Years ago, I started paying attention to the usage of so-called digital rights management (DRM) in games and made my purchasing decisions accordingly. I might have missed out on some major cultural impacts, but I wasn’t going to passively accept what I thought was a draconian form of copy protection. A form of protection that, by the way, doesn’t even work most of the time, so only legitimate customers get punished.
In practice, it meant not buying many major games. Spore is one very famous example, and I wrote a bit about it in this post about it’s reception in the market. Reading it today, I can see I was a bit angry about the DRM:
Do I like the game? I haven’t played it. Apparently Spore has some crappy so-called DRM solution attached to it, and it’s definitely not available for Gnu/Linux, so my choice is to boot up Windows AND suffer this DRM crap, or play a different game on my preferred system. It’s too bad. If things were different, I’m sure I would have liked Spore, too, but I refuse to pay for a steak dinner delivered on a garbage can lid.
It was my attitude, and it still is today, partly because DRM is fundamentally flawed and partly because it’s a system that makes it easier to be a criminal.
But this post isn’t really supposed to be about DRM. Today, I find myself concerned about downloading free-to-play games on my smartphone that require bizarre permissions.
Recently, I was looking for a good strategy or simulation game to play on my Android smartphone. I found some that seemed promising and popular, and I found myself stopped when I clicked the install button because the requested permissions were ridiculous.
Why does this game need access to my browser bookmarks and history? Or why does that game need access to my photos?
Actually, it seems that Google’s API just doesn’t allow very fine-grained control of what is and isn’t allowed to be accessed by an app. According to this What’s on Dave’s Droid? post, if an app needs access to the state of the phone to know when to minimize if a call is coming in, it has to get that information from the same permission that gives it access to the identity of who is calling.
And this isn’t a new story. I’ve just only become aware of the problem myself.
I get that the permissions section can’t be too complex for the user experience. People don’t read EULAs as it is, and I’m sure many apps are perfectly safe, but is it weird that we’re being so trusting of apps by hoping that they don’t cross a line we’ve given them permission to cross? Especially in a world where we know we’re being spied on?
For now, I feel that I need to treat some apps just as I treated games packaged with so-called DRM. I’ll ignore the ones that ask too much or that are made by someone I have no reason to trust. Maybe I miss out on a gem, but I’ve survived without Sony’s rootkits and the pain of not being able to install a game I’ve legally purchased in the past. I think I’ll survive not playing a game that may or may not be compiling a list of my contacts and recording my location.
Copyright law is kind of messed up. Actual copyright law is actually a combination of codified law and legal rulings to clarify or provide exceptions for such laws. For a primer on copyright law for indie game developers, see What an Indie Needs to Know About Copyright.
The Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress is empowered “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
That is, copyright is a tool to promote science and art, and it does so by providing a temporary monopoly for creators.
It is NOT meant to provide monopolies for creators as an end in itself. It’s just the means to an end.
Once the temporary monopoly’s time period expires, the work in question enters the public domain.
The public domain is the set of all creative works that are available to the public. There are no licenses required, no fees to pay, and no patents to worry about. That is, someone was able to benefit immediately from creating it, and in exchange, for the rest of posterity, everyone can benefit from it and build upon it. That’s the way it should be.
The nature of creation isn’t completely independent invention. Instead, a new creation tends to rely on existing creations. For example, the invention of the electric motor relied upon the knowledge produced earlier on the nature of electric currents and their interactions with magnets. Another example is the popular BBC television series “Sherlock” which is based upon writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the late 1800s.
Unfortunately, copyright law keeps extended the “temporary” monopoly indefinitely and there doesn’t seem to be an indication that it will stop, which means the public domain has been frozen in place for decades. So while, for example, Disney was able to build an empire off of freely available public domain works, such as the story of Snow White and the seven dwarves, no one has been allowed to build off of Disney’s works in turn. Basically, some people got some advantages from free culture and aren’t returning the favor, and what’s more, they are actively lobbying to ensure they won’t have to.
Lawrence Lessig is the author of Free Culture, which explains more about how copyright law used to work and how it no longer does. I highly recommend reading that book if you want to understand the vital importance of a healthy and constantly replenished public domain.
But what are we doing today? The public domain that exists, as stuck as it is, still has plenty of great works to build upon. And yet, when it comes to games, are we seeing a lot of unique work?
We have the ubiquitous space marines (including Relic’s Space Marine), zombies, and military shooters. We have the Tolkien-esque fantasy games, the interstellar wars with hostile aliens, and the dudebro hero’s journey.
And yet, there is so much more out there to build games upon.
I announced the Public Domain Jam a month ago as a reaction to the over-use of some themes in the indie game scene, but since then, I’ve been flooded with nothing but enthusiasm from people over their love of works in the public domain.
The tagline for the jam is “Because there’s more out there than zombies.”
To encourage the publication of games that immediately contribute to free culture, “Nothing to Hide” creator Nicky Hide has donated a $1,000 prize to be awarded the top rated game published under a Creative Commons Zero license.
There are a number of other incentives, including free art and sound assets, free licenses for cross-platform game engines, and more.
I think it sounds like a fantastic idea. The only concern goes back to my assertion at the top of this post: copyright law is messed up.
Except, copyright law is different from one country to another, which means that while you can make your game based on this story in the United States, you might not be able to distribute your game in some countries where the story is not yet in the public domain.
Moreover, even though the copyright for some stories about Zorro are in the public domain, the trademarks for Zorro do not expire.
Which is why Zorro Productions is able to exist. If you want to make a Zorro-based film, TV show, comic, game, or book, you probably want to license the rights from them to avoid legal trouble. The claim is that the original story does not describe Zorro the way people expect to see him today. Characters such as his horse Tornado are introduced later in works not in the public domain.
There have been a number of lawsuits, including one last year involving a musical based on the public domain works that Zorro Productions claims is a violation of their trademarks and copyrights. The creator of the musical sued them, and it will be interesting to see if this case plays out in its entirety instead of being settled out of court like they usually do.
So, again, the Public Domain Jam sounds great, but copyright law is complex, and everyone should be careful because otherwise public domain works might have certain organizations asserting they own some piece of it. And in the case of international distribution, they might be right in some cases depending on the laws of certain countries.
But remember, the entire point of the Public Domain Jam is to get us away from building “Yet Another Game About XYZ”. The rich variety of source material available in the public domain should provide plenty of innovation and without as much legal risk.
US Election Day is tomorrow. It’s supposedly a tight race, and a lot of us will be glad when it is over if only so we can stop hearing about how close it is.
Of course, every election cycle, there are those who don’t vote. They don’t vote because of a number of reasons, some silly, and some well-reasoned.
But Seth Godin insists that by not voting, you lose any say at all about what you want to see more or less of. In Why vote? The marketing dynamics of apathy, he argues that by opting out of the process, no one has an incentive to make their approaches more pleasing to you.
The goal of political marketers isn’t to get you to vote. Their goal is to get more votes than the other guy. So they obsess about pleasing those that vote. Everyone else is invisible.
Steakhouses do nothing to please vegetarians who don’t visit them, and politicians and their handlers don’t care at all about non-voters.
In 2004, there was a lot of talk about “values-based” voting. Suddenly everyone was bending over backwards to let you know that they were all about values.
In 2008, it was change and hope. Suddenly, every candidate was trying to insist that they were the real “change” candidate.
Today, we have a President who insists on moving “forward”, no matter how slow the pace seems to be, versus a candidate who hasn’t explained how his so-called plan is any more than a list of goals (“A goal without an action plan is a daydream” –Nathaniel Branden). They both insist that they are there for the middle class. And they’ve both been courting voters hard.
If you didn’t vote in previous elections because you don’t find the options appealing, is it any wonder that today’s candidates aren’t appealing to your interests? And why don’t politicians ever express concern for the lower classes? Probably because they are less likely to vote.
A friend has a quote from Plato as a signature in his email:
“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
I consider myself to be a smart person, and I’m voting tomorrow, if only to help tip the numbers back. B-)
I’ve been meaning to write about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act, and even though they have been put on hold thanks to widespread Internet activism, they’re not dead yet, and laws like them are sure to follow.
I am a game developer and a writer. And I do not support SOPA or PIPA.
Because I rely on the Internet and copyright, and these laws would undermine both the Internet’s functionality and the perception of copyright by the public in ways that would negatively impact me.
Some Copyright History
Copyright is complicated. There isn’t one law you can look at that incorporates the entirety of it. I wrote an article long ago as a what an indie game developer needs to know about copyright, but a lot of copyright law is related to court case rulings, so to really understand copyright, you probably need an expensive lawyer.
And that’s a mere symptom of the issues I have with SOPA and related laws.
The U.S. Constitution has what is known as the Copyright Clause: Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution specifically says that Congress shall have the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, and it specifies how Congress shall do so: “by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Some people have this backwards and they think that the purpose is to protect creators, but copyright is supposed to be a means to encourage the creation of useful things.
Copyright used to last 14 years, with the right to renew for another 14 years. New laws changed the length over the last couple of centuries, and today we have copyright lasting for 70 years plus the life of the author, or in the case of a corporation, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Stacking the Deck
Effectively, copyright is no longer limited. Whereas creators from 50 years ago were able to depend on a rich replenishment of the public domain in their lifetimes (Disney was able to leverage the public domain to build up a very successful company), creators today see that the public domain hasn’t changed since that time. The constant change in copyright law and copyright length benefits those creators and businesses who have the resources and existing copyrights while making it more difficult for new creators and businesses.
Recently, the Supreme Court said that the public domain isn’t permanent, and while the case was about granting copyright to foreign works that were supposed to have copyright in the first place, the idea that the public domain can be made even smaller by an action of Congress stinks for new creators.
But even if you forget about the benefits of a healthy and rich public domain, copyright laws have become more and more biased towards large, existing companies and organizations.
Abuse of Copyright
Remember the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)? It was signed into law in 1998, and among its provisions, it made it a felony to merely own the means of circumventing copy protection mechanisms, even if you didn’t use the means. Even if you did circumvent the protection and weren’t committing infringement as a result.
The DMCA was supposedly necessary to protect jobs and copyright owners, yet it was horribly abused, even by those who weren’t trying to protect their copyright at all. Google found that out of all of the takedown notices it has received, more than half involved a business issuing a takedown against a competitor, and over a third were for invalid copyright claims.
For one example, under the DMCA, Viacom issued thousands of takedown notices to YouTube, and some of the content taken down wasn’t Viacom’s copyrighted works. In another example, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and a number of other retail stores issued a takedown notice to FatWallet.com to force them to remove user-posted sales prices for their Black Friday sales, even though price lists don’t fall under copyright.
In both cases, large companies with lawyers on staff were able to leverage the law against someone else’s legitimate postings. If you are targeted wrongly by a company using the DMCA, your recourse is expensive and slow.
The DMCA wasn’t about protecting copyright. It was about control.
Respect for Copyright Eroded
In the past, most people didn’t create copyrighted works. It was expensive to create and distribute books, movies, TV shows, and other content. There were gatekeepers and high barriers to entry. You needed a lot of capital to start a business that relied on copyrighted content.
Today, 48 hours of video gets uploaded to YouTube every day, and most of it is not produced by the MPAA. Today, print-on-demand and ebook publishing means there are more self-published books than traditionally published books. Today, many long-standing newspapers have found it difficult to compete in a world of citizen publishing. Today, the Internet and social media has created plenty of successful new business models.
And yet we keep hearing about how the major media companies are threatened by all of this individual expression and creation, as if a few companies are supposed to be the sole producers of culture and content.
The problem is, a lot of people act as if the media companies are right!
Most people don’t have much education about copyright law. Again, part of this is because of how complicated the law is, and partly because historically most people didn’t create copyrighted works. But part of it is because the major media companies have done such a good job of telling this story. Politicians are heard parroting absurd numbers provided by the MPAA and RIAA, and any media coverage is entertainment anyway so forget about getting the facts there.
So even though copyright is a tool for all creators, what happened is that the general public views copyright as a tool of the major media companies to abuse customers and make more money. And when laws like the DMCA and SOPA are supported by politicians who clearly have no idea what impact the laws would have on new businesses and new creators, it furthers this perception of copyright as a tool of companies who can afford to buy it.
SOPA and PIPA
If you still don’t know much about SOPA or PIPA, they are twin pieces of legislation that are supposedly about protecting U.S. copyright owners against offshore rogue websites dedicated to piracy. In reality, they would do nothing to prevent actual piracy while giving major media companies more tools to (ab)use the public with. Here’s a very informative video explaining the problems with how these laws would “work”:
Now, there’s a lot of problems that people have identified. Some of it sounds overly sensationalized, yet information security experts, free speech experts, computing experts, and business experts have all agreed that the problems are real. But I’ll leave it to them to talk about the technical, financial, and social problems with the proposed laws.
SOPA supporters say that the people who are opposing it are bringing up worst-case scenarios and that the imagined abuses wouldn’t happen in real life. Well, companies such as Viacom have shown that abuse will happen, and likely sooner than later.
The infamous comparison by the MPAA that the VCR is like the “Boston Strangler” and the broadcast flag regulations are attempts to control when and how people watch movies and TV. SecuROM are attempts to prevent copying that sometimes worked so well that legally purchased games wouldn’t run on some computers. Sony BMG’s rootkit made many legitimate music CD customers unhappy when their computers were compromised, especially as the company’s President seemed to shrug about the issue. And so on and so on.
Why I Care about Copyright Law
The failure rate of entrepreneurship is high, and I have enough trouble bumbling through learning how to run my own business. This crony capitalism makes it harder for me as an independent game developer.
There are new businesses taking advantage of the reality of the Internet. We like being able to take advantage of the ease of creation and distribution. Why do we have to worry about old businesses changing the laws in order to break what new technology allows so that they can continue their old scarcity-based business models? Why are they more important than the people starting new businesses and creating new jobs, especially in this economy?
When they cry that they are having existential dangers that need to be stopped while simultaneously reporting record profits year after year, why is the U.S. government saying that “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs”? Who told them that? Where is the actual evidence? The Cato Institute analyzed the numbers presented by the MPAA, and it seems we have been conned.
And after all of the duplicitous, all of the lobbyist money buying regulations, laws and policies, and all of the chafing, I am supposed to expect that my potential customers will respect copyright law, no matter how absurd and one-sided it gets? I can’t make a living in a world where the major media companies get their way.
And they’re fine with that. Less competition for them.
And if the above didn’t convince you of the problems we’ll be facing in the coming years from the established media companies, this TED talk by Clay Shirky is a quick summary of the problems laws like the DMCA and SOPA/PIPA pose to small businesses and individual creators:
10 years ago, I was up early finishing math homework at the desk in my dorm. It was due for that morning’s class, and I had procrastinated during the weekend. It was my junior year of college, and I didn’t know that classes would be canceled that day.
I had two roommates in an apartment-like dorm. The one I shared a bunk with was still asleep, but the one who was usually secluded in his room came out and told me to turn on the TV news.
I watched a building with smoke billowing out of it, and there was some speculation that a plane had accidentally flown into it. No one knew if it was an attack. Shortly after, I saw live reports of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center buildings, and it was clear that it was no accident.
Our neighbors across the hall knocked on the door, and we all watched the news in silence. Footage of the planes slamming into the buildings repeated, and news anchors provided what info they could, even though no one knew what was happening. Occasionally someone would say something, but we were otherwise numbed and unable to speak.
My other roommate appeared and asked what was going on since so many people were in our living room. I remember feeling a bit guilty that I didn’t think to go wake him up. He did a literal double-take when he saw the TV footage.
People were reported to be jumping out of the burning towers, which eventually fell as well. The Pentagon was attacked, and we heard the relatively good news that one plane crashed in a field instead of hitting its intended target. One neighbor said it looked like the fall of Rome, and I remember being bothered by the statement at the time but in a way I couldn’t put to words. It was all horrific, and the footage was on constant repeat.
I remember my mother called me, which was difficult since the phone lines were tied up. Everyone was calling everyone, it seemed. “Where are you?”
“I’m at school.”
“What are you doing there?!”
“Mom, I live here.”
Even people who live in the Chicagoland area sometimes think that all of Chicago is Downtown Chicago. Even though I was miles away from downtown, my mother probably thought I was hanging out near the Sears Tower, which I’m sure everyone thought would be a potential target.
I knew of only one person in New York, a prominent QBasic game reviewer, and I was relieved to find out he was safe.
The school set up some TVs in the cafeteria, and I spent part of the day with friends there. Eventually I realized that I was getting fatigued by the news on repeat. It was a lot to process and take in. There was so much death and destruction, and while I was aware that people might be used to such attacks in some places in the world, it was the first time I can remember seeing such an attack so close to home.
I recall the face of Osama bin Laden appearing on TV, with people speculating about his involvement, and I remember thinking that we don’t know who did it, and yet now everyone in America who looks remotely Middle Eastern will be suspected of being a terrorist. I was reminded of “The Siege,” a movie starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, and Annette Bening. There is a scene shortly after a terrorist attack with talk radio personalities arguing that we should deport all Arabs, since we “know” they’re the ones responsible. Everyone was afraid of everyone, and I worried it was going to happen in real life.
One Muslim friend of mine reported being on a crowded El that week and wondering why no one would take the seat next to her, until she realized it was because everyone was afraid of her. If you knew her, you’d realize how laughably absurd it is to be afraid to sit next to her, and yet that was the climate of fear the country was in.
I remember going to class downtown the next day, and while waiting for the elevator, a friend asked me if I was nervous. I said I wasn’t, because I figured the day after an attack is probably the safest time to be anywhere. In the days that followed, though, I was incredibly aware of the fact that the Sears Tower was mere blocks away, and I couldn’t help but imagine how terrible it would be to stand where I was and witness it burn and fall.
There was a lot of ugliness on September 11th, and at times you couldn’t believe that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself the way the media and politicians went on, but I remember some things that weren’t horrible. While I didn’t know anyone who had died in the attacks, and I don’t think I knew anyone who knew anyone either, there was a lot of goodwill and love. I remember a number of us were being turned away when trying to donate blood because so many people were trying to help. It seemed every other person had shirts proclaiming that they hearted New York. Everyone was a New Yorker. The outpouring of support from the nations of the world included statements like “We are all Americans.”
With so much support, goodwill, and strength, how could the attacks possibly compare to the fall of Rome?
In the years to follow, I remember recounting the day with friends every so often, and I realized that “Where were you on September 11th?” was going to be a question along the lines of “Where were you when John F. Kennedy was killed?” A friend said his alarm woke him up because a radio personality was saying that if you’re just tuning in, you’re waking up in World War III, which he initially dismissed as some alarmist version of what might likely be a relatively benign event. Another was interviewing for a job and saw the flags at half mast upon arrival.
In all of these stories, it seems as if time stands still for the person when he/she realizes what happened. Priorities become reevaluated. And there is always this feeling that it was an unreal experience, as if this remembering was not of the past but of a bizarre dream.
I wish I had a good moral or point to tell. Maybe if I was a better writer, I could turn my story into a point about the dangers of fear, about how terrorism is about terror, and when we allow ourselves to be afraid, the terrorists have done their job. Maybe I could even throw in the well-known quote by Benjamin Franklin on those who deserve neither liberty nor safety. But in the end, it was a horrible morning involving a lot of suffering and death and destruction, and this article was merely my memory of it.
According to some people, the rapture is scheduled to occur today, with the end of the world to follow shortly. I don’t normally write about religion or politics on this blog, but I’ll relate a story I was told in high school that really impacted me. I am probably remembering parts of it wrong, but I think the basic gist is still there.
There were three priests playing pool. One of the priests asked the others, “If you knew that the world was going to end in the next 10 minutes, what would you do?”
One priest answered, “I’d go to the church and lead the people in prayer. I’m sure there will be plenty who are afraid or lost, and I would want to be there with them to pray for forgiveness and strength.”
The next priest said, “I’d go home and pray alone, as Jesus suggested was best in the gospel according to Matthew. I’d shut myself in my room, and I’d pray for forgiveness and strength.”
The two looked at the third priest and asked him what he would do. He replied, “I’d finish this game.”
If representations of Mary are used as evidence of the centrality of Christianity in the culture of the Italian Renaissance, what does the preponderance of guns say about our culture, and more specifically, the cultural form of games?
Pulsipher argues that guns are too specific, especially when you consider the vast majority of games set in a fantasy environment in which there are no modern weapons, and posits that a large number of games depict violent death.
He doesn’t question why it is so. He doesn’t demand the game industry account for itself. He and Sharp both simply question what it says about our culture that our entertainment is so violent.
There’s an article on video games by Jeffrey Goldstein in this book that mentions Mortal Kombat. If you recall, there were two versions released for home consoles at the time. The Sega Genesis version had all of the blood and gore included, but the Super Nintendo version was toned down.
Although there were more Nintendo than Sega game systems present in U.S. households, the bloody Sega version of Mortal Kombat outsold the less violent version by about 7 to 1.
The article goes on to discuss the distinction between aggressive behavior and aggressive play, and it says that there are 25 possible reasons for an appeal to the latter ranging from biological to psychological to social reasons. One reason children war play or enjoy violent media is surprisingly out of a need to seek out justice. After all, it is more enjoyable to see a film about a violent criminal who is caught and brought to justice than it is to see one about an unresolved murder.
And again, the book that this article comes from is from 1998, so the questions asked aren’t new. I do think, however, that there aren’t many answers that have been provided since then. There is, of course, the notable exception of Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. Johnson argues that the content of the video games isn’t as important as the form. That is, the systems of the game provide the appeal and benefit rather than the actual content.
But it doesn’t explain why a bloodier Mortal Kombat sold so much better than a toned-down version, although marketing could have much to do with it. And it also doesn’t explain why video games tend to focus on conflict and violence as themes, especially if they don’t need to do so.
So what does it say that most video games are violent? Pulsipher says he doesn’t know and would like his article to stir up some discussion. Goldstein mentioned a number of possible explanations, but he admitted that there isn’t much research to indicate what may or may not be the case. Hasn’t there been any more thoughts on it? Are depictions of violence in video games indicating a problem or a cultural bias in learning, or is the content unimportant?
To put it another way, what would it say about our culture if violent depictions in video games were incredibly rare? Would it indicate that gamers are more civilized? Would it mean people weren’t gaming anymore?
Does violence in video games stop appealing to gamers as they mature, or is it a certain type of person who specifically doesn’t enjoy games which feature violence heavily in their themes?
Do you know of further research which indicates what violence in our cultural artifacts means? Are games inherently good for exploring themes of violence, struggle, and survival, or is it simply easier for game designers to focus on such games?
Use the arrow keys to move around.
Press the space bar to jump into and out of the front of your tank.
Collect all the minerals and return to the exit to finish the level.
You can only hold one set of minerals at a time. Return the minerals you collected to your tank to collect more.
Watch out for monsters! If you get too close to a monster lair, a monster will come out and attack you. You’ll have to find a way to stop them from coming out.
Congratulations to everyone who participated and finished a game in 48 hours!