DRM and Piracy: Trust Begets Trust

The postal service has creative ideas about how to distribute mail to our apartment building, so in addition to receiving mail actually addressed to us at #9, we receive a good percentage of the mail for #8 and #10, and vice versa. The upshot of this was that disk 2 of Dollhouse didn’t end up making it to us, so we went onto Netflix and reported a missing disk. We got an automated reply that not only assured us that a new disk would be sent, but apologized profusely for the inconvenience.

Of course Netflix has no way of knowing that the DVD was not delivered. We could have received it, reported a missing disk, and kept the extra one. No one would have been the wiser. Netflix is no doubt aware of this possibility and they could have chosen to form their business policy around it by charging customers for missing DVDs, but they didn’t, and apparently they don’t have an excessive problem with stolen disks. The reason for this is simple: trust begets trust.

Charging for missing disks probably wouldn’t be a good business model for Netflix anyway. With 10 million customers and millions of disks mailed daily, dozens of disks probably get lost in the mail every day, and every customer who gets fined for a disk he or she never received is an ex-customer. They also make their movies less appealing to steal because they don’t come with cases or any extra disks of bonus features. Still, they could crack down on any potential case of theft if they wanted to. Other companies have done it.

For instance, there was EA’s evolution game, Spore. Easily the most anticipated game of 2008, it also became the biggest disappointment. Why? Part of it was the game itself; when you cut through the pretty graphics, it’s highly simplistic. But the main problem was that the game came loaded with DRM. It had a three-install maximum, only one account could be used per copy, and it required online authentication, meaning that it could only be installed a) on a computer with internet and b) when the Spore servers were online.

So how did that work out for EA? Within weeks, Spore became the most pirated game ever on BitTorrent. Users carpet-bombed Amazon with 1-star reviews, kicked off by this blog post, sinking this well-reviewed game to a customer average of less than 1 1/2 stars. Piracy gained countless converts in the form of legal game owners who had gotten shut out of their accounts in one way or another. A friend of mine who has never downloaded so much as an MP3 bought the game–and then downloaded the DRM-free pirated version and played that instead. Spore’s DRM increased piracy. A lot.

EA took a while to figure out how to respond, initially trying to tighten its grip even more. Moderators threatened to ban the accounts of people who complained about DRM on the forums, which would block them not only from commenting on the forums, but also from playing the game itself. Eventually the company realized its mistake and relented–slightly–by raising the install limit to five and also allowing up to five accounts per copy.

The problem is that any install limit is too many. If you buy a book, you can read it whenever, wherever, and as many times as you like. You can play a CD or DVD on as many different players as you like. Games should be the same: Once you legally own it, you can legally play it wherever you like. Then there’s the problem of preservation. Fans of old games, like me, are already aware of the scores of threats to older games that can lead to them being lost altogether. It would be a pity if this generation of games were lost due to DRM.

On a lesser level, there are those anti-piracy ads in front of DVDs. You know the ones I’m talking about. Punishing people who already bought legal copies with an unskippable warning not to pirate things also functions as a stark reminder that, if you’d downloaded a pirated copy, you wouldn’t have to sit through the warning. No wonder it’s so frequently mocked, it’s a meme to itself. (It also, once again, asks people to report illegal downloading, as if people were likely to know that was going on without actually being the ones doing the downloading.) I doubt many, if any, people have switched to downloading because of the ads, but the thought has probably crossed more than one mind. And how is antagonizing people ever going to help?

EA and the DVD industry could take a leaf out of the Netflix book. Most consumers are not thieves, and if buying a legal copy is convenient and not problematic, most will. People have a sense of fair play that usually keeps them from doing things like stealing, but if they feel that the DVD or game company is violating fair play or stealing from them, their qualms will vanish very quickly. If companies like EA would trust customers more, customers would prove to be more trustworthy.

The problem, and the reason that DRM isn’t going away any time soon, is that while removing such restrictions might actually reduce piracy, it wouldn’t eliminate it. The only way one could hope to completely eliminate piracy is through more and more strong-arm tactics. No matter that none of them have helped so far, defeated by things like a piece of tape, but they’ve got to squelch those pirates, and that next bit of copy prevention technology just might be the one that does the trick.

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