Sunday, April 17, 2011

If You Can't Beat Them, Use Them....

Amongst the dry, academic pages of Information Feudalism by Drahos and Braithwaite, there are a few very interesting factiods. For instance, I doubt that very many people know that the first illegal electronic download occurred in the late 1800's when the entire contents of a book written by then Queen Victoria were telegraphed across the Atlantic over 24 hours and then printed and published within 12 hours of the completion of that transmission. And all without so much as a 'please,' much less licensing fees (see Tom Standage's Book, The Victorian Internet for many more similarities between Victorian era  tech and the modern internet).

Another factoid, and the one I'm focused on for this post, is that claim that early software companies, by pricing their products beyond the reach of the average consumer, had a large role in the formation of software piracy. That is a bit of an oversimplification of a larger problem with modern society, one in which life has become so easy that many feel entitled to own works of intellectual property at no cost and where internet distribution of said ideas has started to really make people question the true value of information and ideas (for a very funny, if highly profane discussion of this subject, see It is not totally incorrect, however.

As a child of the late seventies and early eighties, I remember the controversy over BETA/VCR home recorders (which was, itself, predated by Cassette Tapes, the Napster of the sixties and seventies). The creators and producers of television and movie programming were very concerned that these devices would be used to record their programs off of TV and, thereby, reduce possible revenues from syndication and re-release ticket sales. I also remember the videotapes they sold back then. A single movie would cost around $75 dollars! And we're talking 1979 dollars, here! That's like asking someone today to pay $230 for Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows on a crappy videocassette tape.

I think it's safe to say that when creating the market for home movies, Hollywood also, by dint of their greed, created the pirate video industry almost simultaneously. I should know, because by the time I saw these movies advertised in TV Guide or in the Sears Catalog, my grandfather had already rigged up a method of copying them. And was trading them at the Saturday Flea Market sale with other like-minded individuals very shortly after that. He also built a satellite receiver out of some spare electronics and a coffee can and had free HBO for years, but I digress.

Is that justification for modern IP piracy, however?

Back! To the Future! And here I am, a self publisher of games, scripts, what-have-you, many of which are in PDF format. One recent release, Barbarians of the Aftermath, a 176 page PDF selling for $15, sold pretty steadily for about a year, but within 3 months of its publishing, my hard work, which I designed, wrote, layed out and did the graphic design for, was being flogged on Torrent sites without so much as a 'please,' much less licensing fees. I never thought I'd have so much in common with some English Queen from the 1800's. If I actually had the sales from those downloads (which far outweigh my actual sold copies), I might actually be able to make a living out of game publishing. As it is, people for whom $15 is really a tiny sum of money, the equivalent of a movie and trip to the concession stand, my work, which gives them years of gaming entertainment value for their $15, is not worth more than the effort it takes to locate and download it over the internet.

A side effect of this pirate economy is the devaluation of perceived worth of physical objects which actually hurts book sales as well. A 176 page full color hardback of Barbarians of the Aftermath costs $44.95. Again, this is not 'greed' pricing, but the realistic cost of publishing and distributing in the modern era. It is an actual tangible product, that you own, and which provides you with more entertainment value than simply reading it would normally provide. The average gaming consumer, however, finds it hard to pay that much for anything book related, when PDFs are so easy to come by.

So what can be done to combat piracy of electronic IP? One idea has been to make the prices so low, that the effort and risks of pirating are no longer worthwhile. Adamant, an RPG and game publisher, recently experimented with 'App Pricing' to stimulate sales and discourage piracy. Basically, every game and supplement was priced like a smartphone app, from 99 cents to $1.99. This experiment failed for various reasons, which the owner of Adamant explains in detail here. I am planning to follow a similar route by actually making the games themselves into apps. With App Pricing and the security offered by the tighter security environment of the smartphone/tablet environment and some sort of software verification scheme, I hope to further discourage piracy. But assuming that piracy is going to happen, and Bittorrents aren't going away how can I make it work for me?

By turning the game into a software product, one that provides something that you can't really recreate with a download and the home printer, the focus of shifts from the game and the rules and even the graphic design as the IP of import. I'm shifting my commercial focus so that the PDF is merely a vehicle for selling the software. The PDF, which is a fully fledged Pen and Paper RPG, can now be sold for 99 cents and if someone goes through the trouble of pirating it, all they are really doing is advertising my game, and in effect, my game software. The Torrents become my marketing tool for the $15 phone/tablet app.

This is all experimental, but I think that history has shown that piracy is here to stay, as long as there is someone who can benefit from it (in much the same way as Elizabeth I benefited from privateers, who were nothing more than 'legalized' pirates). Once you realize that, however, you can redirect your energies to being the one who benefits from it. If you can't beat them... use them.

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