Friday, February 19, 2010

Piracy and Economy and Ethics

The recent debacle of over-protected games has made the situation even more clear. The old ways are on their last legs. If people are refusing to buy your game because it is easier to steal it, there's something wrong with your business model. Especially if those people are a major part of your target audience.

A government's laws are basically unimportant and unenforceable when it comes to this sort of thing. Sure, there's always froth, always some poor innocent grandma or seven-year-old getting crushed on the public stage, but you're more likely to get hit by lightning than charged with piracy. This is true no matter what kind of piracy you engage in, aside from fairly obvious exceptions such as actual, physical hijacking of naval vessels.

I don't pirate because I find I (A) want to support people who produce things I like and (B) have enough money to do so. The only times I am tempted to pirate is when a game I want to play has ridiculous anti-piracy measures. Once pirated, I don't have to worry about the piracy protection. Which is an indication as to the hopeless nature of the fight.

However, I haven't pirated in quite a long time. I generally find there are plenty of games I want to play, so I just go get a different one. (This is actually pretty severe. I went to Bioshock 1's opening party, got myself "adam" shots from models in bloody nurse outfits, the whole affair. I did not buy (or pirate) Bioshock 2. Because of its "protection".)

My "morality" of not pirating is not some kind of fundamental morality. In this situation, there is no fundamental morality. There's a reality, and it is our nature as humans to adapt to the reality, and then backwards-reason excuses for ourselves. Anyone who proclaims that piracy is wrong, or anyone who angrily claims pirate protection is oppressive, they're both reasoning backwards to reach that point.

The truth is that the cost of data duplication is so low that it's more or less free. So you think that someone has the right to steal music, or pirate games, or whatever, that's irrelevant. Same with thinking that the people who produced it have a right to gate it. Also irrelevant. Both of those are reasons provided by your clever backwards-thinking brain in response to older experiences in an older reality.

Welcome to today.

As time progresses, our morality will shift to a data-centric view. Because data is cheap to duplicate and extremely hard to contain, we are going to drift towards a "data is free" mentality. Your kids (or grandkids, I don't know how old you are) will look back on the idea that game companies charged for distributing games with awe. Sort of like you looking back on the laws intended to protect scribes from the printing press. How could anyone have tried to stop or slow down the printing press? Sure, you feel for the scribes, but you can't save them.

It's the same situation here.

Right now, most of our morality still derives from rationalizing our old behaviors in our economy of stuff. In an economy of stuff, stealing something is bad because it makes that something not available to the person who owns it. The idea of patents and copyrights was perhaps the first major reference to data economies, but that was in a very different time with very different characteristics. We have formed our morality around them, but it isn't a fundamental morality. Our current era works differently, and we'll watch as our morality swings to favor reality.

How far this will go or what will result is hard to say. Some people believe it will be the death of art, games, music, and so on. These people are really dumb. It may be the end of the reign of pop music and EA, but games and music will continue on without any problems. Hell, people will make them for free even if they can't figure out a way to profit from it. (Although I think there are plenty of ways to profit.)

Other people think it will be the death of money. This seems equally unlikely. Our data economy still exists in the "cracks" of our fundamental economy, the one that sells us power and lattes and other physical things. It may be that in the fullness of time these things will become so easy to produce that they will not be worth much money, but until then, we'll always need cash.

All I can say for sure is that it means the death of copyright and patents as we know them. It may take twenty more years, but eventually people will begin to think that distributing data is a fundamental right, like being allowed to walk down main street. They will begin to think this because we will rationalize the fact that we do distribute data willy-nilly. Our moralities arise from our world, they are not some magic set of rules handed down from on high.

Please note this also applies to DNA, and our ability to manipulate it.


Claes Mogren said...

Totally agree with this post. Gene-, software- and parameter-patents should just be removed right away. I guess it will only take a few more years before most of the "old people set in their old ways" who don't grasp "this interweb thing" and it's implications stop being in charge...

The music business will change, probably still do just fine. I am a bit concerned about the typical Hollywood movies though. I can listen to the same album many times and will go see the band when they play in Stockholm, but I rarely watch movies more than once and movies are a lot more expensive to produce. Just like with games, movies you buy/rent on DVD/BD have the stupid anti-piracy thing you can't click past that the pirated versions don't. Also you can get almost any subtitle language you like to the pirated version, and in almost any format (ie iPod).

patchworkZombie said...

I was reading an economics book recently and I found out that things like this are called "public goods". This predicts that they might take a similar trajectory to other public goods like television or radio or scientific research. Religious things will proliferate because they are more effective at getting people to donate, and as we already see ads will get added to things to regain the cost, and a small number of things might be funded by grants.

Craig Perko said...

You're really hitting some older posts, Mr. Zombie.

The idea of public goods is also obsolete. It's not a bad idea, but it doesn't mesh with what we're seeing today. It would be a mistake to adhere too closely to the textbook definition.

Also, your comment about religion is not really accurate any more. Donations are plummeting. This will be worsened by the change to financial transparency: once people expect to be able to track their donation through to the final destination, any group that doesn't allow for that kind of visibility will lose donations. Religions do not offer that kind of visibility, nor will they ever.

On the flipside, we're seeing a rise of microfinance and "ad hoc" donating. Things like KickStarter are gaining momentum very rapidly, and I think they show us a likely future for at least certain kinds of companies, people, and endeavors.