Excuses on the High Seas


It’s easy, it’s free, and you don’t get caught. The rise in piracy over the last few years has obvious roots in the fact that technology has created a system where the only thing preventing someone from pirating software is his own conscience. Human nature being what it is, there is quite a lot of piracy.

In most cases, the pirate has some kind of awareness that they’re doing wrong. There is an inescapable sense that they’re playing a game, and that the people who made that game wanted people to pay for it. The conscience is a lot more effective than other forms of DRM, but it’s still easily bypassed with the right excuse. Pirates have developed an array of justifications for their behavior, which they employ to fend off the chiding of more honest gamers and their own nagging doubts.

Let us examine some of the classic excuses:

Piracy isn’t really stealing.

This is true. If you pirate a game, you haven’t taken anything tangible from the publisher. If you download Crysis from the internet, a legal copy of Crysis does not vanish from the shelves somewhere. Piracy is not stealing in the same way that blowing up cars is not murder. The fact that you’re not stealing something doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong.

You have not stolen a thing, you have gained access to a thing against the wishes of its creator. In the case of a theater, an art gallery, a concert, or a strip club, someone has spent their sweat and treasure to make something that you clearly want to see. They are then attempting to make a living by charging you for access. If you sneak in, you’re still ripping them off, and the fact that you didn’t steal the painting or kidnap the stripper does not absolve your shenanigans.

I’d like to pay for games, but I can’t afford them.

Luckily, you do not need games to survive and you can go without if you’re really in dire straits. But you don’t need to. If you’re strapped for cash, there are a huge number of quality indie titles out there for cheap or free. The world of freeware, abandonware, indie, open source, mods, and retro gaming is large enough to keep you entertained for years. And all of that fun can be had for free or cheap.

But if you’re saying you’re too poor to buy videogames but insist on playing brand new big-budget AAA titles on your top-of-the-line PC, then may I suggest that your piracy has less to do with lack of money and more to do with a lack of honesty.

I won’t pay for games, because, “Information wants to be free!”

There are indeed people who believe that software should always be free, and take a principled stance by not buying proprietary software. Note that these people either stick to open source or go without, because they refuse to use the software of anyone who refuses to share the source code. Often, these types of people will go to all the trouble of writing new software and giving it away if they find they need something that isn’t already available as open source.

But claiming to be one of these people and then turning around and running a proprietary videogame on top of a proprietary operating system completely undermines this position, particularly when there are so many free alternatives available.

Publishers are jerks and they don’t deserve my money.

I know! Believe me, I know.

But it’s not okay to rip someone off, even if they’re a jerk. You’re not allowed to kill them, either. I’m lobbying to have this changed, but until then you still have to pay for things.

I’m just as disappointed with this as you are.

I just want to try it out, and if I like the game I pay for it.

I can imagine that if people got into the movie theater for free, and were charged on the way out if they liked the film, it would suddenly become very difficult to find anyone who liked any movie, ever. It’s pretty easy to sit and play a game for a few days and then make some excuses at the end about how the game had some flaw and isn’t worth your money, even though it was worth your time. As someone who nitpicks games for a living, I can tell you that there is no game so great that you couldn’t find a reason to not pay $60 for it.

But we’re not working on the barter system here, and people pay for terrible movies and books all the time. The publisher is charging you for access, not enjoyment. If they charged you for enjoyment, then Epic would owe me money for playing Unreal Tournament III.

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The game isn’t available in my country.

Like abandonware, this is one of those mushy gray areas that gets complex very quickly once you start talking about the awful tangle that is international copyright laws. Is it wrong to gain access to something which costs money when it is simply impossible to pay for it? I still come down on the side that this isn’t something nice people do, but this is not nearly as clear-cut as the earlier cases.

In any case, if you’re from a country where major publishers choose not to do business, then you’re not part of the “sales lost to pirates” problem that publishers keep wailing about. You’re actually part of a completely different problem.

I want to see if it actually works before I buy it.

Against this excuse I can offer no counter-argument.

Somehow, publishers have weaseled themselves into a position where they are not held accountable in any way for the failures of their own products. You can run out right now and buy a movie, a pair of pants, a box of cereal, a plasma screen television, and a chair. You can then go home and put on the pants, sit in the chair, and watch the movie while you eat half the cereal. You can then go back to the store the next day and return any or all of those items. But if you bought a videogame and it doesn’t work, you are stuck. You can’t return it for money. You can’t return it for store credit. You can only return it for an identical copy of the game that doesn’t work. This is particularly asinine given that games are a lot more likely to malfunction than chairs, cereal, or pants. It’s impossible to predict if some eccentricity in your particular machine will cause the game to blow up, crash, or refuse to run.

Publishers claim they do this to protect themselves from piracy. They seem to be afraid that a pirate would drive to the store, buy a game, go home, install the game, install a crack so it doesn’t need the disk, and then drive back to the store and return the game for a refund. What kind of pirate would go to this much hassle when a copy of the game is just a download away?

Publishers are ripping off honest customers by refusing to take responsibility for defective products in an attempt to stop a form of piracy that doesn’t even exist. Reasonable people could understandably want to make sure the software will function as advertised before they place their money in non-refundable peril. Publishers complaining about pirates “stealing” from them should note that if someone pirates your game, you do not suddenly become $60 poorer, but if you sell someone a game that doesn’t work and don’t give them a refund, they really are $60 poorer. Who’s “stealing” now?

Although, if you download the game and it works, are you then honest enough to run to the store and Do The Right Thing? I imagine many people begin the download in self-defense, and then never get around to making the trip to the store.

I buy the game, then download the DRM free copy.

I can see the appeal of doing this. Pirated versions of games sometimes run better once the DRM has been stripped out, and you get to play the game without “agreeing” to the EULA. I don’t think this counts as piracy, though. If you own the game, then the torrents are just a system of distributed backup copies for you. In any case, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

I should add that I don’t do this myself because as a reviewer I like to review the product offered by the publisher, not the one perfected by the pirates. If publishers are determined to saddle our gaming experience with DRM hassles, I am only happy to return the favor by saddling the review with complaints about the same.

I think in a vast majority of cases the real reason people pirate is because they can. It’s a maddeningly complex issue that is intertwined with commerce, politics, technology, and culture. But the reasons behind it are simple and all too familiar.

Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided, the vandal behind Stolen Pixels, and has a huge shelf of 100% legit games – most of which weren’t worth the money.

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