operation in North America and adding their profits together, they outperformed Wal-Mart. And it would probably be true. But then saying that this means that independent businesses have a better profit margin than Wal-Mart would be ludicrous. (If it isn't, I'd like to talk to you guys about donating some of the millions you've made from the store!)

Megan's complaints were not about loss of profit, but about the moral blindness of people who claim it's /all right/ to steal because it doesn't really hurt anyone. C'mon, are you really saying that there's no profit on used books to the author, and therefore if used books are okay that piracy should be okay? That's like saying, 'well, this person beat up X, and since there's already beating up going on, it makes it okay for me to beat up Y.' That's just... strange logic.

Plus, the key to used books is that if I want to sell one of my used books -- or give it to someone else -- I'm giving up my copy. If there were 100,000 copies sold and in circulation, there are still 100,000 copies in circulation. With PDFs? I don't have to. Congratulations! Now you have a copy, /and/ I still have a copy. And in fact, hey, maybe you really like the book, so you make copies of it on disk for /all your friends/ and give them a copy, going, 'hey, you really got to try this book.'

For me, no amount of argument is going to erase the fact, that over three years at a game company I saw our holiday bonuses go away due to piracy losses. I saw people pirating our games before they even hit the stores, and coming onto our forums to whine about the games being 'busted' when the cracks were what destabilized the game. I've seen the game company I used to work at get eaten by a publisher because, due to piracy losses, they could no longer afford to operate as an independent development house, and had to go become part of Time Warner's game studios instead. And that's without going into the piracy that Trillian faces.

I think this is one we're just going to have to disagree on. It doesn't matter what I say; you've already made up your mind that piracy is justifiable. And no matter what you say in return, you can't change the above experiences for me.