Friday, June 11, 2004

Drive Thru RPG, Part 1: Digital Rights Management in General

posted by Bruce Baugh

Drive Thru RPG is a new service in the roleplaying game world, with several publishers selling past and present books in PDF form. Participants include currently prominent companies like White Wolf and Eden down to obscure and nearly-dead ventures like Fantasy Games Unlimited. There has been, to put it mildly, some controversy about it. I am a happy customer, and wish to offer my assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the operation. This was originally going to be one very long post, but I came to my senses and realized that it made more sense as two separate posts. this one is about the general concept of copy protection, and the next one will be about my experiences with Drive Thru.

Digital Rights Management and Piracy: Some Basics

It's very easy to copy electronic works, and to move them around. Bits are pliable that way. The problem for would-be sellers of electronic works is that this applies just as much to copying and distribution that may cost them sales as to the transactions they want to support.

The word "may" in the previous sentence is crucial. The most important thing to know about possibly illegitimate copying and distribution is that we collectively don't know much about it. A great many claims and counter-claims fill the ether, and gradually there's some accumulating actual data, but even so, there's a lot more speculation than anything else. I'm going to get anecdotal here.

In college I knew some guys who are very active in the BBS-connected computer game pirating scene of the time. That was for games running on the Apple II and Commodore, of course. The thing that struck me early on was that the hard-core guys had far more games than they could ever possibly play, and indeed they didn't even really know much about a lot of the games they had. They actively disliked many of the ones they did know something about. Low-level pirates would seek out copies of games they wanted to play, but for the high-level guys, I realized in conversations with them, the size and timeliness of the collection itself was the point. The games were the units of currency in their transactions, rather than the objects of pursuit in themselves.

Over the years, I've crossed paths with other pirate communities, most recently some of the traders in illicit copies of roleplaying games, and I see the same dynamic at work. They're not collecting games to play, they're collecting games for the sake of their collections. It's very much the same dynamic as any collecting community, really, except that there's the added frisson of doing something that the original supplier of the goods doesn't want you to do. That's the major distinguishing factor, really: an e-book (or computer game, or whatever) trader who tries adding significant quantities of authorized freebies to their stock comes in for substantial scorn. The goods must come with the frisson to count for scoring.

Obviously there's no real way to stop people who have that attitude and any degree of determination. They interpret any fresh barrier as a challenge. They define themselves by an adversarial relationship, and nothing the designated adversary can do can resolve it. Offer more stuff for free? That'd be a surrender. Sell stuff that can be easily swiped? Then they'll swipe, after purchases with (in many cases) fraudulent credit card information. Develop protection schemes harder to break? They'll get to work on new tools.

The thing is that these hard-core folks are few. They generate a whole lot of traffic, but...well, think about how much volume a few folks ranting on street corners can generate compared to all the surrounding conversations, but how unrepresentative they're likely to be. You may need to plan a community to take the fact of the ranters into account, but you musn't think that they're significant or indicative except as a nuisance.

Beyond the folks who define themselves as adversaries, there are a lot of folks who have nothing against buying things and are quite happy to support the creators and publishers of work they like, but who nonetheless share some things around in ways that sellers might not prefer. There are some sellers who feel that any such sharing that doesn't result in some income for them is a lost sale, but I think that's ridiculous. I do a fair amount of sharing around myself, and what I find is that people do in fact tend to buy what they end up using. One of the major roles for the unauthorized share is the opportunity to thoroughly preview a work, in more detail than online snippets or in-store browsing can provide. If the work proves neat, it gets bought. If not, it generally ends up tossed. A sharing that doesn't lead to a sale is often the remote equivalent of having a friend in your living room borrow a book, read it, and decide not to buy.

I'm sure that some sharing does in fact take the place of sales. But then some sharing leads to the discovery that, hey, this is cooler than the recipient thought, and generates unexpected sales. At least some data suggests that this is true for music, that file sharing ends up not mattering at all most of the time and occasionally boosts sales. I suspect but cannot prove that it's true for e-books as well, and I'm not asking readers to trust my intuitions just 'coz I'm a cool guy.

Whether I'm right or not, as I understand it, the goal of most copy-protection schemes is to deter casual sharing. The principle is a familiar one: law enforcement, personal security, and a lot of things are all aimed not so much at making hard-core violators go away as at not providing tempting targets. Motivate the would-be violator go somewhere else. The tricky part for the designers of such a scheme is to make it do that without being too much of a nuisance to actual paying customers, and people likely to be customers if not turned off.

Is Digital Rights Management Immoral or Anti-Capitalist?

I've seen both these charges made in the last week, and I'd like to answer both very simply: No.

But while one-word answers are fun, they often need more context.

First, let me lay out the terms of sale I prefer. I'm in favor of simple outright sale whenever possible: you buy it, and it's yours to sell to someone else, give away, recycle, destroy, whatever. Once the transaction is concluded, the good becomes basically invisible to the seller, gone out into the world and not to be seen again except under exceptional circumstances like recalls. I like my stuff to be, well, mine.

On the other hand, the rhetoric I usually espouse about the merits of free markets boil down to the idea that if the participants are satisfied and it doesn't impose harm on others, then it's okay (again, except under really strange conditions). My wanting to buy a thing a certain way does not create an entitlement that anyone else sell it to me that way or indeed at all. That means that your engaging in a purchase I wish you wouldn't, because it encourages more sales on terms I disapprove of, is not harm of the sort the law should step in and put a stop to. It's just part of living in a society in which we are not guaranteed the fulfillment of our desires.

I don't see any conceptual necessity that all sales be the sort of simple purchase I prefer. Rental is of course a well-known conceptual category, and related categories like checking out books (and other stuff) from lending libraries. In principle, the idea of sale with conditions is not terribly remarkable. The terms may be undesirable, but there is nothing innately antithetical to morality or the functioning of a healthy free market in the existence of terms beyond simple sale. Insisting otherwise is giving too much authority to a set of preferences simply because they are our own. But part of the primary point of marketplaces is that more than one designated set of preferences can be catered to.

For me it's a practical issue: are these terms reasonable? Do they interfere with my using the goods the way I want to? Do they give more power to the seller than I feel comfortable with? What are the risks of failure on the seller's end complicating things for me? I'll address these in part 2, when I describe just what Drive Thru actually does.