Sunday, January 15, 2012

Against SOPA, Part 2

A few companies, but not the ones pushing SOPA, understand the right way to make money in the digital age. Valve, makers of the video game distribution system called Steam, understand. Back on slashdot, 'hairyfeet' explains:
Steam DRM is trivial to bypass for anyone but the simplest Billy Joe Bob (which is what the original DRM like CD checks was for, to get rid of casual piracy) and hacked Steam games are all over P2P yet Gabe from Valve is singing "Merry Xmas to me" while swimming in a giant pool full of money like Scrooge McDuck, why? Because he learned the way to turn pirates into customers isn't pile on the DRM and hoop jumps but to make it easy, simple, and cheap. We humans are lazy creatures by nature and if you make something simple enough and cheap enough it becomes more of a PITA to pirate than it does to simply buy it and Valve seems to get that.

Take my own case for example, I probably spent a good $200 this Steam Xmas sale between me and my two boys. Now was there a SINGLE game, even one, that I couldn't have pirated trivially? Nope in fact I could have simply used the listings on Steam and went and downloaded every single one if i desired, so why didn't I? Because Valve has made it as simple as "whip out CC, push button, get game" and their download speeds are insanely fast compared to most P2P, most of the games i bought were bundle packs where I got a pile of games in a series for one low price (such as FEAR 1 & 2 & the DLC extras for $5)or a game with ALL the DLC (which the pirated version never has, such as Just Cause II with all the DLC included for $7) and unlike the pirated version I can enjoy full MP support, I get the game automatically updated to current, I get Valve's excellent long tail game support (Such as their throwing in HL:DM when I bought the complete HL2 series which is STILL highly populated after all these years) and it even keeps my graphics drivers updated without me having to bother.


So if companies would just accept the mantra of keep it simple, easy, and cheap, put in the most simple of DRM, just to keep Billy Joe Bob from passing around copies to all his buddies, they could be making mad piles o' cash instead or trying to assrape the entire Internet with SOPA and the like. For an example of a company that didn't "get it" look at MSFT, for about 7 months I saw NOTHING but legit versions of Windows and in a small shop that's unheard of, so why did it happen? At $50 a copy the win 7 HP upgrade made it cheaper and less hassle to buy Windows than it was to pirate and $50 appears to be the sweet spot for Windows Home. Sure enough Ballmer kills the program and not 30 days later I start seeing Win 7 Ultimate everywhere because folks simply weren't willing to pay $100 for home and if they are gonna pirate why not get the biggest SKU? Make it simple, easy, and cheap, find the sweet spot on price and people WILL buy simply because its the easiest route. Throw in a couple of bonuses that pirates don't get like DLC and MP and it becomes a no brainer. I mean when I get both Max Paynes for $2.75, Butcher Bay remade in HD AND Dark Athena for $5, and JC II with over a pages worth of DLC for $7 why would I bother to pirate?
Actually, buying stuff on Steam is so easy it's scary. I don't even have to enter my credit card info; they already have it. Just a couple of clicks and you can start downloading your game (which is also automatic, no manual installation!) No wonder I've probably bought $200 in games over the past year. Because it's easier than piracy.

Look, I have a well-paying job and plenty of disposable income; why would I waste my time pirating when it's so easy not to? And as for people that don't have much disposable income, why should big companies waste so much time trying to prevent them from copying? It won't increase their bottom line that much.

Steam also uses sales, just like any physical store. They often put games on sale for 33%, 50%, or even 75% off. New games may not be put on sale for as much as a year, but when you go to the game store you can get a good deal on something pretty much every day. So when I'm a fan of a franchise I tend to buy at full price (e.g. Portal 2 for $50), but I also buy games I've never heard of for rock-bottom prices. I got Flatout: Ultimate Carnage for $5, which turned out to be such a terrific racing game that I bought a $90 racing wheel for it. (Sometimes I wish I could give an extra "tip" for a game that I paid very little for, if it turns out to be really good.)

Note: there are a couple of gotchas with Steam. First, you can't return a game if it won't run on your computer. There are two games in my library I've never played for this reason, and if you're thinking this must be against consumer-protection laws, well, you're probably right. Second, you can't re-sell or transfer a game to anyone else. So think carefully before you pay full price for a game on Steam. On the plus side, you can install a game on multiple computers, but ordinarily you can't run it on two computers at the same time (this sounds like it imposes an unreasonable internet-access requirement on single-player games, but that's only partly true.)

Netflix is another obvious example of doing things the "right" way. $8 per month buys us access to Netflix's entire movie catalog.

Thanks to Steam, we don't pirate games at our place anymore. Thanks to Netflix, we almost never pirate movies and we don't need cable, either.

However, we are huge Dr. Who fans. As far as we know, as Canadians we don't get Dr. Who on broadcast TV and we don't know a place where we can buy it to watch at the same time it becomes available on TV. So we pirate it.

Likewise, I want to buy my music in the form of MP3s, but I am boycotting Apple and iTunes. Amazon sells MP3s, but (last I checked) they won't sell to Canadians. So guess what? I haven't bought any music for about a year. My music collection is stagnant and I feel bad about that, but it's entirely the music industry's fault (I assume it wasn't Amazon's idea to refuse sale to Canadians).

Companies that push laws like SOPA, including the three biggest record companies (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group) are not willing to adapt to what customers want. They refuse to sell the customer what they want, are dismayed that this hurts their bottom line, and then use their immense lobbying power to demand laws to fix the problem.

This behavior, unfortunately, forces our discussions to be about how bad some new bill in congress is, and how to organize against it, instead of talking about alternatives to copyright and different business models that customers like and that actually work.

The problem with copyright is that it's backwards. Copyright can't pay you a dime for actually doing the work, it only pays people by preventing other people from making copies, which, indirectly, allows authors to charge money for copies. Copyright acts as though the work that authors do is worthless, and that only the copies have value. In my opinion the opposite is true; it is the work that deserves payment, it is the product of the work that has value to society, and making copies is a necessary mechanism to let society enjoy the work. If a work actually has value to society--whether it's a "free" work like OpenOffice or a billion-dollar hit like Avatar--the value to society is increased, not diminished, by making copies and using them. So copyright's fundamental approach of banning unauthorized copies just feels wrong.

And when we look at copyright, I think we should use the right perspective. Yes, we want authors to be paid. And maybe there's an argument to be made that we should pay them for their work alone, separate from its value to society. But that should not be the fundamental goal. The fundamental goal should be to enrich society. Why should authors be paid? Because what they do is valuable to society. Because it makes the world a better place. We should pay authors not for their sake, but for our sake. If they don't get paid, authors would do much less authoring! That would be bad for society. We pay them so that we can have software, music, movies and games.

When you look at the matter this way, restricting the freedom to copy looks even more wrongheaded. Why?

First, because society is enriched the most when something can be copied freely. There are many examples of this in the software world where I work: OpenOffice, Linux, SharpDevelop and thousands of other programs and code libraries are not only free to copy, but free to modify too. Moreover, when software is truly free, all of us developers have the freedom to take useful pieces of that software and re-use it in new software, with or without customizing it to our needs. This freedom has tremendous value and is a major contributor to the rapid progress we enjoy in the software industry. But as I have discussed before, free software authors are mostly unpaid for their "free" work because there are no laws that are financially favorable to us. And unlike Viacom or Sony Pictures, we have little power to lobby congress for laws favorable to us, or to influence public discourse.

Second, because civil liberties, including the freedom to copy, are good for humanity. Quite simply, free people are happy people. So let's be skeptical of "solutions" to society's problems when the solutions involve taking away our freedoms. Some freedoms, like the freedom to kill, must be taken away, but let us not destroy more freedoms than we absolutely have to.

But of course, we can't reduce copyright's reach without proposing an alternative. I've already discussed how business models based on convenience and low or variable prices can help authors without strengthening copyright; these buniness models would continue to work equally well under weaker copyright regimes and shorter copyright terms. And over six years ago I talked about how useful a micropayment system would be. Basically, we need a system in which digital goods can be sold for prices we all can afford: 25 cents or less. And we need to be able to pay for 25-cent goods and 10-cent goods with just one click, with instant delivery.

Instead of only selling a 20-chapter paper book for $10, it could easily be more profitable to give away the first chapter and sell the others online for 25 cents each, or allow each page be read for free with a prominent advertisement and a message like "Just 25 cents to hide ads!". I suspect that per-chapter or per-page business models would work best for nonfiction and reference books, such as programming books and textbooks. If authors insist on selling the paper book for full price, they are missing out on a huge number of possible customers that are only interested in one or two chapters and wouldn't consider paying full price. If they like the chapter they buy, they may come back later to buy the rest. And authors must allow search engines to index their books, otherwise most customers will never find them.

We also need a system that teenagers can use; people without credit cards should be able to buy digital goods.

Of course, I have more radical ideas, such as directly paying authors for their work (if authors so choose) and then letting everyone worldwide to copy and remix the work for free, but for some reason a lot of people are vehemently opposed to this kind of approach, probably because it would involve taxpayer money.

In any case, bills like SOPA and PIPA are absolutely wrong. These bills should be rejected in their entirety. Ideally we would replace them with far more progressive bills, but that won't happen because most of the lobbying money comes from the old guard, the big companies that are used to easy money and only care about protecting their obsolete business methods.

Oh, and let's stop concentrating on how we can make George Lucas richer. George Lucas already made billions of dollars; why should it still be illegal after 35 years to make copies of the original Star Wars? George is free to tweak the original Star Wars (yet again!) and charge us to see the new version, but why should we still have to pay him for the old version? Most of the profits were made long time ago in a century far, far away. It's time to reduce copyright to 30 years or less. I look forward to the day when every new Smartphone comes with a built-in library of a thousand classic movies and a million out-of-print books.

Update Jan 17: Eric Cantor is "[stopping] all action on SOPA", but its Senate twin, PIPA, still lives and English Wikipedia is planning a protest blackout for tomorrow.

I'd like to add some last words from Slashdot:
We now have the technology for everyone in the world with an internet connection to access basically the entire wealth of human culture. I don't think there is ethical case to be made that this should be artificially restricted. The question we need to solve is not how we can maintain outdated business models under these circumstances, but how we can make that happen and still enable content creators to make a living. - Asic Eng
I've not been a fan of stealing content, but I'm coming around to that point of view. Copyright is a social contract where creators get something (a monopoly) in return for something (the improvement of the public domain when the monopoly expires). They're using the corruption of law to get their something without paying the something by preventing the expiration of the monopoly. Complying with this encourages corruption of law. So in the interest of good citizenship until they restore the balance of getting something in return for something, violating copyright isn't a sin: it's your civic duty. - symbolset
The right answer, if you are a copyright supporter like me, is to ease back to something that the public will be less likely to revolt against while we do some serious objective research on the problem. The right answer is to find out how we can fund the progress of science and the useful arts under this new reality. Copying does not cost any money any more. That is a fundamental change that we need to adapt to. Copyright was invented based on a premise that is no longer true. Failing to consider the new reality and research how to adapt to it is as stupid as Krushchev insisting on Communism. Nice theory, except it does not work.

We need to think about that and come up with a solution, not just fire wildly into the dark. None of the legislation over the past 15 years has made a hint of a dent in infringement. Same thing we've been saying ever since the DMCA was just a twinkle in the RIAA's eye. These laws cannot work, mathematically speaking, because reality has changed. We need to stop the wishful madness and think of how to turn free copying into a win. Seeing as how it is a massive boon to society to be able to reproduce things for free, that shouldn't be too hard. We are making this harder than it needs to be. - bob9113
So, what's right? Laws that serve the people.

Put strict limits on lobbyism, campaign contributions and the rights of large corporations. Don't fix the symptoms of a bad system, fix the system. - Tom

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