March 4, 2008

Piracy Rant

I'm not sure exactly what triggered this train of thought, maybe it was recent discussions of piracy among my Guildhall classmates, maybe it was an article I recently read about piracy and how it is virtually destroying PC gaming, maybe it's simply my emerging career path as a game developer. I'm not really sure what the direct cause is, but I constantly have had my stance on piracy questioned and challenged without really any outlet for my own opinions, but then I realized: I have this outlet. Anyway, this isn't exactly work related, but I didn't do much today besides run a bunch of errands and play a few games, so this is probably more interesting than running through a list of the days events anyhow.

So as I said earlier, I am staunchly against piracy in all forms, but for this discussion I intend to focus on software piracy as it is the closest to me both as a gamer and as a developer. I oppose piracy for a number of reasons both moral/ethical (pirating is stealing and stealing is wrong...duh) and more economical which I'll get into in a minute. I believe, however, that the former reason is the easiest to promote and defend.

There are relatively few people in our society who would say that stealing is not wrong, with perhaps the exception of stealing in order to survive (not really topical when we are talking about music, movies, or software). That point isn't really up for debate, so if stealing is wrong than the debate must be that piracy isn't stealing, which has been my experience in the many debates I've had. Let me start by saying, unequivocally, that piracy is a form of stealing, there is no real way around this with the exception of delusions and justifications. The basic definition of stealing is:
to take (the property of another or others) without permission or right (1)
In turn, the definition of piracy is:
the unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted or patented material (2)
Where I get confused is where people see the distinction between these two statements, so let's look at some of the standard arguments:
  1. It's not stealing because I'm not really taking anything. While this is somewhat true in that you haven't taken any physical item from anyone else, you have deprived them of the money they have earned by making a product that you clearly wish to have. That money goes towards paying salaries, overhead costs, and profits for shareholders that ensure the games you like keep getting made.
  2. Intellectual property is meant to be free, you can't own ideas. This line of thinking is complete and utter crap. It's a good thing that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or Bill Gates didn't think this way or we'd probably still be using quills and candlelight. As society continues to evolve, we move more toward being defined by intellectual property, than physical property, this the future. Stop being a bum and get a job.
  3. I know it's wrong, I just don't care. This is probably the most defensible position for a pirate. You accept that what you are doing is unethical, it just doesn't bother you enough to not do it. I'm not sure how someone can act in this fashion, but there's not really anything I can say against it since you've agreed with me as much as you can.
Now, assuming that most people can get to the point where they realize it's unethical they just don't care enough to stop, we come to the other reason I oppose piracy: Economics. Anyone who has been in an economics class or even seen one on TV understands the basic concept of supply and demand. Supply is how much of something there is and demand is how much people want it. As long as there is excess demand, there is profit to be made and people/companies will try to collect that profit by creating supply (in this case, software). Now how do these entities know what the demand is you ask? The answer is market signals.

It's not an exact science, but people are always trying to understand how to read the market, to understand what people are going to do and why. One particularly prevalent market signal are sales, as a classmate of mine would say, "the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior". That is, if a certain game sells well it is reasonable to assume that a similar game by a similar developer (or the same developer) will do equally as well. So by going out and buying that new game for $60 (or and indie game for say $25), you are telling the market that you like this game and would like to see more games like it in the future. I don't care if you pirate the game and then go telling people how great you think it is on every forum on the internet. Ultimately companies care about one thing and one thing only: profit, and if you're pirating the game you are helping ensure it fails, plain and simple. Much like the former point there are some standard arguments to this point as well. For example:
  1. I wouldn't have bought it anyway. Perhaps a valid argument if you pirate the game, play it for an hour and discard it, but playing through a 40+ hour game then saying you "wouldn't have bought it anyway?" Come on, be serious, if this argument was even remotely true some of the most hardcore gamers I know would pretty much only own WoW or Everquest.
  2. There isn't enough piracy to really affect a big company. Did you know that the PC piracy rate is estimated at around 80 to 90% in the US. That means that around 80 to 90% of PC game installations are pirated versions where the developer and the publisher receive no money whatsoever. I know that sounds outrageous, but just try searching for "piracy rate" on the internet and see. This may arguably have little effect on a large company with a diversified portfolio, but it could easily put a small company out of business. Accepting that these numbers are probably somewhat bloated (by pirates who just grab copies of everything for example), it still means there's a lot of money left lying on the table. It's not wonder PC gaming is sliding so heavily toward MMOs. You can't pirate your way into one of those and if you do, I imagine they'll figure it out pretty quick.
  3. I'm not hurting anyone. Wrong. If that makes it easier for you, you go ahead and tell yourself that, but there are real people whose lives pretty much depend on these sales. After having experienced what they go through to make these games possible, I couldn't imagine taking their hard work and just walking away with it, without even giving them the credit (and compensation) they're due.
In the end, I don't expect this little rant to really change anyone's opinions about piracy, and likely there are many individuals who've written far more detailed analyses of the factors and arguments at hand. Still, I needed to get my thoughts on the matter off my chest, and this seemed like a pretty valid forum in which to do that. Piracy is a bad thing, beyond being clearly immoral, it is slowly crippling PC gaming and ensuring that in the near future the only thing left will be MMORPGs and flash games. I don't know if that's what you want but I know I don't.

Major Tom over and out.


  1. Which of these are stealing:

    Taking a physical book from a book store without paying.

    First, you suck. I should be sleeping right now, but instead I'm righting this, because I can't stop thinking about:

    Second, your an idiot.

    A, theft is not as cut and dried morally as you seem to think. Is it stealing if take all the dust of your table? What if I breath the air in your apartment. How about if you were planning to sell me the air?

    B, Copyright volation (piracy) is not the same as theft. It is far more complicated and nuanced then theft in where morality falls. Let's look at some examples

    Say you buy a book from the store and read it.
    Now say you give that book to your brother.
    He reads it then sells it on ebay.

    Everything there is legal and you are probably fine with it.

    What if it was an console game? Probably the same. What it if was a computer game like Sins of a Solar Empire that doesn't require the disc to play? I bet you are still ok if you delete it before you give the cd to your brother.

    What if you just commit to not playing the game until you get the cd back. Or maybe you just commit to not play at the same time. What if you just downloaded the game then emailed a copy to your friend instead of loaning the CD. Is it any different if send the email to a friend on the internet who you have never meet? What about three friends?

    So the question becomes what is it exactly you are buying when you get a game. Are you buying a physical disc? then you should get to do whatever you want with including share it like the book. (You do know that book publishers have tried to make second hand bookstores and libraries illegial at various points in history, right?)

    Maybe you are buying a licence to play a game, but what are the rules? They clearly are spelled out on the package. If I can't give a copy of my game to some random person on the internet why can I loan my copy to my friend next door.

    You are not hurting someone to copy their ideas, words, or creative works. But, society does benefit signifigantly if people are encourage to make creative works. So the United States has developed some laws to help encourage people to make create things. People are granted rights to limited control of their works to encourage them not because it's a moral imparitive.

    It's illegal to make 100 copies of Casino Royale and sell it on a street corner, but it's perfectly legal to make 100 copies of The Great Train Robbery (1903). There is not a moral line that diveds those two acts, but a legal one. If the first is immoral, how is the second not? Aren't both of them stealing?

    It is all a balancing act to figure out where the best line for society is.

    c, just because your business requires people to act a certain way to be profitable does not mean that they should act that way. Maybe the business model of stand alone single player PC game development is non-viable. It is completely unreasonable to think that everyone should support it with their dollars if it's not what they want or the model doesn't work.

    In the 1900's it was probably quite reasonable to have a business taking peoples pictures in front of landmarks. I should not and will not fell bad about taking my own pictures in front of landmarks with my cell phone because it puts you out of business.

    D, if they could every business would charge each person the maximum they would pay for each service. If I could charge you Alice $700 for a game and Bob $6 for a game (with no unit costs) and they would both pay that and no more then great. That would be perfect market knowledge. It does not concern me if priacy makes the market go from hard to marginally harder to understand.

    E, All the piracy numbers on the internet are generated by the people who care about piracy, people being pirated from. I suspect they are biased.

    F, From personal experience I can assure you that many pirate games would never have been purchased and many are never actually played.

    >Piracy is a bad thing, beyond being clearly immoral, it is slowly crippling PC gaming and ensuring that in the near future the only thing left will be MMORPGs and flash games. I don't know if that's what you want but I know I don't.

    Yeah, I can't buy the cloths, toys, and robots I want either, because there isn't a market for them. It doesn't mean that people are being immoral.

    It's a complicated issue and there are interesting discusions about where we should draw the lines to best benefit society, but coping something someone else did is not immoral.

  2. Well, it's good to see this got a rise out of someone, though I don't think starting an argument with name calling is exactly a good way to make your point.

    A, First, I accept that there are many gray areas on what constitutes "stealing" though they tend to surround what constitutes "ownership." For instance, I'm pretty sure I don't own the air in my apartment and therefore cannot charge you for it. I tried to focus on software piracy exclusively because trying argue over all forms of piracy becomes a morass of too many different debates.

    B, Piracy isn't just a copyright violation, it's taking something that you don't have ownership over, reproducing it and distributing it as you see fit, which you have absolutely no right to do. Property whether intellectual or physical belongs to an owner and it is their right to decide what is done with it, not yours.

    Also, where I think our arguments diverge a little is you use legality to justify morality, saying that that which is legal is therefore moral and ethical, which isn't true. There are many things that and perfectly moral and illegal, and vice versa. The role of the government is not to legislate morality, but to protect people's rights. Often those coincide, but they are not the same.

    That being said, when you buy a game you own a single license to that game, the right to play a single copy. If it is a represented by a physical medium say a CD that's simple to see, but the truth extends into the digital realm as well, you own a single copy of the game which you can give to whomever you wish under whatever circumstances you wish. Remember, we are talking about what is ethical, not legal. I'm sure there are safeguards in place to keep people from transferring digital files, though this is likely to stop real piracy, people making duplicates of the game.

    And that is when you transcend over to piracy, not when you've given it to someone else, but when you've made a copy. You bought a single copy of the game, but now you have created 2, or 20, or 200, which is completely unethical. I'm also confused how you cannot think this behavior is harmful.

    In a non-pirate world, the creator would receive all due credit and compensation for their inventions or intellectual property and that spurns the inventor and others like him to continue creating these things that people want. On the other hand in pure pirate society, this person receives nothing, actually loses money and time for his effort, and him and others like him stop creating things.

    While there are a lot of gray areas in piracy debates, this isn't one. By creating unauthorized copies of published works you are depriving the creator and any associated publishers and distributors of revenue they are due. If that behavior continues, the market crumbles (or more likely adapts) or at the very least a subset of created works fails because people don't pay for them despite actually enjoying them.

    C, This argument is completely specious reasoning. If it was as easy to steal a car as it is to steal an MP3 people would probably do it, that doesn't mean auto sales are some sort of flawed industry. I agree that the PC market can and will adapt to deal with piracy, but not because piracy revealed some greater problem within the market, piracy is the problem. The market is changing because piracy is a problem.

    D, It's not that it makes it harder to understand, it skews the results. For instance, MMOs while I'm sure they are very popular, look far more popular than other games by comparison. Simple reason: you can't pirate them (at least not that I know of). Therefore, 100% of the people who want to play that game have to buy it. Other pirated games have to contend with the fact that out of all the people that play their game only ~20% actually bought it. That's seriously skewed data and probably the reason why so many MMOs are currently in development.

    E, I'll agree that the numbers are probably biased, but not as strongly as you'd like to think. Still, there's no way to argue this as I don't imagine either of us has conducted our own study.

    F, I also concede at least part of this point. I have known many pirates that just go grab stuff and either never play it or play it very briefly and throw it a way. However, the number that pirate and fully play the game (indicating at least some level of satisfaction) is not insignificant. These are the ones for whom I think the "I never would have bought it anyway" argument is complete crap.

    I recognize that the true percentage of legitimate piracy (i.e., people who steal games and actually really play them) is not known, but it's not small either. I'm not sure what study could get at that actual number, not sure if it's actually possible, so the best that can is make some assumptions based on the numbers that we do have.

    G, I'm not entirely sure I completely understand this point, but I think you are saying the PC market just isn't what is used to be, it has very little to do with piracy. I think you are right in saying piracy is not the only factor, maybe not even the strongest factor.

    The next generation consoles which are capable of producing almost the same level of visuals at a fraction of the cost of a high-end PC, is probably the true dominating factor here. I like to play games on everything available, and even I can recognize this one. I mean you can buy a 360 for less than a new video card.

    Still, you can't say piracy hasn't had an effect since, it very clearly makes the market seem smaller than it is. There's really no way to debate that. I mean, Call of Duty 4 on the 360 outsold the PC version 10-to-1. Do you think that means 10 times as many people play it on a console? Or just that 10 times as many bought it on the console?

    Consoles are harder to pirate for, certainly not impossible, but just harder so less people do it (not to mention modding your 360 sounds pretty dicey and you might as well just light that warranty on fire). I don't expect any of this to really change people's views, and the most likely course is that the PC market will move more towards digital distribution (think iTunes for games) where they can have greater control over how their licenses are being used.

    Still taking something that is not yours and acting as though it is (by reproducing and distributing it for example) is unethical and immoral. If you can't see that there's not much I can do to make you, we may just have a difference of opinion.

    Anyway, thanks for the response, sorry if I kept you from sleeping. I hope the opportunity for a heated debate was at least enjoyable. :)

  3. Just read this and had to comment.

    Piracy doesn't bother me that much. I don't play PC games at all and pirating console games doesn't seem anywhere near worth the effort. I am, however, listening to MP3s that I didn't pay anything for.

    I don't oppose it on moral grounds, but I have always assumed you and I play by different codes of ethics.

    My case is purely economical. If there are some PC games that aren't being made because piracy makes them unprofitable, then I would argue that there truly wasn't the demand for the game in the first place. If there was demand, some buyers would make it profitable enough to get it created.

    This week I paid $100 to buy the DVDs for an anime show I like. I could have watched all the episodes on youtube for free, but I didn't. I liked owning the physical copies and some part of me wanted to give that company money for making something I liked.

    In the same way, I will throw fists full of money at Square or Atlus if they make a game I like.

    Your argument assumes I should pay an artist for using the copies of their finished product. My argument assumes I should pay an artist for creating something I like and to give them incentive to make more of it.

    In my perfect world, I could pay Atlus instead of Ubisoft any time I buy another Ubisoft game I hate.

    At least it would better show my true demand :)