Scene: 12-year-old pudgy kid stands next to lanky, punk 20-year-old cousin. Chinatown, New York City. After running away from the giant waiter from a dim sum restaurant who demanded a 75% tip, they find themselves standing before a Rastafarian curled up in a bizarre fetal position, his back against a wall, his merchandise before him. He’s selling bootlegged VHS copies of movies that haven’t yet left theaters.

“How much for Congo?” the cousin asks.

“10 bucks.” Muffled voice through dirty facial hair. Now, this is a quality bootlegger.

“What do you think, Joe?” my cousin asks to me.

I pull him away with a dirty look.

“Look at the guy, Phil. 10 bucks is going to get you a blank tape.”

“No way, man,” my cousin Phil says. “These guys have really elaborate setups and stuff.” I look back at our eager salesman. He coughs for a good 30 seconds, curling up into an even tighter ball.

“Well, it’s your money, dude.”

Phil goes back over to the Rastafarian and puts his hands on his hips. It’s time to play hard ball, now.

“How do I know this isn’t going to be a blank tape?” Phil looks at me; he’s playing good cop.

“You have to trust me,” the Rastafarian says with a grin.

“Oh, come on!” I yell a bit too loudly – a few passersby stop to look at the unlikely trio haggling over an illegal copy of a bad movie. “Even if there’s something on there, it’s going to shake every time you lean over to mess around with your girlfriend!”

“If that’s what you think, don’t buy it, white boy.”

I turn to walk away, but Phil isn’t coming with me. He looks down at the Rastafarian, then back at me.

“Joe, can I borrow 10 bucks?”

When we got home, we were greeted to a blank tape.

And so continued my cousin’s long, slightly successful, career in piracy. Phil already had a history of getting into trouble in the 80’s for selling copied 5.25″ floppies of games he liked. After this incident, no matter how many times I reminded him how right I was about that recording of Congo, he never got discouraged. And when digital reproduction made it on the scene, any worries on his part of cheap “handicam” recordings or bad tape dubs, flittered away, as did the memories of the Rasta who reeked of hash.

My own descent into software theft was far more casual. In fact, it began when Phil sent me a copy of Windows 98. That’s where a lot of people start, really. A friend hands over a nondescript, unlabeled disk and whispers, “This is the game you wanted,” with a wink. Most people don’t even consider the transgression to be theft. The remainder usually doesn’t care. The running justification among people like me is, “I wasn’t going to buy it, anyway.” And then there’s the extended demo excuse. Official demos rarely demonstrate much of the game, and sometimes cost money to download in the time frame they’re available – good luck downloading anything popular from Fileplanet without a paid subscription. So what’s wrong with grabbing the full monty to see if I enjoy what’s inside? It’s a dangerous habit, especially since every hit is free.

“End-user” piracy is the final link in a long chain of crime, so far down the line that these individual users’ theft doesn’t have much of an effect on sales, depending how elastic you consider the gaming market to be. Massive cartels based in Asia that actually sell copies of games to smaller distributors on the cheap, are what cost publishers money. These guys not only copy data on game discs, they copy boxes, manuals, and anything else they can get their hands on, producing quality counterfeit material. By the time this material starts circulating in underdeveloped countries, many users don’t know they’re buying something that’s not the genuine article.

Traditional anti-crime raids don’t work in a modern age. Every few years, a couple piracy rings are exposed, and little old ladies are arrested for housing 100,000 copies of Jedi Knight in their garages. But they’re just one group in a small area; the piracy network is digital, and so is the distribution. Large, for-profit pirating groups are the reason utilities like StarForce exist, but organized cartels have a bit of a track record for circumventing copy protection in rather unique ways. On top of that, intrusive anti-piracy programs like StarForce (which has been known to cause system-wide conflicts on many-a-user’s machine), can actually lead end-users to pirate even more. Anti-piracy technology is frustrating enough that even legitimate buyers end up looking for hacked versions of game clients. This often acts as a “gateway drug” for end-users, ultimately furthering the cartels’ cause. The mouse is so far ahead of the cat when it comes to digital bootlegging that many companies are starting to realize it’s time to let the pirates go, and use them to their advantage.

You see, if a free market is a glowing beacon of capitalism, bootlegging is its dark shadow. Hearken back to the halcyon days when you actually had the option to use word processors other than MS Word. There was a veritable smorgasbord of formats to play with and use; Word Perfect, Lotus, and Word/Works were all vying to become top of the office suite heap. Lotus faded fast, Word Perfect is floating in the ether somewhere, and MS Word is installed on every computer in existence, including those oh-so-swank iBooks everyone’s been talking about. Why? Two reasons: great product placement, and the fact anyone in the world can get Word without paying for it.

In fact, the latter reason is a huge contributing factor to the first one. Microsoft has great deals with colleges around the country, which allow students to purchase “student edition” copies of Microsoft’s software. The students then illegally copy these special, value editions and give the copies away to all of their friends. Eventually, so many copies of the software are distributed, there’s just no reason to look for an alternative. Microsoft wins a format war because their software is easier to sneak into your dorm room than booze.

Even though tons of free copies floating about helps a particular type of software win over others, price isn’t the limiting factor when it comes to piracy. At least not in the long run. Most of us pirates got started in our early teens – you know, back when $50 for a game we’d play once wasn’t quite affordable. Fifty dollars was about how much money I had for gas and food over the course of a month. A game just wasn’t worth not being able to ride around in gas guzzling American cars, chasing girls.

As time progresses, however, the cost of a game becomes easier and easier to absorb, but the old question still pops up: Is it worth it? How much is 40 hours of enjoyment really worth? How much is “fun,” whatever that means, worth? Morrowind was a blast. I never paid for it. World of Warcraft cost me $70, if you count the two months I paid for the subscription, and it’s one of the least compelling games I’ve ever played. Does paying for WoW take away from the great games like Morrowind I stole?

Unfortunately, it does.

I’m a huge fan of the “vote with your wallet” principle. If something sucks, don’t bitch about it, just don’t buy it. According to my own ethic, in one fell swoop, I managed to send an unspoken message to Bethesda Softworks: “Your game isn’t as good as this crappy one I just shelled out 70 bones for.” And it’s a message I’ve sent time and time again to dozens of developers who truly deserve a thank you.

That’s when I finally hung up my digital eye-patch. When I realized I wasn’t doing my part as a consumer to make games better. When I realized there wouldn’t be a Thief IV because not enough copies of Thief III had sold.

Will I steal another game? Probably not, and if I do slip up, the chances of me feeling guilty and ponying up the cash are pretty high, if only because it means I’ll be able to say, “At least you’re not as bad as WoW, and for that I thank you.”

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.

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