CowboyNeal writes: "It seems like the news on everyone's favorite most resilient BitTorrent site never ends, as we approach its ninth birthday in just a couple days. Google has even recently wiped TPB results from auto-complete searches. Last month Nick Bilton wrote a rather insightful piece in the NYT (also covered on Slashdot), about 'Why Internet Pirates Always Win.' Read on, as I examine not only why he's right, but how piracy could be further curbed already."
In Nick Bilton's article, he compares the battle of content owners versus pirates to a game of Whac-A-Mole, and concludes that "Sooner or later, the people who still believe they can hit the moles with their slow mallets might realize that their time would be better spent playing an entirely different game." Whether it's Apple's iTunes Music Store, or Valve's Steam gaming service, both retail services and the content providers that publish via those services, have been able to make some tidy profits off their content, even despite the presence of Megaupload, The Pirate Bay, Archie, Usenet, local dial-up BBSes, and any countless other number of ways that people have been pirating for years. Right now, the powers that be, the MPAA and the RIAA, are fighting the same losing war that has been fought for decades already. Indulge me for a moment, as I engage in CowboyNeal story time, and tell a nostalgic tale of a bygone era.
As a kid, I was lucky enough to have my own computer. While the idea of the Internet was long way off yet, those of us in the neighborhood did know everyone else in the neighborhood that owned a computer, because that was how we got software. It wasn't uncommon for any of us kids to throw a box of floppy disks into our backpacks and bike over to someone else's house to share software, so that we could get new games and other software. We didn't set out to do this to rob anyone, it was just how we got by. Growing up in the 1980s, my allowance was $1/week, which was low even by 1980s standards. The average price for a computer game was around $25 to $35 for a new release. Even while supplanting my allowance with whatever I earned from doing work around the neighborhood or picking up pop cans, it took a long time to save up for a game. So, I and most other kids did the only logical alternative: we pirated software. None of us even owned a modem yet in those days, but we all knew someone who knew someone who did, and eventually cracked games would make their way from the BBS scene into our hands, and give us new games without having to pay for them. What I should note here, before all of us kids look like greedy little thieves, is that when I did eventually save up my money, I would still inevitably spend it on the software that I wasn't able to get via pirating. I still remember saving up the money to purchase the original John Madden Football. It cost $32, and came with printed playbooks to help players choose their plays, and most relevant to this article, a decoder wheel which contained a plethora of codes, that needed to be entered before a game could start. It was essentially an early version of DRM, because while the decoder wheel wasn't immune to piracy, without either a photocopy of the innards of the wheel or the wheel itself, there would be no kickoff. While the rudimentary decoder-wheel-based DRM had been defeated, that cracked copy hadn't found its way to any of us in the neighborhood yet. This scenario could be repeated for any number of 8-bit computer games. So while still a pirate, I was still giving the computer software industry all of my money — what little there was of it.
Now, let's go back to the present, and address Nick Bilton's "different game." What the industry still hasn't realized after all these years is that there's not just pirates and legal purchasers. Even people who pirate the same piece of software may do so for vastly different reasons. A good share of them are like me as a kid, pirating because they simply cant afford to buy it legitimately. Then there's the anti-DRM crowd, who refuse to pay for anything that has any sort of DRM involved with it. There's also the "try-before-I-buy" folks who are willing to pay, but they're frugal with their money and don't want to buy something they'll regret later. Some people who pirate content do so simply because it's easier than paying for it. Last are the people who pirate just for the sake of pirating. This last group is the one that no law, no PR junket, and no DRM will ever stop. They will always "win," if winning means pirating. It's also key to understand that a single person can belong to one or more of these demographics, or invent their own reasons for whether they will pirate or not. Maybe someone pirates a game, then later decides he want to play it online or that he likes it and want to support it. Suddenly a pirate is now a paying customer.
Lode Runner came with 150 levels, but my pirated copy crashed after level 33. Eventually I bought my own copy so that I could see the rest of the game. Okay, honestly, I never saw all of Lode Runner, but I still got to play level 34 and onward. After a year of owning John Madden Football, Electronic Arts mailed me a disk with the next year's teams on it. They didn't continue that practice very long, and started releasing a new game ever year instead.
The industry can't ever truly win this war. The best they can hope for is to curb as much of it as they can. Services like iTMS and Steam are able to corral the people who just want easy access. Humble Indie Bundles and GOG.com work for people who want DRM-free games. But even these only address small pieces of the larger pie. As referenced in the NYT article, what about people who want to watch "Game of Thrones" without buying cable or some kind of DRM-laden copy of it? Piracy is their quickest, easiest path to watching it. While we've concluded that the industry won't ever win, until the industry overlords address their methods of content delivery and take into account why people pirate, they cant even hope to make a lasting impact against piracy.