Spore tops piracy charts, but don’t blame DRM

Matt Peckham
15 December, 2008
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Like a splash of cold water, the latest word electrifying entertainment feeds is that EA’s evolutionary toy-game Spore is the most pirated PC game of 2008. According to Torrent Freak, a weblog that professes to cover the BitTorrent biz, Spore is the most downloaded game on BitTorrent, something Torrent Freak attributes “in part…to the DRM [digital rights management] that came with the game.”

I burn no candles for digital rights management. It’s a creatively stillborn attempt to starve a hydra that doesn’t need to eat. Every time a game’s released to jeers about its implementation of SecuROM or StarForce, it’s almost instantly cracked and spread around the torrent scene. I’ve long wondered what sort of stats and presentation slides industry types must use in high-level meetings to justify their inconveniencing of legitimate paying customers when cracked versions of their products are consistently available to even the most casual freebooters. Let’s face it, the only truly effective solution to game piracy would involve policies so draconian I’d rather see the industry crash and burn than live with the unacceptably invasive alternatives.

But let’s play devil’s advocate, because the fact that Forbes lazily picked up and uncritically echoed the TorrentFreak story seems to have legitimised the mythical claim that Spore’s high piracy numbers are “in part” due to DRM protesters. I’m not saying such claims are flatly wrong, I’m just reminding everyone that no one’s released evidence to support such claims. Either way, such claims are mere speculation.

Even assuming DRM is a feckless workaround and borderline customer abusive, it’s all too easy to hop on the I’m-indignant-bandwagon and trundle off in a tizzy past a crucial point. Being foolish in terms of how you treat your customers isn’t necessarily illegal, but piracy is. When TorrentFreak says Spore was downloaded 1.7 million times since early September and attributes part of that “record breaking figure for a game” to DRM protesters, they may, whether by educated guess or sheer luck, be correct. They may also be dead wrong. Either way, they justifying nothing. Even if every pirated download of Spore could be indisputably represented as an anti-DRM vote, it wouldn’t legally exonerate or ethically justify a single one.

Lots of people sell things in ways that bug me. That doesn’t give me the right to stomp into a store and haul something off the shelf without paying for it. Where does this weird entitlement complex come from? Is it just because there’s that sense of invisibility when you’re stealing where prying eyes probably won’t see? If so, it’s a rather cowardly and convenient way to wave that piece of cake around on the end of stick before pulling it down and digging in.

If you don’t like a publisher’s copy protection scheme, piracy isn’t how you protest; not having anything to do with the game is.

I realise that may not be a popular argument. The entertainment industry’s embracing of increasingly paranoid anti-piracy methods and prosecutorial scare tactics isn’t winning friends and influencing customers. Count me as one of the offended. But I draw the line at voting not to have anything to do with the product, not gleefully stealing and playing it, then wagging my finger sanctimoniously at the publisher and claiming it’s their fault, they made me do it, and shame on them for “making” me debase myself.

It’s incidentally possible that the record number of Spore downloads is attributable to the game’s unprecedented pre-release popularity, the year-over-year upturn in industry sales, the huge overall upticks in numbers of people video gaming, the increase in numbers of broadband users, the overall increase in torrent usage, and so on. When no one wants to consider that instead of a bunch of righteous DRM protesters, there may in fact be 1.7 million conveniently finger-pointing freeloaders (as opposed to high-minded and principled DRM protestors who’d of course never, ever pirate a game like Spore if it came DRM-free!), it’s a bona fide sign that something’s amiss.

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