Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Charlie Stross is Goddamned Brilliant- This Time About Piracy

Why? Because he's the first content provider I've ever met who actually understands the pirate subculture.

There's a figure I've heard quoted (unfortunately I don't know the source so I can't cite you chapter and verse on it) to the effect that the typical dead-tree book has, over its life cycle, an average of four readers. Moreover, sell-through in paper is around 50-60%; that is, for every book sold to a customer, 0.8 to 1.0 other books end up being returned or pulped. So the real figure is more like ten readers per book actually printed by the publisher.

Think about that. Today, publishers try like crazy to tie ebooks to a single reader via DRM, in their misplaced zeal to reduce profit leakage; but for the economic hit from piracy to equal the economic hit from libraries and second-hand bookstores and friends lending friends books, the unlicensed distribution channels would have to be shifting nine ebooks for every one that is sold commercially.

And you know what? I don't think most of the ebook sharing subculture is even about reading the books in the first place — it's about collecting, and participating in a gift sub-culture where your kudos is governed by how much stuff you can give away. Yes, this probably sounds alien to a lot of you. All I can say is, you haven't spent enough time monitoring alt.binaries.e-books.flood and the other pirate ebook distribution channels. There are folks there who, of a weekend, post more books than I could read in a lifetimes. Random, eclectic, nonsensical collections of books, some of which are hopelessly corrupted and most of which are poorly proof-read. These folks are not reading what they put out. They're not putting it out with helping other people read the stuff as a primary goal, either. There's another dynamic at work, and no scheme to stop or reduce ebook piracy stands a chance of working until we understand why it's happening.
This is very true, and very old. Anybody who had come within fifty miles of the old game and software piracy "scene" (which is really the grandfather of everything done today) will be familiar with this mindset. The ONLY metric for how l33t you were was the sheer volume of 0-day (up-to-the minute content) that you hosted and/or uploaded. The quality didn't matter, and the content itself barely mattered. What mattered was the number of files and/or bytes that you pushed. When MP3 became big, back during the pre-Napster Internet, it was the same way for music. It's still pretty much the same way now.

Charlie's right- trying to use these guys' enormous stockpiles of unused material as any sort of metric of lost sales is pointless and deceptive. The two really have nothing to do with one another- it's like looking at a warehouse of unsold books and pretending that they've actually been sold to somebody. I'm not sure what a good metric is for the effects of piracy, but that ain't it.

Charlie's also right about the problem of libraries and used booksales. I think he missed an opportunity, though, in looking at other media and how they approach these issues. Libraries tend not to have anywhere near as many movies and television shows as they do books, for example, and while one could sneer about quality issues, a really good show can still be a more worthy addition than a crappy book, but you're more likely to see the latter than the former. That's partially because (I believe) movie sellers and rental outlets don't want to see books in the library, but also because the culture of lending that surrounds books has never caught on with other media.

And yet, if you look further, you'll notice something else- while you may see a few movies at the library, you will never see an electronic game. Why? Well, it's simple: the culture surrounding THAT format is still newer than movies, and absolutely paranoid about producers not getting maximal control over their "intellectual property" (A term that came into existence around the same time as mass market computer gaming). Look at the growing controversy over something as innocuous as used game sales:

As I began to collate these woes, I started to get the sense that there was a kind of Mexican Standoff taking place, except one of the parties is pointing hundreds of guns at the other - one weapon per retail outlet. There is literally no bargain to be made, and without a shelf to sell your software from it's not so much "their way or the highway," it's their way or oblivion. So they're free to do things like, oh, suggest "market correct" pricing, or nudge the release date. Note that they are doing this while at the same time planning to stock your product at a low threshold and then preferentially sell the used version. I'm surprised that these camps don't fight with knives at shared events.

I don't think breaking the ability to play used games is the answer, like they were talking about in this ancient rumor, but I understand why they would experiment with that kind of Doomsday Device. For me, it's not any more complicated than "used titles don't support the people who make games." The sale doesn't exist. I don't expect this to be a concept that the Madden Gamer seizes upon and makes his way of life. But as people who genuinely respect the medium and those who toil to refine and elevate our leisure hours, it's worth keeping in mind.

Going completely digital is a growing option for PC centered titles and its native developers - for example, I'm typing this post while Command & Conquer 3 drips down to me via EA's digital solution. I've also been a huge proponent of Steam. But even in the next round of consoles, you'll see those massive hard discs put to work storing full products. Marketplace, EDI, and the Shopping Channel are the first chapter of a story that ends poorly for Gamestop.
Bolding is mine. If anybody said anything like this about books, particularly the bolded section, they'd get laughed out of town. They lend books, for heaven's sake, and you're complaining about used book sales? Yet there is no functional difference between a book and a game. None. Both can be copied, both can be lent, both can be sold to a bookseller and rebought used. Both can be good, both can be crap. It's just different media, brought forth in different cultures: one celebrating the public domain and sharing information, the other fearing and loathing it while making nasty little comments about resales.

Unfortunately, the march of progress in this case does not appear to be on the side of the angels.

So, Charlie, when you ask "what is to be done", I'd suggest that the first step is getting away from the books, and looking at what else is going on out there. Ebooks are just one small part of a much, much broader conflict.

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