Wednesday, May 28, 2008

It Was Time for "The Talk": Parenting Anti Piracy Edition


Yesterday I had to have "The Talk" with my son. I walked into my 12 year old son's room the other day and was shocked by what he was looking at on-line.  He found a site loaded with torrents of whole, cracked, console games.

"Dad, isn't this great? Look at all the games we can get for free. How do I get them?"
"You don't, it's stealing."
"No it's not. It's downloading, they are right here on-line."
"Trust me, it's stealing. The food you eat is paid for with money from game sales. You are stealing from us. Do you want to eat tomorrow?"
"Yes."
"Then don't download those games. . . . and tell your friends."

I went through this with him once before.  I was really proud of myself for doing it, and delusional to think it was sufficient.  When he was about 6, my son heard Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on a television show and really enjoyed the song.  He wanted a copy of it.  It would have been really easy to go on Kazaa and download the song for him.  It was only one song, but instead, I made a point of getting in the car with him and going to a record store to buy the CD.  We found it in the rack, went to the counter and paid.  I was trying to make music tangible and implant the copyright concept.  It worked with music, and it even worked when he wanted to watch the shaky, hand camera version of Cloverfield the day after he saw it in the theaters, but the concept didn't reach quite to games.  Games are the things he plays for free on line. 

My son would never walk into a store and steal a boxed game off the shelf, but it is hard from him to conceptualize the idea of a downloading games being theft. The Web is full of free to play games and demos and the downloads don't feel an awful lot different than the full versions. Sure, Direct2drive or Gametap's pages may be a bit prettier, but Amazon and Google aren't really all that.   It is our job as parents, and as an industry, teach kids downloading cracked games is wrong.  Fortunately, we have the benefit of lessons learned from other industries.

The music industry's approach to stealing evolved over the past few years. They started by trying to prosecute the worst culprits. It did not really work. The RIAA is made up of the labels, so in essence, the labels were suing their customers. Customers who did not really feel they were doing anything wrong. The industry then moved to anti-piracy methods and download systems more complicated than stealing.  Some, like Sony's even broke your computer.  These didn't work either. Steve Jobs realized the people stealing music were paying more money than ever before to get music, they just weren't paying it to the labels.  He planted his stake where the money was being paid.  When iTunes came along and made it easier to be honest than steal, lots of people went straight. Steve Jobs employed it, but the concept is really a music market adaptation of the Laffer Curve, and it worked.  iPod boxes say "Don't steal music." Sure, it's a bit self-serving, but the labels get the majority of each dollar from Apple. Apple's message was joined by the RIAA with its mainstream anti-piracy campaign.  Someone with a vested interest, took advantage of the market inefficiency, and fixed the market in the process.  Downloads are still a huge problem to the music business because it is hard to get all those animals back in the barn once they have seen Paris, but alternative revenue streams emerged.

The MPAA's members distributed much bigger files than their music brethren. File size and bandwidth constraints provided more time to see how the market was unfolding and focus on more effective tools. Again, piracy is an issue, but it really did not make sense to sue your consumer. Along with embracing easy to use digital distribution, the industry immediately employed an anti piracy campaign. Trailers filled with movies stars and blue collar working folks told the audience file sharing is stealing. Again, the party with the vested interest took action to sustain the industry.  The message got out early and while films are still posted on line, there is a stigma associated with file sharing of films.

When it comes to games, we address piracy issues at a macro level, but not at home. ESA goes after all those nasty boot leg disks coming over the border from China and Russia, they even send cease and desist letters to heavy file sharers, but we aren't really doing anything on the propaganda front.  We must own the hearts and minds of the consumers and stop the action before it happens.  What are we doing to teach our children games are not free? What are we doing to put a face on the victims of piracy? We must start early. As parents, we must teach our children to be aware of illegal downloads. We monitor their on line presence to make sure they are not accosted by porn and predators and we monitor their game play to make sure they are playing age appropriate games, we must also make sure they know the difference between a demo, a free download, and a cracked piece of software. From a very young age they must view the cracked software the same way as they view an item on a store shelf.  As an industry, we should steal one more thing from the film business, the anti-piracy PSA campaign. Let's put a face on piracy and show gamers who they are stealing from. It won't stop them all, and it won't happen over night, but over time, we can win. It worked once before when this guy threw a pebble in the pond:

AN OPEN LETTER TO HOBBYISTS
By William Henry Gates III
February 3, 1976
An Open Letter to Hobbyists

To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4K, 8K, EXTENDED, ROM and DISK BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these "users" never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don't do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn't make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

What about the guys who re-sell Altair BASIC, aren't they making money on hobby software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write to me at 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.

Bill Gates
General Partner, Micro-Soft










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