Thumbs Up to DRM: The Free Market IP Solution

Before we proceed, you should know that I’m continuing on from this work about how Intellectual Property is Poisoning Video Games, and this follow-up article where I addressed a few criticisms the article received. More specifically, I’m building/reiterating/expanding a comment that I made in response to someone else’s comment that really got me thinking. I touched on Digital Rights Management–Orwellian naming if ever there was one, since Digital Restriction Management would be far more accurate–but I only briefly did. Obviously, any conversation about GOG–Good Ol’ Games–will deal with DRM, but the various conversations and periods of reflection I’ve enjoyed due to the preceding articles has led me to completely 180 my position on DRM. Sort of–there’s a bit of nuance to my position.

Still before we proceed, we have to take into account the previous discussions about Intellectual Property, and the best way to do that is to simply assume that we live in a world where there is no such thing as IP, where there is only physical property and actual ownership rights. If you need further clarification on what is meant by this, then I would point you to this wonderful book by libertarian and patent attorney Stephen Kinsella titled Against Intellectual Property, which is available for free at that link. You can also read my previous articles on the subject, or click the “property rights” tag that exists to the right or to the bottom of this article. Because of this, I’m not going to spend a lot of time detailing what this “No IP World” looks like.

However, my mention of the feelers that were included particularly in early 1980s PC games like the Ultima games is a good example of what the world looks like, as is Tool’s recent album Ten Thousand Days. Both of these items have things that simply cannot be copied. A friend could copy their disks of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness for me, but I wouldn’t get the awesome map, the coin, or whatever it came with to heighten the experience. Similarly, a friend could copy their disc of Ten Thousand Days and give it to me, but I wouldn’t have the cool bifocal thing that is used to create the illusion of 3D over images that range from creepy to pointlessly abstract. These aren’t things to be scoffed at as inconsequential, and the fact that there exist today people with enormous collections of old music albums, old CDs, old video games, and old movies, even though all of these things are easily available online, makes this point for me: there is just something about having a legitimate, physical copy. Even though I own the entire NES library of games on my PC Sharing is stealing and emulation is piracy, so I partake in neither of these things, I still purchased an NES and numerous games several years ago.

Another personal example. Prior to the release of Ten Thousand Days, the album was leaked, and a friend of mine–then the drummer in my band–burned a copy of the leaked CD for me. Yet I still went out on the day of release and bought a copy. Little did I suspect that I was getting a nifty little package beyond just a music album, and I still did it. Why? Because I [then] liked Tool [this was before I was aware of how absurd the Cult of Tool is, and I’ve since stopped calling myself a fan of the band for exactly that reason–have you ever met a Tool fan? Then you know why I don’t call myself one], and I felt that they deserved money for the enjoyment they’d given me. I’ve owned The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for three or four years now, but I still purchased a legitimate copy of the Legendary Edition through Steam a year and a half ago, paying $40 for it, which is what I’ve always felt the game is worth. I owned Super Meat Boy for two years through piracy before I purchased a legitimate copy. In fact, here is a list of games that I once owned a pirated copy of, but which I now own a legitimate, purchased copy of–it’s not comprehensive:

  • Super Meat Boy
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum
  • Batman: Arkham Origins
  • Final Fantasy VI on PC
  • Final Fantasy IV on PC
  • Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD
  • Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures
  • Orcs Must Die! 2
  • Resident Evil 6
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s 1, 2, 3, and 4
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location
  • The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
  • Mass Effect 2 (via Origin, not Steam)

It’s actually eye-opening to look through my Steam Library and realize how many of those games I once owned a pirated copy of. And yet I still bought them. Why? Because I felt that the people who made them were entitled to payment for their work, for my copy of the game. I simply didn’t agree with them on the initial price point, or my trust in the developers/publishers is so low that I refused to purchase the product without first extensively trying it. This is 100% their fault for releasing games that aren’t finished and that don’t work. Civilization V comes to mind, as being one of the last games I bought “on good faith” when it was new, trusting that the publishers would only sell a functional product. The only developers who I let pass on this was Bioware, who shattered that trust in 2015 with the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, a garbage game that isn’t worth $10.

Once more, we can look to Jim Sterling’s Best of Steam Greenlight Trailers videos and see first-hand how people react when someone attempts to sell something that they didn’t make. My issue with how this resolved is that none of it was necessary; it wasn’t necessary for Valve to step in and remove Greenlight, because the community was doing a fine job of self-policing. People would get honest-to-god angry on Notch’s behalf, on Blizzard’s behalf, on Scott Cawthon’s behalf, because people dared try to sell those creators’ works as their own. It’s not a long-term effect of Intellectual Property in the cultural zeitgeist that causes us to react this way, but simple common decency, the same reason that plagiarism–which is what this was–in the scholarly world will absolutely destroy a career. People innately don’t like it when someone claims someone else’s work as their own. We could speculate why that is the case, but it doesn’t matter; it is the case.

So in this World Without IP, we see something very similar to what we saw with Steam Greenlight. We don’t need Intellectual Property laws and enforcers to keep some idiot from trying to sell World of Warcraft as though he created it, because that will piss consumers off and consumers will not only refuse to buy it but will openly insult and antagonize the person trying. But what if it’s more obscure, some No Name Developer working in his home in his spare time who has his work stolen? This has also happened, and it’s amazing how quickly such things spread. One guy was making a First Person Shooter in his spare time, and he shared it with some people; one of those people attempted to put it onto Steam Greenlight. Despite having fewer followers than I do, the guy who actually created it made a video about the theft, and the video spread like a wildfire, until Jim Sterling finally covered it, and the entire debacle was undone.

So we have countless ways of protecting creators of work without relying on the state and imaginary property rights.

One more of these is DRM.

DRM basically amounts to encrypting the data on the disc so that it can’t be copied and used. When pirates “crack” video games, they do so by cracking the DRM encryption. DVDs once used the same thing, using a laughably simplistic key to encrypt every DVD. Once someone cracked it, DVD copying became widespread. And that is exactly what I’m okay with DRM. It’s a never-ending battle between the content producers to attempt to protect their work, and the pirates on the other side who attempt to bypass it. It mirrors the Virus/Anti-Virus battle, with each side desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the other. If there was just DRM and people attempting to crack DRM, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, things like SecuROM would continue to be a problem, since it was basically a rootkit, and this showcases that there is no Black & White morality here; only Grey & Gray. Motivated by the rightful desire to protect their work, publishers began installing rootkits onto people’s computers. Motivated by a desire to share enjoyable content with their fellow human beings, pirates found that rootkit and brought its existence to the public’s attention. In this way, the pirates serve as a critical check of DRM and publishers who use it, as they are literally out there on the frontlines protecting us from obtrusive, spyware-like DRM. This is indisputably a good thing.

With IP in place, the pirates have a marked disadvantage: they aren’t allowed to work publicly and openly. They aren’t allowed to form businesses that can actually make money from doing what they do; they have to operate in the shadows of the black market. And even though the majority of people who pirate games would certainly be willing to pay $2.50 or whatever for a pirated copy from SKIDROW or 3DM, and even though there probably are some underground methods of doing so, the fact that this can’t be done openly destroys it as a viable business model. Never mind the fact that by tinkering with the DRM in the first place, the scene is violating the IP “rights” of the game publishers and the DRM creators. Not only are they not getting paid, but getting caught would result in a huge legal hammer be dropped on them.

When Company A can use rootkits in their software and secretly put rootkits on everyone’s computers but are still considered the Good Guys, we know we have severe problems and substantial confusion. When the people who call out that behavior face imprisonment if caught and have no real way of being paid for their work and are still considered the Bad Guys, then we know the severity of the problems and confusion are only being compounded by the breakdown of common sense caused by the entire concept of owning intangible, esoteric ideas.

So in this World Without IP, DRM still wouldn’t be enough, because the pirates would be more active than ever. Not only would they finally be allowed to work publicly and openly without fear of being kidnapped by armed thugs, but they could actually make money doing it. People simply making YouTube videos can earn tens of thousands of dollars a month; I absolutely refuse to believe that a huge chunk of gamers out there would be unwilling to throw $1 or $2 a month at 3DM. If they were allowed to. And then the battle is on between DRM and “pirates,” fought openly and without violence, and with each trying to stay one step ahead of the other, while having the tools and financial capabilities to do it. Obviously, DRM would still exist, and I’m okay with that. Under those circumstances, I’d have absolutely no problem with companies that use DRM to encrypt their games. I would take the side of the pirates and would support 3DM and others against DRM, but there’s really no moral hazard in encrypting something you own before you sell it–as long as you don’t send armed thugs to kidnap people when they decrypt it.

Welcome to the world of common sense.

No, you’re right. It doesn’t look anything like our world. Abolishing IP would be the first step in making our world look more like the World of Common Sense.

Since DRM wouldn’t be enough, the onus would again fall to the creators to provide incentives for people to purchase their games, rather than just throwing a bit of small change at piracy groups and playing the games at substantially reduced costs. Of course, the gaming industry is probably the most greed-driven industry in the world, topping out pharmacy and energy. Can anyone explain to me why a new PC game suddenly costs $60, instead of the customary $50? See, console games were always $10 or so more expensive than PC games, because the publishers have to license their games to that console–which obviously would make modern consoles more like the Atari 2600, where anyone could make a game for any console, and this would simply drive down the cost of games further. But there is no license to put a game on PC. I don’t know how much of a cut Valve gets, but it can’t be very high, with games selling at $5 at times.

DRM and piracy would go back and forth, so there would be times when games were effectively unprotected. What should publishers do? Well, they could take the $10 they’re saving by not having to license their games to particular consoles and use it to include really cool things with the games that can’t be copies–feelers. Who wouldn’t want a 2 ft. x 2 ft. cloth map of Skyrim? Or a gross little ooze toy made in the shape of Meat Boy? Maybe even a letter opener in the shape of the Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Not only would it be cool as hell, but owning a copy of a game would actually mean something, and people’s gaming rooms would be decked out in cloth maps, letter openers, little toys, and all kinds of cool crap that would only help gamers feel immersed and only make them enjoy games more. I would freaking love to have my wall decked out in random feelers from video games, to have little action figures included with games all around my television. But I don’t.

And Intellectual Property is the reason why.

Movies could do stuff like that, too, but I don’t care about movies.


3 thoughts on “Thumbs Up to DRM: The Free Market IP Solution

  1. Tchotchkes are certainly one way for game makers to make their product preferable to the bootleg.

    Other ways might include events and prizes, e.g. one lucky purchaser in each of the top ten metro areas for first-month sales gets a visit and dinner with the developers, bearing a special edition console with the game and a bunch of not-yet-released DLC installed. Or the metro area with the most first-month sales of the game per capita gets a (no entry charge with your proof of purchase) one-day convention and tournament.

    I go back and forth with IP supporters on the moral argument, which I think comes down pretty hard against the idea of IP at all. But on the practical side, it’s just this simple:

    Ever since stuff started being bits and files that can be reproduced at near-zero cost and accessed on a variety of home consumer electronics, instead of physical formats requiring expensive special-purpose equipment and specific physical media to reproduce, the writing has been on the wall. Not only is IP conceptually invalid, it is OVER. IP-based companies can get with reality and figure out other ways to monetize what they do, or they can just keep blowing money on “fighting piracy” until they’re, um, OUT OF MONEY and OUT OF BUSINESS. Which is exactly what will happen, sooner or later.

    • Those are great ideas. I’m finding it fun to think of creative ways publishers could incentivize people to purchase their products.

      Meaningful leaderboards is a small, but nice, benefit, but that requires publishers actually remove cheaters. The leaderboard is actually the reason I purchased a legit copy of Mega Man Legacy Collection, since I’m pretty damned good at Mega Man (have been playing it my entire life, after all). Taking a top 50 spot in the challenges actually has meaning to me, especially against all the people cheating.

      It’s all another example of how the law exists to protect the status quo. Just in my spare time for fun I could probably come up with fifty neat little perks that could be implemented, but won’t ever be because the state and IP mean that publishers don’t have to try. Why put in effort when the state’s laws protect them anyway?

      Boring loading screens would also be a thing of the past, because the first company who put a mini game in their loading screen patented it, and no one is willing to pay them royalties. So again thanks to IP, gamers are screwed over, this time with loading screens that do nothing but sometimes display crap to read.

      Without even getting into game design and how all games are increasingly the same, Frankenstein monster creations mixed and matched from about ten different genres, the video game industry is demonstrably stagnant. As a lifelong gamer, that really does bother me, but I don’t have the time or inclination to make a game that would break the stagnation by including feelers–had to Google the word you used, and I like yours better–and sweepstakes, contests…

      The Sword Quest games on Atari actually come to mind. I am too young to have played Atari, but I know they had a series of games called Fire World, Earth World, Air World, and Water World that were all actually competitions. Water World never got released and Air World never got made, thanks to the video game crash of 83, but people who solved the mystery, using an included comic book (imagine today a publisher going through the trouble of including a comic book! Today they won’t even include a manual…) in the process went to an on-site competition, and the winner received a chalice or something worth $25,000. With the second game, I think they won a crown worth the same amount. A sword worth $50,000 was to be the grand prize.

      Of course, with the internet a challenge like that wouldn’t go so well today, but something similar could be done, and I’d bet it would set the gaming world on its heels in amazement. “Keep your proof of purchase! You’ll need it to claim your prize!”

      So many freaking possibilities, none of which will ever be realized thanks to freaking IP.

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