It’s Talk About Pirates Day

1

April 7, 2009 by D Stack

pyle_pirates_treasfightThere’s been a ton of talk about piracy in the various message boards and twitter folks I chat with. Not about piracy on the high seas (though perhaps there’s a post about that sometime) but rather piracy of electronic media.

Ever hear of the game Dungeons and Dragons? You probably have, whether from memories of that satanic game of the 80s to the icon of geek culture that it is today. It’s a roleplaying game, like computer RPGs such as World of Warcraft, though played at the tabletop with your buddies instead of online. Geek that I am, I’ve been playing it since the early 80s and the game is older than that. (As an aside, it is to my eternal regret that the whole “geek girl” culture really didn’t exist back then. It probably would have helped with my near non-existent dating life in middle and high school. But I’m cool now. I have two kids…  Who like playing with my D&D and Star Wars game figures… Hmm…)

Anyways, while I’ve been playing it since the early 80s it has existed, in one form or another, since around 1974. And while there’s various dice and miniature figures used with the game its most important physical components are its rulebooks. And they have gone through numerous revisions. The D&D of 1974 is a very different game than that of today. The rules, style, art, tone, etc. are all very different. And the older versions of the rules go out of print as newer ones come out. However, there are people whose personal preference is from a certain edition of  a game, much like fans of comic book characters are often fans of a specific period, corresponding to a certain writer or artist.

Around the year 2000 or so various online RPG stores began appearing. However, unlike traditional mail-order stores, these stores sold electronic copies of various gaming products. These weren’t illegal filesharing sites, but stores that offered a forum for various RPG companies to sell their products electronically, typically as pdf files. Think of these sites as being like amazon.com, offering a place for publishers to sell RPG books electronically.  Originally these books tended to protected by DRM, but the DRM-protected files proved very unpopular (I myself ran into a minor nightmare when I upgraded from one computer to another and tried moving my files). Now most products are protected by a customized watermark. Various publishers offer products in different ways.  Some publishers only produce electronic books, some offer electronic versions of print books, some offer older out of print versions.

A quick explanation is in order. What is DRM? It is an abbreviation for Digital Rights Management. It exists to prevent customers from making illegal copies of an electronic product. It tends to contact a central server to make sure a new copy is valid. Typically a user is limited to using the product on some number of computers, typically one to five. However, it tends to be very unpopular with consumers as it tends to make legitimate user’s lives difficult. For example, moving a product from one PC to a newer one often causes problems with DRM. And if the company stops supporting the DRM service the customer can either be unable to use their product or unable to ever again move it to a new computer. This happened to customers of Microsoft’s MSN Music, a service Microsoft discontinued in favor of Zune. Microsoft has ceased supporting the DRM for MSN Music, meaning customers cannot ever move music they legitimately purchased from one PC to another. Similarly if Vista thinks it has been installed on a new computer you have a small window to calll Microsoft support before Vista is disabled. As a Macintosh user, this causes me massive amounts of pain, as I often use Mac Bootcamp and VMware virtual machines to legally run Vista on my Mac. But sometimes a minor configuration change makes Vista think the software has possibly been installed on new computer illegally. Which means I have to call Microsoft tech  support when all I did was tune my computer to better play a Civilization IV expansion.

Wizards of the Coast, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, offered both out of print books and their newest releases via various electronic RPG stores such as Paizo, RPGNow, etc. Until yesterday. Apparently Wizards of the Coast discovered copies of one of their newest releases, Players Handbook 2, at various torrent sites. As a result Wizards of the Coast filed suits against eight individuals for copyright infringement and ordered their electronic distributors to immediately cease selling all of the Wizards of the Coast library. Wizards of the Coast has indicated they will investigate other means to provide their product while providing copy protection. Fans sense the spectre of DRM looming.

I wholehearted approve of Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft, or anyone else going after those who violate their copyrights. I’m a software engineer at EMC, a major player in the storage portion of the computer industry. (It is important to note here that my opinions here are solely my own and in no way indicative of the opinions of EMC. And these opinions were written on my own time! 🙂 ) While the software I work on is typically dependent on the customer also having purchased specific EMC hardware, other branches of EMC produce pure software products, designed to run on a Windows, Linux, or Mac computer. So my ability to pay my mortgage, feed my family, buy toys for my kids (and myself!) is dependent on EMC getting paid. So if someone steals my or any company’s products, whether physically or electronically, I sincerely hope the thief gets caught and prosecuted. They’re messing with my livelihood.

I also do not buy the argument that people who don’t pay for a product are somehow indirectly “helping” the corporation. “If I like it I’ll go ahead and pay for it later.” “It’s a way of advertising.” I’ve heard people – many people – say this with what I believe to be true sincerity and I must simply respectfully disagree. None of these arguments work for physical products. A stolen book is a stolen book.

So while I fully support a company protecting its right not to be robbed, I also believe the solution to this is most definitely not to do so in a manner that treats the paying customer like a criminal. Most DRM implementations tend to do that. A pirate will likely have the now-how for how to crack copy protection or know how to get it. As an experiment (and all it was was an experiment, I actually do practice what I preach) I did a little googling to see how easy it would be to strip the copy protection off a DVD to transfer it to an iPod. Took me under two minutes to see how to do it. So I think a technical arms race is not one that companies will win.

What I do believe is in the best interest of the various content-providing companies is security that makes people less likely to try. Much like stores will employ security, make use of hidden cameras, etc. I believe that the only realistic course of action is to minimize copy protection but make each copy as individual as you can and pay for use of online security to track down as well as you can those who steal from you. It won’t catch anyone. Just like measures won’t catch everyone who robs from a Borders Books & Music physical store. But if you make it likely enough that you will catch a decent  percentage of thieves, you deter casual pirates. And also I think the focus needs to be against those who make the media available illegally as opposed to those who partake in the pirated media. I’m not saying ignore the casual abusers, but I really do believe the better job you can do against large-scale operations, the bigger impact you will have.

Now one limitation is the law. Not US law, but international law. It is easy to have a website which exists outside the United States. Therefore this is not simply a private matter that corporations on their own can handle, but also one that depends on national and international cooperation. Just like physical security does.

I will close with something I alluded to earlier. The paying customer is not the enemy. Most measures currently employed for securing electronic assets treat the paying customer as a likely thief.

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