A Picture-Perfect Quandary

Written by Brett Thomas

May 13, 2008 | 06:56

Tags: #bioshock #copy-protection #drm #mass-effect #securom #spore #starforce #video-games #warez

Being a budding amateur photographer, I am sometimes amazed by the love we have for the art in our forums. Every day, hundreds of avid bit-tech readers from around the world browse through our Art and Photography sub-forum, creating an encouraging, open and closely knit community within a community that is fun to be a part of. It's made up of good people saying good things that help me get better at a good hobby.

Now, most of us in that sub-forum are by no means professionals. But you need only look through some of the Photo of the Month entries to realise the incredible talent present. Many of the pictures are wallpaper-worthy, if not print-worthy. I realised this myself when I saw the December Photo of the Month winner, shot by a forum member that by the name of supermonkey.

It was a beautiful picture. And as I went through the forum post for it, I went ahead and grabbed myself the high-res version of it and made it my background. In the first couple months after that time, I had several people ask me where I got it – I kindly pointed them to the thread, and gave them a copy of the JPEG that I'd used.

Since that photo, Chris (aka supermonkey) and I have grown to be fairly good friends – we talk on a nearly daily basis about this and that. Over the period, I learned about his job and life and his photography degree in college that he never really went on to be a pro photographer. I took a look at the background on my computer and thought, "Huh, I'm not surprised," about the degree, and never gave it a second thought.

In fact, I didn't think of it much at all until the most recent news about the latest copy protection on Spore and Mass Effect dropped. At first read, I was as mad as the 100 or so angry forum members who'd already posted. And then I looked at my background again, deleted my own vitriolic post, and started to write this one instead.

"At first read, I was as mad as the 100 or so angry forum members who'd already posted. "

Why do they connect? Well, if you'll indulge me a little more rambling time, I'll explain my realisation...my epiphany, if you will.

This beautiful background, a moving shot of one red tree honouring a fallen NASA astronaut, was a work of art; inspiring not only in its story but even without – it's a piece that I will probably one day print and frame. But it was the work of Chris, and I'd never bothered to ask for his permission.

Big deal,” many of you will say. “He posted it on a public forum, and even put up a wallpaper-sized version!” And indeed, Chris will agree that it was not any real slight, but I beg to differ.

See, the thing is, the thought never even occurred to me to ask him for the right. I saw it, I grabbed it, and I walked away. It was out there for the taking, posted on the interwebs. “Hell, I even work for bit-tech...” I thought. Justification for my right to grab that picture was so easy that I didn't even have to work at it.

But he's an amateur, it's not like he's a professional.” Where do we draw that line? Talking to him after the fact and learning some of his technique, I learned that Chris has a university degree in photography. His life, including his job, revolves around imagery – even if he is not a pro photographer. In every way, he's as professional a photographer as I am a writer. And, having negotiated copyright information on my own work before, I know I'd certainly not be happy to see my work published without my consent.

And what of the copies of the picture that I'd given away to friends and onlookers who said what a great shot it was? “Oh, that's promotional for him,” was the first thought through my head – but promotion for what? I'd told them all about how I got it from the bit-tech photo forum – do you think anyone stopped by to look at what other work there was?

"I just saw it, grabbed it, and walked away. It was out there for the taking..."

The truth is, I took an image that was not mine without thinking. I did not ask for consent, but I used it for my own personal enjoyment and freely distributed it to others as if it was my picture. In ten days, the people I gave it to would likely not even remember the conversation – no bit-tech, certainly no Chris...just a pretty picture and maybe a vague association with me.

As I opened this page to write this column, I thought about my writing and my rights. And how I'd not exactly cherish it if someone ripped off my work, put his or her own picture at the top and walked away (which has happened). I thought about my own pictures, and I thought about my effort and work and learning and time.

I thought about how I felt when I saw the whole of bit-tech ripped off to generate cheap ad revenue by some group and the effort our whole team (and part of the forum) put in to shutting it down. I remember that well – I felt ripped off.

...And I suddenly thought a whole lot differently about that copy protection on our software. I thought about the pride that the devs must have poured into Mass Effect and Spore. I'd bet that any developer who looks at The Pirate Bay or any of the other thousands of torrent sites, newsgroups and such feel the same. Plain old, straight up ripped off.

What's even funnier is that I was just talking with one of my developer friends (on the hardware side of things) about the very same issues on his plate, regarding open source drivers. “The problem isn't with the open source community,” he said. "But what about when someone takes our drivers and builds cheaper knock-off hardware from what they learn? Our years of investment...wasted.

He and I talked about the various ways to create a hardware validation check – a hard-wired DRM, if you will. And while I was helping him (using the term loosely, as I'm not much of a coder), I felt happy that I was assisting with the protection of someone's rights. I was making it harder for someone to rip him off.

I imagine that the people at SecuROM or any number of license validation companies feel the same way.
This is where we reach an impasse, because so much effort is being put into the protection and subsequent removal of that protection that it's generated a whole business in and of itself. The buyer has a set of rights, but so does the creator. Those rights differ. The former has the right of enjoyment, the latter has the right of income. And fighting at the front lines with bloodlust in their eyes are the copy protectors and the crackers.

At the heart of it lies one very dirty question: Is it protecting your rights, or prohibiting someone else's?

In every forum that discusses the issues, there's a clear resonant theme that copy protection in and of itself is sufficient reason for piracy. Top crackers are looked at as heroes – just look at DVD-Jon, for example. On the flip side, companies are growing so desperate to feel like their interests are protected that things like rootkits and "phone-home" methods are becoming the rule instead of the overzealous exception.

We're left with a chicken-and-egg scenario. If nobody stole it, would they need to protect it so carefully? But if the protection wasn't so invasive and the price so enormous, would we feel as pressing of a need for previously legitimate users to download cracks and patches that thwart it? Both sides justify their own actions by the actions taken by the other side.

Even the debate about product quality creates an inescapable paradox. Pirate-supporters say that it's ridiculous and unfair to charge full price for a game that isn't pretty well bug-free, while developers are stuck with less budget to pay people to bug-test when less people are buying the game. That amount is further decreased by the chunk that the publisher has to pay a protection company to attempt to stall the cracks by even a little.

"There are also people who let the light bulb turn on that someone is profiting from all of the piracy..."

Adding to the already very muddy waters are those stuck in the fringes of each camp. No matter who says otherwise, there are many people who turn away from legal software as their legal copies don't work (while the cracked ones all do). There are also people who let the light bulb turn on that someone is profiting from all of the piracy – all of the major sites are packed with ads, which makes one lose quite a bit of faith in the whole "robin-hood" ideals that the groups attempt to foster.

Let's strip the wilful naivety away – copy protection and piracy are both businesses that have sprung up to play on our fears as producers and consumers. Neither side is doing it out of the goodness of their own heart. By rallying behind one, the other gets a new reason to go a step farther. And the producers bite into the apple fed by the DRM makers the same way we bite into the one fed by the pirates.

I mean, let's be serious for a minute – do you really think EA came up with that monstrosity all by itself? EA owns a lot of development houses, but none of them are copy-protection studios. Someone actually sold this to the people that work there (yes, there really are people and not just heartless robots). Someone actually told them, “Hey, now this – this is a good idea. You should use it.” I hope he hid his horns under a hat.

Devilish as it may be, it's also a fear tactic that's been proven to work...partially because with as much as we look at our piracy as justified—however easy it may be (and oh, it is so easy at times)—we become part of what the industry really does have to fear. We know piracy doesn't translate to dollar to dollar sales loss – we're all smarter than that. It leaves us questioning even the fair and real figures, feeling lied to at every turn.

"...Do you really think EA came up with that monstrosity all by itself?"

And in turn, we start to think like casual thieves instead of casual gamers – we pay thirty quid for a console game we don't really love, but then pirate a twenty-quid PC game to "offset" it. Why? Because we can – and the celebration of casual piracy, the stripping of copy protections and the little charge of getting "more for our money" (that we didn't pay in the first place) takes a step forward. Hell, it's so easy to pirate now that even people who barely know how to install programs are figuring it out. It's become as casual, rote and routine as the many forms of beaten copy protection.

I know that EA has rescinded the draconian scheme that brought all this to light, and for that I am as thankful as you. But I think we need to pay special attention to what that really says – the battle has become so ugly that it's hard for the company to know that protection crossed one too many lines until it's almost too late. I wonder if we on the other side ever stop to think, “Did I cross a line, too? I really could have bought this...why didn't I?

For those of you wondering what my (not-so) brilliant solution would be to this, well...I hate to disappoint you, but I don't really have one. See, it seems everyone's too busy fighting for the rights of pirates or the rights of DRM to remember that in the end we're all consumers and producers just trying to not get screwed.

So, the best that I can do is elect that we all step back and actually talk about it. Not talk the way forum users bicker and flame and troll – as consumers, we don't get anything by being at the front lines. Neither do the developers or producers (some of whom actually read this site).

When you allow yourself to be dragged to the front lines, it's easy for things to seem black and white – wrong is whoever is swinging the sword at you. But when you zoom out enough to look at the whole subject, it's a muddy, multicoloured mess...a picture-perfect quandary of who's right and whose rights.
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