Convenience and Piracy

There is no silver bullet that will stop media piracy, whether it be movies, music, or video games. That doesn't stop media providers from trying, though. Of course, that is reasonable and expected, as piracy can pose a significant financial threat to their business. Unfortunately the draconian security mechanisms they employ aren't very effective, and end up alienating honest customers. I touched on this subject here a while back.

One of the first things you need to do when designing a security system is identify the attackers. Only then can you design an efficient countermeasure. So who are the pirates? Brad Wardell speculates that there are two basic groups of pirates:
Group A: The kiddies who warez everything. CD Copy protection means nothing to them. They have the game before it even hits the stores.

Group B: Potential buyers who are really more interested in convenience. The price of the game isn't as big a deal to them as convenience.
You'll never get rid of Group A, no matter what security measures you implement, but there is no reason you shouldn't be able to cut down on Group B. Unfortunately, most security systems that are implemented end up exacerbating the situation, frustrating customers and creating Group B pirates. One thing I've noticed about myself recently is that convenience is suddenly much more important to me. Spare time has become a premium for me, and thus I don't have the time or motivation to be a Group A pirate (not that I've ever been much of a pirate).

Not too long ago, I upgraded my system to Windows XP. After some time, I wanted to play some game that I had bought years ago. Naturally, all I have is the CD - not the key or the original box or anything. What to do? Suddenly, piracy becomes an option. And the next time I want to buy a game, I might think twice about going out to a store and paying top dollar to be inconvenienced by obtrusive copy-protection.

Wardell is the owner of Stardock, a company which is particularly good at not alienating customers. I have a subscription to, and am very pleased with the experience they provide. Wardell describes his philosophy for combating piracy:
That's why I think CD based copy protections are a bad idea. I think they create pirates and aren't terribly effective anyway. They're supposed to keep the honest "honest" but I propose a better way.

NOT Internet activation. Instead, game developers adopt a policy that has been very successful in the non-game software market -- after release updates.

PC games often come out buggy, get one patch, and then are largely abandoned. It's really hard to feel sympathy for game developers who treat their customers that way. Instead of doing that, release frequent updates to the game for users. For free. Have them go through a secure network so that only registered purchasing users can get the update but make it as convenient as you can.

By doing this, you create a bigger incentive to be a customer than to be a pirate. It becomes increasingly inconvenient to have the latest/greatest version of the game via the warez route than the legitimate route.
This is an interesting and apparently effective strategy (as Stardock seems to be doing well). Stardock has structured its business model so that they survive even in the face of piracy, yet don't have to resort to absurd and obtrusive security measures to combat piracy. It's a matter of policy for them, and their policy makes it more convenient to be a customer than a pirate. Of course, such a solution only really works for video games, but it is worth noting nonetheless.