Capitalism FAQ: Should You Respect or Abuse Your Customers?

No one likes to see a winner kicking the loser on the ground (unless we really, really hate the loser). We accept within our society that there are differences between people: that some will be more powerful or wealthy than others, and that’s just part of life. One of the limits on our acceptance of some inequality is the visceral rejection we have of abuse, of excessive exercises of power that do more to satisfy a desire to exercise power than actually further some external cause.

So, that’s one reason to be unhappy with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry right now.

These two ladies, through their lawyers and legal entities, are making great efforts to enforce intellectual property law against their fans— the very people who support and adore and ultimately finance their lives. There is good reason for us to judge harshly the multi-millionaires who attack the average citizen, but this is not a blog on Marxism or justice or truth. I’m here to write about law and video games.

So, let’s compare two approaches to intellectual property law in the 21st century. Let’s compare the business models and legal approaches of TS/KP with RiotGames, Inc. The framework to keep in mind is that most intellectual property laws don’t have to be enforced. There is no rule that you have to go after people for copyright or trademark infringements (generally). Yes, there are some sacrifices you make by not enforcing some of your rights, but it’s still a choice.

Though neither of them would like it (I guess they’re in some kind of feud, because being rich, acclaimed, and famous isn’t enough to overcome basic human failures), I’m comfortable using TS and KP interchangeably for this analysis. They offer the same goods and services for pretty much the same prices. So, their business model is $1 songs on iTunes, monetizing YouTube music videos, $100 concert tickets, royalties for radio and online audio services, sponsorships, appearances, and merchandise. They (with their enormous business operations) make musical products and sell them in the same way that musicians have since radio (with basic adaptations of the same model for television and internet).

RiotGames, Inc. develops, publishes, and maintains one of the most played video games in the world. Riot does not charge anyone to play the game. They do not charge for downloading, registering, playing, or for any other use of the game permitted by the EULA and TOS agreements. They will accept money for optional, purely aesthetic enhancements to the game, but this is the extent of their revenue (not counting their e-sports operation, which is distinct from the game and heavily guarded by NDAs that make analysis and explication difficult, if not impossible).

It seems obvious— even intuitive– that the business approach which demands more money would be the one to allow fans leniency with intellectual property. After all, KP/TS take in millions each year, so they certainly don’t need the extra potential money from meager merchandise sales to cover their expenses. Of course, for reasons we don’t need to explore, TS/KP are hell-bent on making sure their fans get no enjoyment from their manufactured musical entertainment apparatus without permission and a fee.

Equally intuitive is the idea that a company that gives away its only product must certainly be cautious and guarded with its intellectual property. That company needs alternative revenue sources, and almost everything it does is only recognized in a world of strong copyright and trademark protection. And yet, RiotGames has actively encouraged fans to interact with their work in every medium of creative expression. They even created a venue for fans to share and display their art, music, videos, poetry, and sculptures.

Here we have two different models, laid out for comparison. There are several questions worth asking: Which model is ethical? Which model shows respect for the fans, for the art, and for the artist? Which model engenders a sense of community and mutual appreciation? Which model will thrive in the 21st century?

For those who feel that, at the end of the day, the bottom line on the balance sheet is what matters, and should be what guides and justifies business and legal choices, here are those important numbers:

KP: 110 million

TS: 180 million

RiotGames, Inc: 624 million (2013), maybe over 999 million in 2014.

GG.

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Child[ren] of Light [in Fiber Optic Cables]: Battling the Monster of Data Vulnerability

I. Like so many other gamers, I usually have some complaints about a game- some buggy feature in the UI, some design choice that manages to annoy me throughout the entire game, repetitive  music that grates on my nerves, etc. It doesn’t mean the game is bad, but just that I see some room for improvement. I don’t know how I would improve Child of Light. It has a wonderful story, beautiful art, fun and interesting combat, characters I can care about, and not much else. I think that was one of the strongest points of the game—its leanness. The developers did not burden the game with extra fluff; they edified the game down to what was essential, and worked to make that as excellent as they could. The only thing that I didn’t love about the game was that I had to play it through Uplay (after buying and installing it through Steam). The absurdity and frustration of one game distribution platform directing me to another game distribution platform occupied my mind as I played the opening levels of Child of Light. As I played a coming-of-age tale about a loss of innocence and the fight to defend oneself and loved ones in a hostile world, I saw the obvious comparison to the coming-of-age of cyberspace, and the fight to defend data and identity in a hostile world. The first point I thought of was how efforts to protect against piracy are often misguided, but I then thought about data protection more generally.

II. The young protagonist, Aurora, grows through her battles in a dangerous world. Coming-of-age stories are about the loss of protection and the discovery of vulnerability in a dangerous and unforgiving world. The internet has had its own coming-of-age progress. It is grown from a nascent state of limited, careful users who protected and cared for it to being used by billions of people every day, with billions of dollars spent maintaining and attempting to control or harness it in one way or another. From businesses who use the internet to conduct business, to businesses whose business is conducting internet through cables and wireless transmissions, to government agencies to anarchist hackers, everyone wants to govern the data of the internet.

III. So, in response to the rising threat of hackers and errors, passwords and encryption became ubiquitous. But despite putting a deadbolt on the door, the data frequently seeps through cracks at the hinges or under a window left slightly ajar. Think about the ways our “data” escapes our control:

– Large-scale Database hacks (PlayStation Network, HomeDepot, Target, AT&T, Steam, etc.)

– Private, small hacks (phishing scams, ATM card readers, discarded paper mail, keylogging)

– Third party purchases of data.

-We carelessly or inadvertently publish our own data without realizing it, or thinking about the consequences.

We don’t hear about a lot of people losing their data because of weak personal  passwords. In the 80s and 90s (and sometimes beyond), most films that depicted some kind of cybersecurity breach showed someone sneaking into a researched area and guessing (or using a previously obtained) a password.  I have a constant background fear for my data, but not because I think someone might guess one of my passwords. It’s because my data is already out there, entrusted to dozens of companies.

IV. In Child of Light, combat allows for either physical or magical attacks. Each character has corresponding defensive stats for each kind of attack: physical resistance and magical resistance (nothing new for the RPG genre); high physical resistances do nothing to protect against magical attacks. In the same way, my setting an extremely strong, 28-character login for my laptop does not protect my credit card information from getting stolen from the servers of Steam or AT&T or AcmeCorp. (Hopefully, their hash functions do!)

As we come of age, we learn to lock doors to houses and cars, and exercise basic, sound judgment about safety in public. People need to become educated about cybersecurity. Everyone, from the most average consumer purchasing on Amazon, to network and IT administrators of large corporations and government offices, needs to think about what the real threats are and what measures are helpful and productive in protecting data. Given the way data has been compromised in the last two years, I am inclined to think that monthly password changes with the usual set of enormously restrictive requirements is not always the best or most pertinent protection.