Avoiding the real question
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 April 2013, 8:09 am
One thing that frequently annoys me about discussion on the internet is that people tend to avoid arguing the real question, but instead conjure up the horrors of some secondary evil. Talk about drugs, and people will tell you about people committing crimes to feed their drug habit. Talk about prostitution, and people will tell you about "white slavery". Talk about RMT, and people will tell you about account hacking. Talk about always-on DRM, and people will tell you about server outages.

I am not saying that these secondary evils don't exist. But if they were the core of the problem, it would be sufficient to solve those secondary problems and still have the primary feature.

The latest story here is that the next XBox will probably have always-on DRM, that is you won't be able to play anything on that console while not connected to the internet. And of course everybody talks about server outages or people without internet. Or uses the inherent lack of data to claim that DRM never works. And nobody addresses the real question:

Once all technical problems are resolved, should a company be allowed to put restrictions on the use of their game hardware / software to prevent piracy?

Again, this is assuming a working technical solution, and not discussing company double-speak that tries to sell you a restriction as a feature. I really *only* want to discuss the question whether a company has the right to put certain restrictions on their regular users in order to prevent some people playing illegal pirated copies of games.

For me the answer to this question has always been yes, a company making game hardware and/or software has the right to put in restrictions that limit piracy, even if those restrictions inconvenience legit users. Just like a supermarket has the right to impose certain restrictions on their customers that prevent theft. And from that point, everything else becomes just a technico-economic problem: What sort of technical solution can the company find which causes a minimum of inconvenience to paying customers while having a maximum effect on pirates? It is easy to demonstrate that there must be a break-even point somewhere, where the added income from people "forced" to pay for the product exceeds the lost income from people prevented from buying the hard- or software due to the restrictions. It is basically a business decision, and companies have the right to make those business decisions.

That is not to say that things can't go wrong. I am pretty sure that in the specific case of SimCity the overall net effect on EA was negative, with more damage done to the company by their non-working DRM solution than piracy damage prevented. "Always Off" is not a feature you can sell to anybody. But ultimately that isn't different from any company releasing a flawed product and having to deal with the consequences, whether the flaw is non-working servers or horse meat in "beef" burgers.

The important thing is that there is no such thing as a "right to piracy". You cannot go to a court of human rights and claim that Microsoft or EA has an obligation to let you copy their games for free, or that the always-on internet requirement is a breach of your human rights. Saying that Microsoft should be obliged to provide an XBox that works without internet is like saying that Wikipedia should be obliged to provide their product without internet, or any other provider of some service over the internet (including me, you can't read my blog without internet either).

If Microsoft really decides to make the next XBox work only while connected to the internet, I fully support them in as far as they have the right to do so. And I fully support the right of everybody to not buy such an XBox because of those restrictions. How much money Microsoft is effectively gaining or losing due to that business decision will depend on how well the technical implementation is working. And unless you have a parallel universe at hand in which the restriction-free XBox is a reality, it will be impossible to know the real numbers. Everybody will just claim completely spurious estimates depending on whether he is for or against piracy.
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