The fuss over DRM

After years of delays Electronic Arts finally released Spore, a game that allows you to create your own life forms, starting at single cell entities and moving them up through intelligent life forms that can travel into space. The hype surrounding this game has been pretty big for years, mainly because of footage released a while back showing off the creature creator in very early stages.

The game appears to be selling well in it’s initial run, though not without some strong controversy over the Digital Rights Management (DRM) used in the game. Just take a look at the reviews of the game on Amazon and you can see the incredible anger people have over the DRM that’s included.

As a software developer myself I understand the reason a publisher wants to have a copy protection scheme in place. All too often software and copyrighted material is simply pirated without any regard to the people that created the product in the first place.

The Software Developer Perspective
Back in 1998 I released a Windows based application called WebSurveyor that was designed to help people create, publish and analyze surveys on the web. Back then I had the mindset that it would be a pure software license; you pay my company the $149 fee and I give you a license to use the product in perpetuity. Pretty simple stuff. This product was targeted at business users and was priced far below what other office productivity software sold for at the time.

I had a basic trial mode that the application shipped in by default (unregistered) and it would only allow you to see the first ten results of your survey. If a valid registration key was entered it would unlock the software and you could see all of the results you received. After a couple of months of testing I released the product, put it on as many download sites as I could find and tried to get people to check it out.

Within 2 days of launching the product—2 days!—someone had created a serial number generator for the application. Here I was, a little software company (basically me), I had just poured 10 months of my life into a product and some script kiddie somewhere decided to eliminate the only source of revenue I could get.

I did end up selling the product very well, slowly growing sales over time. The challenge was when I would get support e-mails from people asking for help in making the application work properly, only to learn that they were working with a pirated copy of my software. Not only were they not paying for it, they were taking up my time helping them troubleshoot their problems, which back then often involved resolving their corporate firewall issues. On the occasions I would confront people about it they would either stop sending me e-mails or confess that they had pirated it but assured me that they would buy it immediately.

None of them ever did.

The Frustrated Consumer Perspective
I recently sold one of my older laptops through Craigslist and before handing it over to the new owner I decided to wipe the machine clean, reformat it and reinstall Windows from scratch. I had a full license key (stamped on the laptop itself) and went through the very time consuming process.

Once installed and ready to go it told me that I had to activate Windows. The online server would not activate me and required that I call into Microsoft, a toll free call that was completely automated. I got to read off a series of long numbers, answer some questions (yes, this is only going to be used on a single machine) and then got to painstakingly record a long series of numbers that needed to be reentered into Windows to get it to work properly.

Here I had a genuine copy of the software in question (Windows), yet I had to jump through hoops in order to prove that I indeed had a legitimate copy. Adding this to the end of what was already a time consuming process that involved finding and installing all the drivers needed to make the laptop work made me happy I was getting rid of the machine.

My feeling is that people pirate software for any number of reasons:

  1. They think the software is too expensive for what it does.
  2. They want to have an extended trial of the product and if it works then they’ll buy it.
  3. They can’t afford to actually buy it.
  4. They only need the software for a brief period and don’t want to pay for such a short usage.
  5. They think all software should be free.
  6. It’s so easy to do that they don’t even think about it.

Regardless of why, the fact that it happens so often has created a challenge for both the consumer that legally purchases software as well as the software developer trying to protect their intellectual property.

I’ve heard the argument several times that piracy is actually good for software; that having more people use and talk about your product is a good thing and exposes people to the product that otherwise may never hear about it. Given my experience with my own products I find that laughable. People that pirate software will tell people about a product but will just as quickly offer a copy to those same people as well.

What’s your perspective? Is it okay to pirate software? What level of DRM is acceptable in order to help the software, music or video publisher ensure they get paid for their efforts?