The Problem is Consumers are Treated Like Pirates

Disclaimer: Nowhere in this article or anywhere in this blog do I condone piracy, these are merely my views on this topical subject.

Recently, there have been a couple of amusing diagrams portraying the purported “benefits” of piracy, its environmental friendliness and its ease of use.


Both charts may be accurate on some level, however they gloss over the issues greatly.

The first chart suggests that piracy is laudable as it is more environmentally friendly than actually purchasing a full copy of the game. Firstly, there are numerous games that can be purchased and played through the Steam content distribution system. This requires no physical purchase whatsoever, and hence there is no apparent environmental impact. Yet games available through Steam (such as Half-Life 2) are pirated anyway. Secondly, to say that piracy alleviates the stress on the environment is like saying we should all stay at home as cars and public transport are toxic to the Earths atmosphere and cause global warming. Clearly the first diagram is drawn in jest and is not meant to be an accurate representation of the facts, still it is important that piracy not be seen as an acceptable method of digital consumption.

The second chart is more accurate in its depiction. From what I have heard, pirated films (available through torrents and the like) generally contain the actual film and in some cases subtitles. In contrast a DVD (or Blu-Ray) contains numerous “extra” features and content in addition to the actual movie. This is actually why many people purchase original discs as they want to see all the extra content. However, it is true that many DVDs contain a lot of unnecessary content that serves to irritate rather than inform. Again this glosses over the fact that it takes some degree of skill and knowledge to either pirate a movie, download it on-line or find a vendor. Further, the pirated content is almost always of a lesser quality, it may not be significant to the undiscerning viewer, however there is always some degradation.

Another great debate arises over the fact that games are so heavily laved with digital protection that even the legitimate purchaser faces numerous difficulties in playing the games. For example, Assassins Creed 2, the much awaited sequel, will require the player to remain connected to the internet for the entire game as there will be constant copy protection checks that take place. Essentially, unless you have an internet connection you will not be able to play Assassins Creed 2. I am confident that this new method of copy protection will be cracked in due course and those who choose to pirate this game will have the luxury of playing it wherever they want to.

All this demonstrates a core tenet that it is generally the consumer that actually purchases the content that suffers. Clearly, it is not the goal of the gaming or film industry to alienate its legitimate customers, however their actions tell a different story. Let’s look at a simple scenario. What if Ubisoft, the makers of Assassins Creed 2, has problem with their internet connection. Would that mean that all the legitimate customers who purchased the game be unable to play even the single player version? Or what if after three years Assassins Creed 2 has only a few hundred players and Ubisoft are forced to shut down the servers, would this leave all those still wanting to play the game out in the cold? Ubisoft has attempted to answer these questions, but the fact is the attempt at curbing piracy only hurts the legitimate customer.

The basic problem is intellectual property. The book The $800 Million Pill describes how expensive it really is to make a new drug. There is an interesting quote in the television show The West Wing where two of the principal characters are arguing about the pricing of drugs and why a pill that costs a few cents to manufacture is sold to the end-user for $4 or $5. One character says “The second pill cost 'em four cents; the first pill cost 'em four hundred million dollars.” The problem is that it is hard for the consumers, and especially pirates, to appreciate the true cost of manufacturing a quality game. When a game is available for free it is difficult to appreciate why anyone would pay for it.

A game is very similar to a film. It is a disposable product. You play it, or watch it, and you are done. This is why massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft, are so successful at curbing piracy. There is virtually no way to play the game without paying the monthly subscription fees. In contrast standard single-player games, such as Assassins Creed, only require a one-time purchase, which make them inherently easier to pirate. Rather than digital protection, a similar type of protection would is needed to ensure the reduction in piracy.

Digital protection appears to only be a temporary measure as it has failed to work effectively in curbing piracy. Even the creators of these games acknowledge the failings of such protection. Change is needed.

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