The Problem With Anti-Piracy Laws

When looking at laws, you have to ask who, if anyone, is hurt, and what degree of hurt, if any, has been inflicted? What purpose is the law trying to serve? Does the law exist because of rare or non-existent “worst case scenarios” that the law is intended to prevent? In most cases, laws are broken when actual crimes have been committed. Some laws, however, presume that laws WILL be broken, try to supply reasons for why they will be broken, and then chase down supposed scofflaws with those assumptions in mind.

During the 1970s, you could not buy many record albums without an annoying “do not tape and share this music, or you will kill the record industry and then there’ll be no more music, ever!” advert. Of course, home-taping became more and more popular, and, surprise!, sharing music actually benefited the record companies, because it exposed new people to new bands’ work, and then they went out and bought the bands’ albums themselves.

The same argument is being tried today, and the record companies are making several foolish choices and refusing to learn from past history. Home-burning and home-recording will never stop, because people want to manage their own music the way they see fit. Attacking twelve-year-olds with massive shared libraries, pricing five cents’ worth of materials at $20 US, scamming artists out of profits due to them, and generally being blind to the realities that new technology has wrought is what will kill the record industry, not fans sharing songs.

Vulture-like media companies like Clear Channel trying to buy every independent radio station and enforce a single universal playlist aimed to please the Lowest Common Denominator in every major city in the United States is part of the problem, too.

Video game manufacturers are often just as bad: blind to customer dissatisfaction, including invasive anti-piracy programs that don’t work as intended and actually cause damage to user’s machines, turning out crappy product to turn a quick buck and being arrogant enough to assume that customers are too addicted to their product to ever stop buying it…that will kill the game industry. Or, rather, it will kill the industry where PC-based gaming is concerned. Sadly, the biggest companies will continue to thrive, because they have enough money to weather several titles bombing commercially after being released, while smaller companies won’t be able to weather any dissatisfaction with a product, and will be bought up or die out.

Anti-piracy laws do not protect the little guy, the consumer. They protect large companies, and do so to the degree that those large companies feel less behooved to actually offer quality product. Case in point: You open the package, you’re stuck with contents. Too bad for you. They won’t offer demos, because they gamble that more people will buy a crap product without a demo and be stuck with it than those who would buy a good product that they have gone to the time and expense of making a demo for. Their marketing is designed to separate the customers from their money, not to gauge satisfaction or loyalty among their customer base.

Good products will succeed despite piracy. As it stands, bad products sell more than they should, and the customer is left with no recourse. Piracy exposes bad products and word of mouth kills sales. Piracy thwarts substandard product-flacking, it doesn’t actually significantly hurt a good company with a good product.

Information wants to be free. Trying to command the ocean to stop wetting you with waves and to stay where you tell it to stay is as futile as fighting piracy. The wise course of action companies could take would be to explore why people pirate, and to offer products that can’t be pirated: good customer service, releasing well-tested games that do not ship in a borked state and which need umpteen patches, bonus items, attractive packaging and support materials and manuals, good perks (not useless crap) in exchange for legal serial numbers, tech support, not invading customer privacy for marketing and advertising purposes, and listening to customer complaints and ideas open-mindedly and actually putting feedback gained into practice. Most of those things can’t be pirated, and yet they are almost as valuable as the data. Instead of focusing on the small percentage of their customers who have not legally paid for their pixels and bytes and trying to be punitive, as there will always be a segment of this group who will never change their ways and pay for things, they should focus on the vast majority of customers who do pay for legal copies, and reward them.

What EA (for example) and other companies do is arrogantly assume that everyone who buys the game is a pirate. They foist invasive software upon their customers that, again, DOES NOT WORK AS INTENDED, to prevent sharing. They put out substandard product that does not entice customers to buy it legally, because it is overpriced and contains no benefit for paying customers besides a pretty package (full of adverts for more crap products!) and is likely to break something or need a patch or not play nicely with other software the customer owns.

Companies with good reputations and consistently good and functional products who reward customers who purchase their products legally, rather than chasing down the few that don’t, have the right idea.  Companies with increasingly poor reputations who turn out consistently buggy software and whine about pirates pretty much get what they deserve. No tears from me.

I typically do not pirate anything. I made an exception after I bought a very expensive (almost a thousand dollars) software package from Adobe. Twice. For two different OSes. Geek Squad zorched my serials for my legally-purchased software and refused to fix the problem. Adobe claimed not to have my customer data. At that point, I was not going to pay them a third time. As I already paid them twice, I consider the pirated version I have now completely legal twice over. The company got my money. Twice. I legally registered both copies. I installed the required updates on schedule. Yet, somehow, they had no record of my existence. Without that record, I was just scr00d. Without a pirated copy, I’d be in deep shit professionally and academically, and it would not have been my fault. Furthermore, Adobe treated me so shittily when I was trying to resolve the problem I almost–but not quite–decided to stand in the middle of the largest classroom building and wave around the burned DVD and offer free Adobe goodies to all comers. Motherf…scratchers. You shouldn’t piss customers off.

I understand why people who have been burned by EA and SecuROM are sharing pirated versions. I understand it all too well. At some point, you get tired of playing against an 800-pound gorilla who also has a stacked deck and Doberman lawyers. You, as the consumer, will only take sand being kicked in your face for so long.

You cannot legislate morality. If it could be done, we’d all be saints just because some law told us to be. You have to look at what the law is intended to accomplish, and decide if it is a dumb law. If it is a dumb law, work to get it changed, and work to get laws in place that protect the rights of those the dumb law has invaded and disregarded.

In all cases, people will do as their consciences dictate. If it pinches your conscience to download, for whatever reason, don’t do it. But don’t presume to offload your moral guidelines onto other people and expect that to go over well. “Because it’s moral” is not sufficient reason to follow a law that is fundamentally flawed, protecting the wrong parties, and short-sighted.

Businesses require customers to survive.

Customers want products that function as advertised.

Products which cannot be demonstrated by customers prior to purchase, or returned if they do not function as advertised, do not give customers what they want.

Customers who have been burned by a product sold by a particular business are likely to shop elsewhere.

The end result is that the business ends up lacking customers.

If customers find a way to try products before buying them, they can make the decision whether to purchase the business’ products.

Some customers will be honorable and buy a legal copy. Some will not.

The end result, however, is that the business is not out anything, not even good will, if the customer tries but does not buy a product. It’s data, pixels.

On the other hand, if the customer does like the product, they are more likely to buy it and/or more products from the business in the future.

As has been stated before, companies who release demo versions are smart. They allow a customer to try before she or he buys.

Smart companies do NOT force customers to risk wasting their money, installing unadvertised “bonus” programs on their expensive machines, or finding out that although their PC specs match or exceed those required by the company, the game still does not function as advertised.

There will always be those who, due to financial difficulty or greed, will torrent everything and pay for nothing. However, there are also a lot of people who torrent because they do not have the option to try a demo version and have been bitten in the arse one time too many by a particular company or type of company (PC game manufacturers, perhaps) to risk throwing more money at them for what is likely to be a borked product.

In some cases, the consumer can argue Fair Use. DJs who download MP3 tracks for their radio shows are using those downloads for legal, promotional purposes. There’s a reason why most of the music-sharing folks who have been sued were those who also uploaded frequently and kept open libraries online full of gankable stuff. Unless they are uploading tracks to a music blog, which is also a type of Fair Use / promotion, there’s not really a good reason to upload tracks.

It’s a hotly contested grey area, obviously.

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