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Game Industry Cracks Down
on Piracy

An Informative Editorial
July 2000

 

 

Just this week the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association, the trade organization for video game makers and the like) announced a lawsuit naming six individuals who have been copying and distributing, for a profit, all kinds of games. What’s even more astonishing is that one of these folks is from Idaho, the great home state of GF! We just don’t get much publicity for Idaho, and I felt like the connection beckoned me to write this article.

James Cabot of Brook Park, Ohio, C. Graves of Raleigh, North Carolina, Tim Knoblich of Daytona Beach, Florida, Travis Lallman of Burley, Idaho, Derek Rufo of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Carol Scott of Columbia, South Carolina are the defendants in the IDSA case, and since it’s not a criminal case, I guess we can pretty much assume these folks were really distributing pirated software. But momma always said not to do that, so let’s just say these guys are looking at coughing up $150K per title distributed (and that’s US$, bucko). Doug Lowenstein, president of the IDSA, and his crew are not at all happy, and companies involved in the lawsuit include: Activision, Capcom, Eidos, Electronic Arts, Havas Interactive, Sierra On Line, Hasbro Interactive, LucasArts, Interplay, Midway, Nintendo, Sony, and 3DO.

Granted, there’s not a lot to do in Burly, Idaho (it’s not nearly as entertaining and exciting as good old Moscow), but setting up operations like these guys ran is a big hassle. It’s not like you can trade video games like MP3s; just download Napster or a Gnutella-clone and you’ve got instant access to thousands of files. Nope, video games are big. And that’s what we like about them – we constantly want our games to be bigger and better – and the developers and publishers work hard to make sure you can’t copy them. Nintendo even bagged their proposed CD-ROM format for the N64 in large part because of concerns about piracy. Cartridges are tougher to copy, but they aren’t impossible, no sir. You would be amazed at the kinds of devices you can pick up to make "backup" copies of your games at average gaming retailers (mostly online retailers).

Still, these folks took it beyond creating backup copies for themselves, or even copying a friend’s Perfect Dark so you can blast away when he/she’s not over. These guys sold their pirated versions of the games. Not only is this a bad deal for the developers, but it’s a bad deal for gamers. Here’s a word problem, like in math class: You want to copy a Dreamcast game, let’s say THPS for DC because it’s so cool. DC games are burned onto the Sega GD-ROM, which holds up to a gigabyte of data. Standard CD-ROMs hold, you can join in any time here, 650 MB. That leaves about 350 MB of data that has nowhere to go, so what do you do? Well, pirates cut out the FMVs, remove sounds, and generally take out all of the polish that the designers and publishers have put into the game. So the equation of Piracy + Sale= More Suck for Consumers can kind of sum up our delimma here.

And you might be wondering, "But Shawn, what makes this different from what’s been going on with Napster?" Well, believe it or not, I’m one of the 40 million or so active Web users who doesn’t run Napster. Still, my reasons have more to do with the fact that I’m not running a server for 15 year old boys with Daddy’s DSL account. (Oooh, how’s that for scathing generalizations?) I don’t think Napster is necessarily wrong, for a bunch of reasons, some of which have been elucidated lately by Chuck D (www.rapstation.com) and Courtney Love (www.salon.com). The difference comes with the sale of these games. If you download an MP3, for free, via Napster or MP3.com, or whatever other service, you still might purchase that album. You can use the "Free Sample" argument because you haven’t invested in getting that free taste of music. However, if you buy, purchase, exchange dollars for discs, to get a crappy version of a game, odds are you aren’t going to buy it again, in a store, unless maybe it’s THPS.

It’s sad, too, that some companies who have tried to be tolerant of devices that could be used for piracy, but also have legitimate uses, have been burned by the whole thing. Mainly I’m thinking of Sega here. They did not oppose the release of a DC "Mod" chip because they figured nobody could duplicate their GD-ROM technology. The Mod chip allows DC gamers to play titles from any location in the world; so you can get a Mod chip, import all the Japanese titles you’ll never see over here, and actually play them on your American machine. That’s a completely legitimate, and fairly admirable if you ask me, use of the Mod chip. There are also Mods for the PlayStation, but Sony has never publicly approved of the devices, although well over two-thirds of the games ever made, worldwide, for PlayStation have never made it to the US, and will never see American shores. Still, Sega got burned. Folks did start pirating not only the games, but Sega’s ultra secret "Key" discs. Even the GF! crew can’t get a hold of a Key disc, but folks with access to pirated game sites sure can. Sega shut down 60 websites and 125 online auctions last week that were selling pirated DC titles.

Lowenstein notes that the big problem is Internet piracy. The same technologies that make the cutting edge of gaming technology possible, broadband transfers and high storage capacities, have also contributed to a rash of piracy. The IDSA estimates that $3.2 billion were lost to piracy in 1998. However, if memory serves me, the industry still cleared $5 billion total. So while piracy is a problem for game developers, and while the problem will only continue to grow as games move online and tranfer rates continue to climb, it doesn’t look like the pirates will be knocking out the industry anytime soon. A lot of folks, especially those who like to copy games, see the whole controversy as being more a case of the businesses with too much money wanting even more money. If it weren’t for the faltering revenues of so many gaming companies, such as Midway and Eidos, and the fact that the French are buying up every other game publisher in the US, I might be more inclined to side with the anti-big business crew who view piracy as a political movement as much as anything else.

For those of you who have been hoping for a big point, a call to action, a concise summary of the issue, or the suggestion of a solution, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is not the time to start making hard and fast predictions about the fate of game development, piracy, or copyright. This is the time to sit back and observe. Two things are for sure: 1) Piracy will continue. Forever. We like pirates, they’re romantic, and they appeal to our naughty (and cheap) side. 2) Anti-piracy efforts will continue. Pirates are great as long as they aren’t stealing from us, but when the shoe is on the other foot, well, it just doesn’t fit. Our actions and decisions over the next few years, and I mean "our" as in "our society’s," will shape the way that copyright and piracy is viewed in the digital age. Like everything else, we’ll have to do away with the black and white view of ownership and rights, but odds are we won’t put ourselves into a full-on free-for-all. Nope. Odds are piracy will stay bad and big business will stay good.

 --Shawn Rider