Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Copy Protection and the Brave New World

In the 1970's, when I went to high school, we stole music.

All of us.

We borrowed records from each other and made copies on 8-track tapes, or cassette tapes. Most of us made mix tapes, and they always had a name like "Johnny's Legendary Rock Mix" or something like that.

It was a personal kind of thing, really. You borrowed albums from your friends, and they borrowed yours.

Back in 1979, when I was a senior, if you had told me what the future was going to be like, I would have laughed at you.

Is it an overstatement to say that the Internet, and peer-to-peer networks in particular, have had as much of an effect on the distribution of information as Gutenberg and the movable type printing press? Books were copied by hand. We made copies of albums by hand. The printing press made it possible to make thousands (or millions) of copies of one book. The Internet made it possible to make thousands (or millions) of digital copies of one album.

Maybe peer-to-peer networks don't have the impact of Gutenberg, but at the least, they've been seismic.

Because of this, in the last decade, what we're actually paying for when we buy digital media (music, games, films) has become a more complicated question than it seems.

It's not a question for people who are completely honest. They're buying the content.

For everyone else, though, it's not such an easy answer.

Think about it. If I wanted to take the time to research peer-to-peer networks (I don't), and I wanted to get something free instead of paying for it (I don't), I think it's true to say that I could download everything.

Everything. Every film I ever wanted to see, every game I ever wanted to play, and every song I ever wanted to listen to. For free.

Some people do this. And some of them start the stupid-ass "content should be free" argument that indicates a severe lack of mental dexterity on their part. Their argument doesn't matter, though, because in this digital world, they can take whatever they want.

Welcome to the new hobos of the twenty-first century. The content hobos.

It's impossible to determine the real rate of piracy, but in communities that are already highly collaborative in nature (university campuses, for example), I think it's fair to assume that there are no social disincentives to downloading whatever you want.

So if the content, in theory, is free, what ARE we paying for?

Well, I think we're paying for convenience of access. And I think that's what the music industry and the gaming industry have completely failed to understand.

Look at it this way. If it's easier and more convenient to pay for downloadable content than it is to download it for free, then the only people who will put up with the extra hassle are the people who have much more free time than money. And the more the ease-of-use ratio tips toward legitimately purchased content, there will be fewer and fewer people who will steal it instead.

The question for the entertainment industry, then, is how can that be done?

Instead of trying to answer that question, though, the entertainment industry committed a classic error of thought. Because trying to stop the theft of content is just and moral in a macro sense, they believed it entitled them to be unjust and immoral in a micro sense.

Here's the problem, though: morality isn't just defined in the macro sense. And unbearable, heinous atrocities have been committed at regular intervals throughout history by people who believed that their "moral purpose" allowed them to become monsters for the greater good.

It's easy to believe in something moral and be immoral every step of the way to be sure it triumphs. It's almost impossible, though, to be consistently moral at the micro level and not be moral at the macro level.

That was the fundamental mistake of the music industry, the RIAA in particular. They've so butchered the process of stopping the pirating of music that they're now wrong, even when they're right. They believe that anything is justified at the micro level, not matter how grotesque, because they're correct at the macro level.

Maybe there was a point in history where this worked. Certainly, there was a time in history when this worked. With the way that information distribution is decentralized today, though, this is guaranteed to fail, and the RIAA, unquestionably, has failed. Almost every slimy thing they've done to consumers has eventually been exposed.

Let's go back to the convenience of access concept. Is digital rights management (DRM, otherwise known as "copy protection") discouraging anyone who wants to steal? Sure, because some people want to steal less than others--even a low barrier to entry would stop them. But if that same copy-protection scheme is intrusive to people who have no intention of stealing, the convenience ratio isn't really changing, or it could even be changing in the wrong direction, and that could incent more people to steal.

This is true for gaming as well. Starforce is the classic example, because it was like an octopus--it was almost impossible to completely uninstall (and required registry edits to do so), and over time it could affect the speed of your optical drive (CGW had an investigative article on this a few years ago, if I remember correctly). If anything, Starforce was incenting people to steal, not stopping them. At the very least, it was preventing some people from buying games they wanted to play.

SecuRom and BioShock? Another disaster. Here's what I wrote last fall in response:
I should receive notification when a copy protection program installs itself. I should be told its name. I should also receive notification every time it connects to the Internet, and if it sends data, I should be told what it's sending. If I uninstall the game, and I have no other game using this method of copy protection, then the copy protection program should be fully and completely removed from my system. Completely.

Part of convenience of access, to me, includes full disclosure. Look, if you want to be sure I have a legitimate copy of a game, fine. Just don't install shit on my system without telling me. Don't do anything on my system without telling me.

Here's what I'm sure is a very naive question: instead of focusing on copy protection, why don't these companies spend more time focusing on copy distribution? It's already guaranteed that the game is going to get cracked. Make the protection on the game less intrusive to the paying customer, but spend far more time focusing on how to prevent high-volume distribution.

It's difficult to have this kind of discussion in the current environment, though, because we're all pissed off. Media companies are pissed off about people stealing content, and we're pissed off about rootkits and Starforce and shit on our system that does all kinds of things without telling us. Everybody's angry.

When a company's customers are angry, though, it's likely that the company is making a mistake. They need customers to be loyal, not angry.

Because of the increasingly intrusive nature of copy protection on PC games, I usually buy the console version of a game instead. With the gap in visual quality between consoles and PC's almost disappearing in this last generation, it's just no contest. The copy-protection on consoles is far more effective against thieves, but it's also far less intrusive to me as a consumer. I know--the PC is an open development platform with no universal copy-protection standard. As a consumer, though, I don't care about why. I just know the consoles are convenient and easy.

Here's a simple way to conclude. If the rate of piracy is really as high as music and gaming companies claim, then their conceptual approach is failing. They have fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between copy protection and piracy, because if you believe their numbers, the vast majority of their product is being stolen.

In other words, they need to start over and think about what they're really trying to stop.

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