Bioware’s Bans and the Public’s “Pirate” Perception

I was reading a good piece on the whole “From Ashes” controversy on Gamasutra, and ran across a bit that I hadn’t really known about that I wanted to take a look at. Apparently, you’re all pirates. You just didn’t know it.

Read the text to get the info

"Wait...THIS is 'Piracy' now"?

In case you didn’t click through,EA/Bioware was apparently banning people from their forums for posting the .ini tweaks to open up the extra “From Ashes” character.  Last I checked, those bans were still complete bans, too: if you get banned from the site, you’re banned from your games. Yes, even the single-player ones.

That’s pretty bad.

What’s worse, though, is that we aren’t talking about any sort of real “crack” or “hack”. Tweaking a configuration file isn’t cracking or hacking a damned thing. Go read any given PC gaming site, and they’ll routinely give you instructions on how to tweak this, that, or the other thing in order to improve your performance or customize your experience.  Skyrim has loads of little tweaks that you can do to it, and nobody’s going to give you grief for it, or ban you from Steam for doing so. Heck, you can even patch the Skyrim executable if you want.

This little guy? He's a hack too. Just an official one.

So to call this “piracy” is just odious. Plain and simple. ODIOUS. I still like Bioware, somehow, and I understand why this would be a tough position to be in. But to call users “pirates” because they’re accessing material on disc that they have paid money for? Material that you have told them isn’t the “real” DLC? Material that can be accessed through a simple configuration tweak, the same kind that happens every hour, of every day, on practically every PC gamer’s computer? What’s next, labeling them “pirates” for reading multiplayer strategies on some Wikia? Condemning them for watching somebody’s “Let’s Play” on Vimeo?  Maybe you should go after people who look over somebody else’s shoulder…they haven’t paid to see that content! PIRATES!

“Worse” as that is, though, that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is that this sort of labeling only serves to make people believe that piracy is legitimate. If you’re labeling perfectly normal activity as “piracy”, then what are you going to do with the real ones? “Super-pirates”? “Ultrapirates?” No. You’ll call them “pirates” too. And when the harmless people see you lumping them in with the actual pirates, their reaction is going to be a combination of “well, screw you buddy!” and “fine, if I’m a pirate, then I’m a pirate. Off to the torrent sites, I have some downloading to do”.  Then you’ve lost them, probably for good.

That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Ultimately, the fight against piracy has to be a moral and ethical one. You have to convince people that copyright infringement is wrong—not just because it’s illegal, but that it’s wrong, full stop. That isn’t the only way to get people to get stuff legitimately—Gabe Newell’s made nearly two billion dollars proving that convenience is a factor as well—but there still needs to be a certain basic level of empathy for your position.

That empathy is eroding. I’m seeing it every day. I’m seeing it in the harsh reaction to DRM, to DLC, and to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. I’m seeing it in the rise of “pirate parties” across Europe, and of public officials willing to give them time and perception. I’m seeing it in the hardening of Internet opinions against publishers. I’m seeing it in the changing views of game critics like Jim Sterling, who went from being a savage critic of pirates to practically throwing up his hands and saying “go ahead”. And, honestly, I’m seeing it everywhere else as well. So can you, if you look around and pay attention to what people are saying when they don’t think they’ll get banned by some site administrator.

The pirates even have snazzy logos now

The producers do deserve that empathy. Our society and culture really do benefit from giving them their fair shot at making a decent return on the time and money they’ve risked on the enterprise. Even if their rights should never completely trump consumers’ rights, they DO have rights. That trend towards legitimizing piracy should be arrested. But the rise of the “Pirate Parties” shows that “arrests” won’t do it. If the law conflicts with peoples’ sense of morality, then it is the law may end up being changed.

That’s what Bioware’s risking here. That all-important goodwill and empathy towards producers is being shredded by their behavior. Arbitrary bans from single-player content, exploitative DLC, abusive labeling of ordinary behavior as “piracy” and what would appear to be outright lies about your DLC plans are not going to help producers convince the public that their copyrights are worth protecting.

Instead, it’ll help convince the public that there’s enough free stuff on the Internet that society doesn’t really need to protect and support companies like Bioware. Sure, it’ll suck not having things like SWTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or the rest; but if the public decides that that’s a small enough price to pay, it’ll be near-impossible to convince them otherwise.

The masses will be flying their digital Jolly Rogers, and all the lawsuits in all the world won’t change their mind otherwise.

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