Piracy – Is It Really a Big Problem?
Piracy has been so blown out of proportion that it almost sounds like some kind of terrible curse word. Like something that someone of an older generation would say, and all the younger, more progressive, people in the room would shake their heads and make excuses for the foul language with qualifiers like, “That’s just how they talked back then,” followed by a dismissive wave.
Any company that makes any kind of product that can be consumed digitally can look at their losses and chalk it up to piracy.
“Oh, our last movie that was terrible and over budget lost money? Well, obviously it’s because people pirated it.”
“The fourteenth sequel to our aging video game franchise isn’t doing well? Must be those darn pirates again.”
There are metrics for gauging the amount of piracy going on, but I would say that they are very rough estimates at best and wild accusations at worst.
Bill Gates once famously wrote an infamous letter to the computer hobbyist community back in 1976 (many years before Windows would launch) lambasting users of BASIC for pirating their copies. Trading floppy disks was a well known pastime among computer nerds, and it was a practice that extended to most kinds of media even as far back as the seventies.
My point here is that piracy has been around since the invention of the home computer, and doesn’t seem to have destroyed the industry yet. There are arguments to be made on both sides as to whether or not piracy has done any substantial harm over the years, but the fact remains that computer software and video games have only grown since the seventies.
Digital Media is Designed to Be Reproduced
The unfortunate nature of data is that it can be copied indefinitely with very little chance of corruption. This means exact duplicates of software can be mass produced with very little hardware, a feat that traditional manufacturing could only reproduce through labor heavy assembly lines or incredibly specific machines.
Thus, digital media is designed with the advantage of being reproduced as many times as needed, and with no additional resources other than storage space. Now that our digital media doesn’t have to be carted around on physical media to copy it to our computers we’re experiencing a new digital age that publishers are struggling to profit in.
I’m going to be honest here: I’ve pirated plenty of movies and games in my time. Being a college student with a part time job, that fact probably wouldn’t surprise anybody. What might shock the companies claiming that they’re going under due to piracy is that I’ve purchased most of the movies and games that I really like after pirating them. Having a cracked copy of a game on your hard drive is very different from owning a legitimate copy.
Disadvantages of Pirating
For one thing, cracked copies are at the mercy of your backup tendencies. If you lose that copy, you’re stuck spending another evening trying to rip off a copy. Any digital service worth its salt will allow you to redownload any title, which lets you rest easy that if you reinstall your operating system or get a new computer, you’re covered.
Pirated copies are also notorious for having viruses, or simply not working as intended. People who are especially computer savvy don’t need to worry too much about viruses, but they’re still an irritant no matter what your skill level. Because of these reasons, I’ll almost always go out and purchase any game I find worth my time and money. In this way, myself and countless people like me use piracy as a glorified demo service.
Who Are the Pirates?
So what does all this boil down to? If I can speak frankly: piracy is a non-issue. The kind of people that pirate everything they have probably wouldn’t be spending their hard earned cash buying the product if piracy wasn’t an option. A company doesn’t lose a sale when someone pirates something if they wouldn’t have ever purchased it in the first place.
We all know who I’m talking about, that one friend that never has anything unless he can pirate it. People like this are thieves, and I don’t mean that as a derogatory term. They steal all the media they can with no intentions of ever buying it. Of course, they’re still counted with the rest of us when some analyst is accruing piracy data.
In the end, piracy is a type of quality control. If I play an illegal copy of your game and its terrible then I won’t buy it. The problem here isn’t that I pirated the game, it’s that your company saw fit to put out a game that is terrible. There’s no lemon law on video games, if it sucks then you’re either stuck with it or you can get about half what you paid for it at your local used game shop.
Most major retailers have policies against accepting opened games, a policy being reinforced by the single-use codes that many publishers are inserting into new games. To make matters worse, returning digital games, even through superior services such as Steam, is completely impossible. Unless you buy used, which benefits the developer just a little as pirating, you’re stuck with your purchase.
How Should Companies Avoid Piracy
In my opinion the best way for publishers to get around the issue of piracy is to simply provide a more convenient service. The music industry has largely figured this out already. I can purchase DRM free MP3s from Amazon directly on my phone, and do whatever I see fit with them. Because of this, I haven’t pirated music in years.
Companies like GOG have begun offering similar DRM free copies of their games, and from what I can see they’re doing fantastic. In most cases services like GOG and to a lesser extent the DRM enforced Steam are simply more convenient than pirating, which makes them more appealing to me than even getting a game for free.
The worst misconception about piracy is that people who pirate, don’t care about content creators. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The real problems people tend to have are with publishers, generally due to the general disdain and coldness that publishers show towards their customers. I like to imagine a future where publishers no longer exist, where the magic of the internet allows content creators to interface directly with their customers and are able to enjoy increased profit because they no longer rely on outdated publishing models. I doubt this pipe dream would ever come to fruition anytime soon since most people seem to still prefer physical copies of things, but it’s a nice future I like to imagine for my children.