Last month, the New Zealand Government passed into law its controversial ‘three strikes’ anti-piracy law. This piece of legislation allows copyright holders to present evidence of illegal downloading to Internet Service Providers. Offending account holders can then be taken to the Copyright Tribunal to face charges, or even have their internet access barred if repeat offences are made. For the most part, internet piracy brings to mind the file-sharing of music or movies (would YOU steal a car?). However, a colossal online community based around sharing videogames also exists, which will equally be as affected by laws such as those passed last month, and by further policing of the internet that could potentially follow in the years to come.
For the past decade, the most popular method of online file sharing is via a process called torrenting. To describe the process in simple terms, a file is broken down to the individual bytes that comprise it, and anybody who is in possession of its torrent (think the ‘key’ to the file) can download and share these bytes with a network of other users. By this method, the sharing of data online is no longer bound to moving from one source to another. Rather, everybody is contributing in a sort of communal fashion—the more active users involved, the easier it is to share the file. This way, popular torrents grow exponentially, to the point where obtaining a file of massive size is only hours away. As I mentioned, videogames are entirely subject to both torrenting and the networked communities that perpetuate it. Exactly just how prolific said communities are should not be understated. On its release date, a torrent for any keenly anticipated PC game will be available online without fail, its digital rights management (or DRM) bypassed, ready to be downloaded in less time than it would take to head into town to buy a legit copy—and totally for free, to boot.
Unsurprisingly, copyright holders of torrented videogame software have taken and continue to take various measures to combat piracy. In September 2008, Electronic Arts infamously shipped Spore with DRM that only allowed you to install the game three times, ever. On top of that, each copy of the game could only be tied to a single playing account. In response, EA faced a severe backlash amongst the gaming community. Many of its consumers felt like they had been dealt a punishment for the sins of file-sharing pirates, and campaigned online. Ten days after its release, 2016 of its 2216 reviews on Amazon.com gave the game one out of five stars, most of which listed the DRM as the primary reason for the low rating. Somewhat ironically, a version of the game completely DRM-free made its way online to torrenting communities, and actually became the most pirated game of 2008.
Fortunately, not everybody in the gaming industry has such a draconian economic view. Markus Persson, or more popularly known as Notch, the creator of the gaming-culture sensation Minecraft recently stated on his blog that he did not think a pirated copy of his game represented a lost sale. Instead of wasting time and money trying to stop piracy, Notch believes in offering an incentive to be a verified paying customer. For example, a set of exclusive features which vastly improve the game experience will in theory make any pirate consider purchasing the real game. It’s hard to argue with his philosophy when you look at the facts. Without any publisher support, any advertising other than word of mouth, or even an official launch (the game is in still in beta) Minecraft is currently one of the most torrented games ever, but has also earned $33 million US in revenue from paying customers.
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It’s certainly interesting to see the consequences amongst the gaming community in response to anti-piracy measures. The slap to the hand approach seems effective only in pissing people off and working against the current model we have developed to distribute culture. I don’t know what the future of the internet holds, but hopefully we can work to embrace and adapt, while still making the all-important wad of cashmonies.