How Pirates Change Games (It’s Usually Not An Improvement)

Sea Of Thieves: It’s Not Called “Sea of Cool Guys” – Mike Krahulik

Sea Of Thieves is a game where people who want to be pirates can be pirates. Some players really, really  get into the role. Every online game community has experienced some trolling and griefing; there are always players who invent their own game, though it’s always the same game, in which the objective is to make other players unhappy. The developers of Sea of Thieves specifically designed space for that kind of player—unlike other games which seek to curtail negative behavior and ban players who ruin a good time for others. In a game about pirates, wanton aggression has a place.

 

When You’re a Professional Pirate…

It took me a while to understand how copyright infringement (and counterfeiting) came to be called by the same term that was previously reserved for attacking a ship, killing the crew, and stealing their stuff. The two crimes don’t really look similar: copying a digital file rarely involves a cutlass or a flintlock pistol, taking barrels of rum or chests of gold, and typically doesn’t involve boats at all (except when moving a lot of counterfeit goods internationally, I guess).

I think the term makes more sense from the perspective of the owners of the rights. Pirates of the 15th-19th centuries were hard to find, hard to predict, and hard to pursue. Sometimes their attacks wouldn’t be noticed for months, as it was hard to get good cell phone reception in the mid-Atlantic in the 1600’s. So, when music, movies, books, and games started getting copied and distributed, and rights owners struggled to identify who was doing it, where they were, or what they might do next, as they completely disrupted the industry’s ability to sell and distribute their wares, I imagine pirates came to mind.

 

Countermeasures

Media industries reacted to piracy differently, as best fit the particular medium. The music industry moved away from physical goods and into the digital marketplace. The iTunes Music Store was, in many ways, like the P2P networks that had threatened the industry, except that Apple was the only one seeding and they charged for each song.

The video game industry took a different approach. After a short-lived effort to encrypt physical copies, the industry moved to a digital distribution system. This was easy enough, and platforms like Steam and the Play Station Store were already moving the industry in this direction. The next move, however, was for the internet to start shaping the way games were played: online gaming became increasingly popular, and developers and publishers realized that it was easier to keep track digital copies if devices had to connect to the company’s servers. It was a natural fit: the games already involved internet connection, so it wasn’t much more work to have the serves check to see if players had authentic copies of the games. Because the game required player to be always online, this method became known as Always-On DRM. When it worked well, it was something that honest players would never notice or think about. But it didn’t always work so well.

Rebellion

The new system worked well for some games. Other games… well, suffered. Sometimes, the online connection requirement was obviously completely artificial and frustrated players because the setup made no sense. This exacerbated problems in cases of poor execution: when a server couldn’t connect, it was even more frustrating when the server wasn’t necessary for the game experience. Even today, not everyone has a consistent, stable, high-speed internet connection (especially in the US). Many players just wanted a simple, single-player experience, and Always-On DRM interfered with that. The method created an environment that only allowed players to play when the company was able to facilitate it; if the server was down, or the connection was slow, the game was unplayable. This upset people who paid for a leisure product and then found out they could not use it at their leisure. By increasing friction and fuelling resentment against the game industry, some game companies suffered as they tried to implement Always-On DRM. The artificial inclusion of Always-On DRM to the reboot of the incredibly popular and successful video game SimCity is credited with its failure (notably, the execution of the Always-On DRM was sub-par, as the server was frequently down or buggy).

 

Pirate By Design

Sea of Thieves found success as a game by embracing a certain attitude that the rest of the industry had been fighting for decades. The developers made a space for people who want to undermine the work of others. So far, it’s been an interesting experiment that I can only predict will culminate in the coagulation of that particular kind of trolling, griefing player. I see it as a kind of prison in which the inmates believe they are at a theme park. Maybe the game will eventually give us some kind of data about trolls who revel in ruining the joy of others. Maybe it will teach us something about pirates.

There is already a lesson about piracy for video games. In the early 90s, piracy was built into the business model of some companies. They called it “shareware,” and the idea was that people would copy and distribute a portion of a game. The developer hoped that this would serve as a sort of advertising, and people who enjoyed the shareware portion of the game would then purchase the full game. In 1993-4, idSoftware proved that this model was feasible with one of the most popular games of the 90s: Doom was distributed widely as a shareware product and the company made enough profit for the head programmer and the lead level designer to each purchase a high-end sports car. This year, idSoftware released Rage 2; unsurprisingly, the new parent company, ZeniMax, did not opt for a shareware distribution model. The video game industry has changed over the last 30 years. It takes a special combination of product, customer, and ecosystem for it to be a smart choice to give away a third of your product for free—but it’s not an impossible dream.

Today, piracy remains a problem for the video game industry, but new legal challenges (some with more legitimate basis than others) have proven more urgent: legislation of loot boxes, esports contracts, prosumer sponsorship deals and disclosures, copyright infringement within the game, and copyright infringement for streaming and video uploads.

Maybe that’s the best reason to keep the term “piracy” for copyright infringement that involves copying the entire work and distributing for consumption as a counterfeit or inauthentic product: there are so many ways copyright can be involved in a video game in the current digital ecosystem, have different terms for the different infringements is nice.

When Covering Your Back, Remember That Legal Analysis Shapes Risk Analysis

In 2005, Jonathan Coulton recorded an original arrangement of “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mixalot. In 2013, the popular TV show Glee featured an arrangement of “Baby Got Back” that is, to my untrained ears, indistinguishable from that of Mr. Coulton. I have no evidence to offer that plagiarism or copying occurred. I simply cannot imagine any good-faith argument that the arrangement of the two productions is dissimilar in any way.

Copying Can Be Legal

Even if Glee did steal the arrangement (and I’m not saying they did, and I have no knowledge that Fox ever said they did), the show’s producers and network (Fox Broadcasing) didn’t break any laws. The general consensus by attorneys interviewed by news sources is that blatantly taking the arrangement of a musician’s cover of a third party’s song (especially if the cover is covered by Creative Commons) is mostly ok.

So, let us assume that Fox stole Coulton’s arrangement (for the sake of the academic dissection of a hypothetical case). Let us further assume that Fox is completely innocent of all crimes and liabilities. Now, granting Fox’s total innocence, I conclude: Fox made the wrong decision and failed to truly, meaningfully protect their Intellectual Property portfolio. Wielding copyright offensively offended people and undermined Fox’s goodwill (which is the value of a trademark). Losses in trademark  are rarely worth gains in copyright.

Two Legal Analyses To Get to The Bottom Line

There are two approaches to the question of whether Fox ought to use Mr. Coulton’s arrangement.

Analysis 1

An attorney examines the facts surrounding Mr. Coulton’s arrangement. The attorney researches the law that applies to music covers and the extent of copyright over arrangements. The attorney applies the relevant law to the facts and offers a professional opinion as to the likely legal consequences that would result from copying Mr. Coulton’s arrangement. Fox executives and producers consider the opinion and weigh the risks and rewards, and make a decision.

Analysis 2

An attorney performs the same procedure for analysis as above, but with one addition: The attorney also evaluates the effect on the full IP portfolio of Fox, including their trademark value (which is a concept that is almost interchangeable with “goodwill” in law and business).

Why would such similar analyses lead to a different conclusion? Because the executives and producers are chiefly concerned with the objective mathematics of “the bottom line.” The first legal analysis looks only at one narrow question (“Can we avoid losing litigation if we do this?”), while the second analysis addresses as more broad question (“What effect will this choice have on our IP portfolio?”). By including the harm to the trademark (as “loss of goodwill”) in the analysis, the executives now have different numbers to work with when calculating their bottom line.

Business Law 301: Just Because It’s Good Under the Law Doesn’t Mean It’s Good Under the Bottom Line

The moral of this story is the same lesson that I offered to Nintendo earlier this year: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good business. You can legally get away with a lot of things – particularly if you have a lot of attorneys helping you. It is easy for business executives to get caught up in the details of what they can “get away with.” We repeatedly see examples of companies loosing their long-term, broad vision of building a brand. Companies are generally better off when they do not sacrifice short-term copyright wins for long-term trademark growth.

The Tiny Legal Differences That Make A Big Difference

“Building a brand” has a lot to do with intellectual property, but few people distinguish between trademarks and copyrights. However, the differences matter. Executives often think in very concrete terms, and the concept of a trademark is much more abstract than the idea of copyright.

If copyright law seems a little up-in-the-clouds abstract, trademark law is in low Earth orbit. When there’s a copyright dispute, the questions of ownership and rights might be murky, but the thing at issue is very clear: a photograph, a book, a script, a painting, a song, etc. Trademark law is much more robust than copyright law, but the subject matter has always been very, very abstract and vague: how consumers think and feel about a good or service—or the ability of a consumer to identify the source of a good or service. The most tangible that subject matter ever gets is anecdotes and consumer surveys—which always come with a margin of error, by its nature as a set of statistics. The “thing” that trademark law ties to can be very concrete in a counterfeiting case, but outside of that, it’s just “goodwill”—the special feeling that consumers have in their hearts for a good or service.

So, when an executive is faced with “protecting the intellectual property of the brand,” it’s easier for them to think about something concrete and tangible. It’s easier to think that “protecting IP” means “stop someone else from benefiting from an image or sound.” And that is one important part of IP protection. But IP protection is means, not an end. The goal of IP protection is to build your brand and your business. Failing to understand this principle leads executives to make asinine decisions that make them look hypocritical and foolish while undermining their own businesses. Failing to know the difference between the categories of Intellectual Property can mislead smart businesspeople into acting on a misleading risk analysis.

It Would Be Unfair To Make Executives the Butt of The Joke

It is only fitting that I challenge myself on my analysis. Who am I to make such cavalier judgments? The executives at Fox (and other large corporations) have (combined) many decades more experience than I have. How could it be possible that I am right where they are wrong? Is it probable that I understand their product and their brand better than they do? I’m sure a lot of them have law degrees (and I have no doubt they talk to attorneys almost daily) – so why do they not share the same legal analysis or conclusions that I do?

I think that their positions force a particular focus. Business executives stand to lose a tremendous amount from failing to protect their IP. I lose nothing if my analysis of Fox’s or Nintendo’s business decision is wrong. I don’t have the same pressure to start from (or remain in) a deeply defensive trench. My risk-free position liberates me to be dangerously wrong—and therefore allows me to stumble into better ideas than the risk-laden executive can.

This is why I think it is the newer and smaller entertainment companies that will continue to blaze trails in new perspectives in managing their IP portfolios: They have more to gain and less to lose in taking counter-intuitive risks and re-imagining what it means to “protect IP.” It’s scarier for the larger companies to take anything less than a Draconian approach toward their intellectual property. Nintendo can’t imagine letting YouTube see someone play their games for even a few seconds. DevolverDigital can’t imagine NOT letting YouTube see every minute of every game.

Plagiarism and Originality

In the world of intellectual property, patents are based on being “novel,” while copyrights are predicated on bring “original.” Suppose I write (on this blog) a philosophy that summarizes the works of some great thinker. Further suppose I have never read that thinker’s works or been introduced (explicitly or directly, with my knowledge) to the thoughts and ideas of the thinker. Because my ideas are not new, my work cannot be called “novel.” However, because I developed it independently, it can be considered “original.” (There is some debate over whether, or to what extent, anyone can be said to develop any ideas “independently”; unsurprisingly, this debate is ignored by the law.) In the academic world, this concern translates as: Have I plagiarized?

If such a scenario as this seems far-fetched, I assure you it is not. Last month I was directed to a law review article concerning the philosophy of intellectual property. Nearly 3 years ago, I wrote my own essay on the subject, and I reached quite similar conclusions to those of the author. I was surprised, but also a little worried: if someone read both articles, they might reasonably suspect the more recent paper was influenced by the earlier paper without properly citing it (my paper was more recent by almost 2 decades). Yet I had never heard of the article or the author until years after writing the essay. In times now past, it would have been persuasive to respond that the author has a duty to research a subject before publishing. As the corpus of literature grows, it is less reasonable to expect an author to read even the majority of works on a topic prior to writing. As the number of authors skyrockets and the barriers to various sorts of publication modes (like blogs) decreases, it seems increasingly likely that ideas will overlap without the kind of prior knowledge that makes thorough research and citation possible. If this is true, do we need to re-think plagiarism? Or do we just need to be clearer as to whether academic plagiarism is a matter of novelty or originality?

What does this mean for IP in entertainment? I frequently consider and reconsider whether it’s better or worse that the plots, themes, interfaces, and other elements of videogames, movies, music, and books are not protectable by copyright. One argument in favor of such protection might be that it would encourage more creativity and diversity in entertainment if writers and producers had to come up with novel stories each time they produced a work (are we sick of “Generic-Brown-Grey-Shooter-Iron-Sight-Inspection” yet?). Of course, there is a practical problem with trying to determine the point at which one story sufficiently overlaps with another to claim it infringes.

I still think Torchlight 2 meets all of the street-level requirements to be called a rip-off of Diablo 3. The main differences are that Torchlight 2 works, is fun, and I still play it months after its release. Diablo 3 was full of problems, frustrating at every turn (in ways games shouldn’t be, with Error messages and dysfunctional game design), and I stopped after about 2-3 weeks. Perhaps the ultimate upside to the fact that a lot of would-be “IP” can’t be protected is that if your studio can do a better job with a basic idea or design, you can go for it. Therefore, the best protection for your unprotectable IP is to do such a great job with it that no one can improve on your game. It’s the opposite of preventing plagiarism in the academic world: To keep someone from copying your essay in a class, make it so bad that no one would want to sign their name on your work; to keep someone from copying your videogame (or movie, or song) idea, make it so amazingly good that no one wants to be compared to your work.

UPDATE: Critical Miss just published a comic related. If this is the generic video game IP (and it’s pretty accurate), and only one studio owned it, what would the other studios produce? (Anything at all?): http://goo.gl/ITFVL