Copyright idiocy

I’ve just downloaded the first chapter in Tales of Monkey Island, the very welcome return of the title that first made me aware of the joys of computer games. You can’t buy it in the shops (yet): you pay $35 and download each chapter month by month. The episodic format is quite a smart way of keeping your interest going, and I hope will give the game scope to build the kind of length and involvement you could enjoy with the original titles.

The distribution model as far as I’m aware was first developed with the Steam-powered launch of Half Life 2. I hated Steam: it was a DRM mechanism that added no value to my experience as a customer. In fact it plonked a background application into my system, consuming resources, occasionally forcing ads on me. It meant that I could not  buy a game legitimately and then having played it give it to my sons to play it in their turn. This seems to me a form of reverse theft. If you buy a “real” game like Monopoly you can play it with whom you like, as often as you like and lend it to friends if you want. By doing the latter of course you may be depriving the copyright owners of income, but that’s none of their business. They have sold the product. You don’t own the copyright, but you do own the product, with unlimited rights to play, loan or resell.

I refused to buy the sequels to Half Life 2 because of what seems to me an infringement of my privacy and consumer rights. Steam has evolved a little, so it’s less intrusive and does add some marginal value by making it easier to download new games.  But this doesn’t outweigh the anti-consumer stance of its basic premise, and the same considerations sadly apply to Tales of Monkey Island.

There’s a mild irony here in that the game is a pirate romp. I create intellectual property myself so I’ve no desire to support “piracy”, but something bad is going on here and sooner or later there’s going to be a backlash.

So far courts have connived in the wholesale removal of basic consumer rights by allowing vendors to reclassify a straightforward product sale as a licence. Don’t get me started on the anti-customer behaviour of Microsoft, but then I don’t want to get started because Microsoft is only as bad as the rest of them (it’s just that I have a sneaking liking for Microsoft and only wish the company could be as good as it could be).

Still the real idiocy of software licensing was exposed when a spokesman for some computer gaming giant this week lashed out at High Street retailers, complaining that much of their turnover came from sales of “previously owned” titles and the people who had created the games weren’t benefiting at all. Well, there you see stripped bare the reality beneath the industry cant about protecting intellectual property: in the real world when you sold a book you accepted that you’d made your margin and what happened to the book next was not your business (hence secondhand bookshops). Now a game DVD in a box with artwork is as much of an object as a book, but because it’s also software it seems there are people in the industry who have trouble accepting that they will not be getting a piece of that afterlife. We’re talking about naked greed.

The one area in which the afterlife of a book has benefits for the author is in library payments. Interestingly this week Microsoft et al set themselves publicly against the legal judgement that would have let Google advance its landgrab of published books, which included provision for a fund that would have paid out to in-copyright authors whose work got used in some way. I’m not going to pretend to know what’s really going on there, but in a week that also featured Rupert Murdoch launching a drive for consensus (aka a cartel?) among news publishers in favour of charging for content, it seems that all in all we’re heading for deep waters and whether any clarity will emerge is an open question.

Whatever happens, it seems that the driving force here is the publishing industry (in whatever form) attempting to reinstate control of the distribution chain. It’s not about the real creators of the IP – the writers and artists – but about the middlemen who have profited so handsomely from their work, by controlling the distribution channels. The one clear (and ironic) thing is that the genie is already out of the bottle. Distribution itself is the one thing no one is going to be able to reclaim or control. Publishers are going to have to think of different ways of creating value that people want to pay for. Authors may be sensibly asking whether traditional publishers have anything to contribute at all.

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