Corporations and Copyright

A few weeks back, Cliffski wrote about how some people complain about corporations and copyright as if they are all part of one big organization out to screw you over. He reminds you that not all corporations are huge, multi-billion dollar enterprises such as EA, British Airways, or Microsoft. Some corporations are as small as the local bakery or in the case of Positech Games and GBGames, one person in a spare room at home.

Cliffski doesn’t want you to paint all copyright owners and corporations with the same broad brush. Just because some companies are evil, it doesn’t mean that all of them are. Still, I wish he would be more consistent with his arguments. If you don’t argue that all copyright violators are the scum of the earth….well, you’re either with us or against us, it seems. I think the broad paint stroke shouldn’t be OK on either canvas, but that just makes me a terrorist pirate sympathizer to some people.

Still, I agree with Cliffski’s main point, that copyright isn’t evil, and corporations aren’t either. But when organizations such as the RIAA, the MPAA, and the BSA, musicians such as Madonna and Metallica, and companies such as Wal-mart, Best Buy, and Target use copyright law to abuse their customers and fans, what is a regular person supposed to think?

Copyright is a confusing topic for people who are familiar with it, so of course the lay person won’t know much about it. Copyright, trademark, and patent laws are usually thrown together as “intellectual property”, and the three are always being confused for each other. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, that’s a great name for a band! You should copyright it!” or “You write great poetry! You should patent it!”? How often were you the person saying such statements? By the way, I wrote an article on copyright law that should give you a better understanding than most people seem to have. You can find it at What an Indie Needs to Know About Copyright.

I don’t know how UK copyright law differs from US copyright law, but the purpose of copyright here isn’t to provide an incentive for the creator. The purpose is to promote the sciences and useful arts. Providing incentive is the means to that end. You’ll find people who supposedly support copyright who argue that it is there solely to protect the works of authors so they can make money, even though it isn’t the case at all. So there is confusion on all sides, it seems.

If you were to write a poem on a napkin, you would own the copyright to that poem. Many people are surprised that it is so simple to own a copyright. You just create something! Bam! It’s yours! Perhaps because most people don’t think about copyright in general, it never occurs to them that they can own the copyright to something and NOT make money from it. When most people think of copyrights, they think of best-selling books or blockbuster movies or hit songs. They don’t think about the struggling author or the garage band or the amateur film director with maxed out credit cards. They don’t think about the personal blog or a custom song for a lover or a love note on a windshield. Even though they might not have a profit motive, these works can be protected by copyright as well.

Years ago, Jay Barnson wrote about his personal experience with his pirate story. He worked at a now-closed game development company which created some popular games. While he estimated that the infringement rate was around 30%, which I’m sure seemed high at the time, these days we’re seeing companies reporting that more people will play games illegally than purchase a legal copy. Reflexive estimated over 90%, and even Linux Game Publishing recently announced its discovery that more people made support requests for an illegal copy than for a legal copy.

Now, only major companies are playing with the numbers to make you think that each infringement represents a lost sale. Most people know that while infringement might be high and should ideally be nonexistent, it isn’t as if 100% of the illegal copies would be sales if the illegal option didn’t exist. Still, major corporations actually try to convince you that it is true.

Is it any wonder that most people don’t respect corporations in general? The major corporations act as representatives for all corporations, and people generally don’t like being accused of crimes before they’ve committed them. And if they don’t respect the corporations, why would they treat the copyrights these corporations wield any better, especially when they don’t understand what the heck copyright is in the first place?

Is copyright infringement a problem for corporations, including the indies? I would say so. While it isn’t 1-to-1, Reflexive’s experience indicates that taking measures to prevent illegal copies results in increased sales. And I think from that same experience, we can see that not all copyright infringement comes from freeloaders who will do anything to screw hardworking people over.

The economist from Freakonomics argues that everything comes down to incentives. If you accept this idea, then of course there is an incentive for people to get their games for free rather than pay for them. If it isn’t too much effort, and there isn’t a risk of getting caught or of dealing with repercussions, then a lot of people will probably do it, too. What’s strange to me is that publishers will make the legal option less and less appealing by piling on draconian copy protection and all sorts of features that their customers don’t want. Doesn’t such a practice give people an even greater incentive to get the illegal version that doesn’t have all of the junk associated with it?

I’m afraid that major corporations have conditioned people to expect such treatment as normal. Politicians want your computer to blow up if it has allegedly infringement material on it…even though copyright law is so complicated that it is very possible that the average computer owner won’t know what constitutes infringement. Laws are passed making it illegal for you to do things that were perfectly legal for you to do before, all because the MPAA, RIAA, and BSA don’t want you to be able to do them so they can charge for the privilege. After all of this, is it any wonder that people complain about “the corporations” and copyright?

Yeah, it’s a problem that people don’t think of the mom & pop store down the street as a corporation even though it is one, and yeah, it is a problem that people don’t understand copyright and how it works, but let’s be serious. If you think that they reached their conclusions, faulty or no, outside of the experience they have from major corporations, you’re deluding yourself.

As an indie, I know I’m going to have to deal with my customers’ perception, regardless if they are the right ones. I have to build my own reputation and hope that a company such as EA or Valve or Positech doesn’t do something stupid to reflect badly on the industry as a whole. Sony’s rootkit fiasco probably put people off buying music CDs, at least those from Sony, and even if it didn’t, I’m sure it didn’t help make the RIAA look better. It is sad when The Pirate Bay provides a better value than the legally purchased product, and the more that happens, the less likely someone will have an incentive to buy, especially from the one-person corporation with no legal department to provide disincentive.

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6 comments to Corporations and Copyright

  • Poo Bear

    I really look forward to the day you decide to jack in the day job and TRY to go indie for a living. I suspect the tone of your posts may well change when the rent is due and you’re watching your bandwidth climb ever upwards while your sales fall ever lower. My advice – make something that only works online or that is for a console.

  • Let’s make it clear. I don’t think that illegal copying is right or justified. My tone shouldn’t change much since I don’t plan to lose respect for my customers just because my business model is failing or I haven’t provided enough incentive for them to give me more sales.

  • Poo Bear

    Take a look at the future.

    http://kotaku.com/5018180/a-look-at-nintendo-ds-piracy-in-korea

    “In Korea, piracy of video games isn’t limited to the hardcore crowd; it’s everywhere, prevalent in every age group and economic class that exists. And beyond being a matter of money – of not wanting to spend money, that is – piracy for Koreans is, perhaps even foremost, a matter of convenience.”

    As I said, you better be online or on a console (that is also online).

  • Copyright law will always be somewhat of a struggle between the rights of the content creators and those of their users.

    The bigger problem, for me at least, is that often it’s not the content creators that benefit from the copyright law, it’s the publishers/record companies etc.

    As regards to anti-piracy measures – sure, make them tougher and there will be a sales boost, but once you get past the “casual copy” limit then the boost is minimal compared to the results obtained (as Reflexive’s results bare out).

    Concentrate on those who will be prepared to buy and not those that won’t. Going for the later can work against you (DRM hell).

  • GotGame.com

    Copyrights are actually a necessary evil. Without the protection from copyrights, people won’t have any incentive to innovate (which would mean all those fantastic games that we play right now probably wouldn’t exist). So despite how much of a pain some copyright management systems can be, I fully support them.

  • Poo Bear, I have argued that the business model of selling easily-copied digital files might just be trying to hold back a river by standing in front of it. People want to be able to make copies, and it’s easy to do so online. Trying to use copy protection is like standing in that river. People will just go around you, so why not try to sell what can’t be copied? I have written about it at Uncopyable Values in a Copy-Friendly World Wide Web.

    GotGame.com: I think you’re argument is flawed in a couple of ways. One, if you take a look at all of the content on the web, you’d probably find that most of the creators don’t know that they own the copyright to their works, and yet they made them anyway. People want to create. It’s in our nature. Now whether or not they would also want to create much larger, much more complex projects, it’s not clear, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the professional-quality projects wouldn’t have been made if not for the copyrights that are associated with them.

    Then, two, just because copyright might provide such an incentive, which we’ll argue is a good thing, it doesn’t follow why copyright management systems would also be a good thing. I wouldn’t go so far as too say I “fully” support them as quite a few are draconian and treat the customers horribly.

    Right now, copyright is “enforced” by making paying customers deal with value-reducing wrappers such as so-called digital rights management or by making paying customers deal with value-reducing uncertainty about the future of the games they just bought. Meanwhile, the non-paying non-customers who get an illegal copy of the games don’t need to deal with the value-reducing aspects. No hoops. No worries. They can play the games for as long as they want, whenever they want, and never need to worry about the copy protection systems. That’s not real enforcement, and since it doesn’t really work, why use it?

    As we see in the link from Poo Bear, in some places, it’s a matter of lifestyle and convenience. Why make it easier for people to get an illegal copy than to buy the game from you?

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