Sunday, April 29, 2012

Could circumventing DRM actually be wrong?

This story makes my head spin, but it has some suitably complex moral shades for a Sunday morning.

The article is worth reading, but the short version of it is that the makers of a video game, MapleStory, sued the makers of a clone server application, UMaple, which allowed people to use MapleStory's proprietary game client to connect to the UMaple server instead of MapleStory's, and thus play without paying MapleStory.

It sounds simple if you don't actually think about it very hard, but I aim to show you that it's actually somewhat complex.  Bear with me.

If we expand fair use to cover UMaple's actions--assuming it's non-commercial (in this case apparently it wasn't, but more on that later), it could definitely cost the maker's of MapleStory some money.  Is that okay?

Certainly, anyone has the right to write a game server program.  This is even okay if you are reverse engineering another server, in order to interact with a client.  I simply can't see any inherent problem with that.  To say otherwise is to legislate stupidity--you aren't allowed to talk to a computer program yourself, you have to use so-and-so's client software or you're bad, mmkay?  Remember, at the byte level it's not a game, it's bits and bytes of data on the computer you own.

However, it is clear that this directly lifts potential money out of the pockets of the makers of MapleStory.  Note I said "potential".  There is no guarantee that even a single penny of revenue is lost--it could be that people who connect to the UMaple server will never pay to play "legitimately".  Or they might--I think we can't know.  But it's certainly not a given.  (However, I don't think it matters, either, and I'll explain why.)

Now admittedly, the realm of games and copyright and fair use is indeed tricky, and as you may know, video games are a subject near and dear to my heart--as I spent a couple years making this one.  And indeed, my game is a client/server model, and in the long run I would love for it to be advertisement supported--which could require that users only connect to my "legitimate" servers for that to work.

But I have to say, I find the notion that the user must respect arbitrary, closed code (the client) running on their computer a bit fanciful.  It's your computer.  My software is running on your computer because you gave me a chance to please you and earn your custom.  But to do that, You have to give me access to your most precious data, potentially, and other things that are important to you on your computer.  In other words, you're trusting me.  You're trusting me not to turn your machine into part of a botnet, or scour your hard drive for bank account numbers, personal pornography etc. etc. etc.  Man, you are giving me a chance to succeed, for which I should be grateful (and I am, please go try my game if you're in to that sort of thing).

Yes, the software developer has done a lot of work to get you this piece of software to play with, but you are also providing a lot of trust as well--trust that is hard to get these days with rampant malware and botnets and shady dealers all over the internet.

So basically I think we're at least "even" on the score of who owes who what.

Am I making any sense?

The way I see it, if I want to make my game ad supported, for example, it's my job, as the developer, to make that work.  It's not yours, as the customer.  Sure, legally, I may have some cudgels to beat you with, but that doesn't make it right.  As a businessperson, it's my job to respect reality.  The reality is that you have full control over your computer, and my video game runs in that environment which you control, not me.  I can try to control it, but that makes me a punk ass bitch, and it seriously disrespects you, the customer.  And that is what Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) software is--an attempt to control you via your computer, and an implicit disrespect of you as an assumed thief.

So for example, one thing I might do with my game is ship the ads in the client.  It's less elegant than enabling advertisement updates via the server, but it's also less convenient to hack.  But it would make cloning the server irrelevant at a stroke.  That problem is solved.

And indeed, people could still hack the client binary, but why bother?  It's a free game.  New ads could come out with new releases, which I could make a point to do often.  Point being, by simply using a little common sense, I can change the value proposition for my users so that they don't want a hacked version.  Hell, I could have prizes and shit in the ads, stuff like that, that they wouldn't want to miss out on.  Who knows.  The possibilities are literally limitless.

(For that matter, by making my game ad-supported, piracy is also solved.  I want as many copies out there as possible--piracy literally helps me.  See how accepting reality and working with it can be more elegant than fighting it with legal nonsense?)

There is no need for this heavy handed bullshit if businesspeople could just stop thinking like children, which is how I characterize using legal brute force to get their way.  There is a time for that, but it is not all the time.  Children scream and pout and fight when they don't get their way.  Mature people are more subtle, and manipulate the situation so that they cannot fail.  And they are generally more successful in their endeavors because of this.

So I'm looking at MapleStory and I'm thinking it's a damn irritating looking game.  But apparently people play it and found motivation to build out a third party server.  They may not be ad-supported, but apparently they are completely dependent on users connecting to their own servers with the client.

Looks to me like the people who made MapleStory screwed up their business model.

So yes, pirate my game client, it is your right, as long as you don't try to use it to make money--I'm fine with it.

Yes, it may cost the creator money.  Lots of things about expanding fair use could potentially cost content creators money--money I don't feel they are entitled to by default.  The only way they can be entitled to money by default is if the law is used as a cudgel.  I make the arguments  above simply to show that it is possible to make money without that level of control over how users use artistic creations.

In the final analysis, it is never your obligation to make someone else money.  You have your own problems.  If they want your money, they should figure out some way to earn it, just like everybody else in the world.

As it happens, of course, UMaple may have been making money from it, and if so, then fuck'em.  Interestingly, the judge in the case didn't give MapleStory jack for the copyright infringement itself, but only for the breaking of the game's DRM, as per the vile Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA).

How ironic, to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.  America: Fuck Yeah!


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