SOPA Isn’t the Solution, But Can We At Least Agree There’s A Problem?
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently being debated in Congress is quite clearly a massive overreach. It gives the government the potential authority to effectively shut down major, largely legitimate web sites for hosting a minuscule amount of pirated content. It could threaten the very existence of sites that host a wide range of used-submitted content, and could easily be used by the government to stifle Americans’ free speech rights. The bill’s potential effects on the very structure of the Internet make it much too broad a cudgel for a problem like online piracy.
Yet online piracy is still a problem. And despite the myriad flaws with the legislation, I have to say I can kind of see where the Entertainment Software Association industry trade group is coming from when they say they support the law.
Game publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to battling piracy. If they do nothing, they are essentially ceding a good portion of their sales to pirates who have no intention of ever paying them a dime. If they institute a simple DRM scheme to try and protect their games, some gamers will get annoyed and others will get to work breaking the protection within days or even hours, making it worthless. If they institute a strong DRM scheme, such as Ubisoft’s recent efforts to require a persistent Internet connection to constantly confirm the validity of a played game, it ends up negatively impacting a good many legitimate customers and also cause the esteemed, self-appointed “Internet Representatives of Gaming” to go into a collective hissy fit so large that it ends up costing more sales than it saves.
(This is the point where a large group of angry commenters will try to argue that allowing piracy doesn’t actually hurt sales, and that plenty of successful games don’t have DRM, and that pirated copies can actually serve as a promotional tool for a good game, and blah blah blah, to which I say: bull. While it’s true that not every single illegal game download represents a “lost sale” for the publisher, you can’t tell me that, in a world where illegal software copying was 100% impossible, that many, if not most, would-be pirates would instead dig down and spend money on the games they want.)
This is the untenable situation that game publishers in 2012 find themselves in. The law is on their side — software piracy is still illegal — and morality is on their side — game makers deserve compensation for the games they create — but the diffuse, decentralized and international nature of the Internet makes it nearly impossible to defend this moral and legal high ground with any meaningful weapons.
And so you get massive overreach like SOPA, which threatens to do the equivalent of killing a cockroach infestation by giving copyright holders the power to burn the entire house down. Which is not to say that the proponents of SOPA really want to burn the entire house down. As the ESA pointed out in a recent statement, their real target is:
Rogue websites – those singularly devoted to profiting from their blatant illegal piracy – [which] restrict demand for legitimate video game products and services, thereby costing jobs.
Again, SOPA’s most obvious flaw is that it gives copyright holders and the government the power not just to go after those rogue websites, but overwhelmingly legitimate websites that just happen to fall afoul of some copyright claim. But that overreach is obscuring the fact that these rogue, piracy-exclusive web sites are a bad thing for the industry and for gamers.