Digital Rights Management – EA’s Fight Against Piracy and Angry Gamers

The video game industry is one of the most profitable in the world, raking in billions of dollars each year. Some game publishers believe that this number may in fact actually be on the low side when pirating is put into the equation.

Pirating is a term used to describe the action of downloading a game or software through illegitimate means. This could be done through peer to peer services such as Limewire, or through torrent hosting applications such as The Pirate Bay.

With the explosion of the internet and the ability to find just about anything online, congress has taken steps to curb pirating through proposed bills such as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) in early 2012. The backlash from the internet community was strong enough that it forced the hand of Congress and the bills were eventually dropped.

SOPA and PIPA were designed to block access to sites that were found to host illegal file sharing activity, and anything that encouraged unauthorized use of copyrighted material. Many accused these acts of encouraging online censorship, and clamping down on free speech.

There was also an online protest against censorship that took place on January 18, 2012 which was supported by big online communities such as Reddit and Google.

Stopping piracy in the video game industry has proven to be difficult at best, as gamers have plenty of options for receiving content illegally. In an interview with Games Industry International, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot claimed that piracy levels are at about 95%, which means only 5% of people playing PC games paid for them. This figure coincides with the number of people who pay for premium content in Free-to-play games. Guillemot stated:

“On PC it’s only around five to seven per cent of the players who pay for F2P, but normally on PC it’s only about five to seven per cent who pay anyway, the rest is pirated. It’s around a 93-95 per cent piracy rate, so it ends up at about the same percentage.”

While it is impossible to truly determine how many people pirate games as opposed to purchasing them, there is a response by publishers and developers to drastically cut back on games for the PC platform.

A controversial method publishers use to combat piracy is the use of Digital Rights Management software, or DRM. DRM is a method used by publishers to control access to copyrighted material. In 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed to criminalize the creation of devices to work around protection technologies.

The use of DRM is a controversial idea to those who believe that its implementation does little to stop pirates, but does inconvenience paying customers of a service or software. Throughout the gaming community there is a lot of backlash against publishers who use strict DRM policies on its paying customers.

In 2011 Electronic Arts released its online service called Origin. EA created this service to compete with Steam, the largest gaming service available to PC gamers. Upon its release, consumers were unhappy with the platform’s clunky interface and performance.

Additionally, the most unpopular part of the service was found in the Origin Terms of Services. Found under the title of “Consent to Collection and Use of Data”:

You agree that EA may collect, use, store and transmit technical and related information that identifies your computer (including the Internet Protocol Address), operating system, Application usage(including but not limited to successful installation and/or removal), software, software usage and peripheral hardware, that may be gathered periodically to facilitate the provision of software updates, dynamically served content, product support and other services to you, including online services. EA may also use this
information combined with personal information for marketing purposes and to improve our products and services. We may also share that data with our third party service providers in a form that does not personally identify you.

By accepting these terms, E.A. is given permission to allow the publisher to scan the entire hard drive to view anything installed on the PC. Steam has a similar disclaimer in its terms and conditions, but the service can only collect information related to its products. Origin users have expressed fears of invasion of privacy by allowing Origin to be installed and used on their computers.

In 2012 E.A. Announced a new policy which encouraged “online universes” by keeping an “Always online DRM” to enhance the experience for gamers. Keith Ramsdale, general manager of EA Northern Europe had this to say about the new policy:

“Imagine a player gets up in the morning, plays an online match on his 360 before going to work. On the bus, on his way to work, he practices his free kicks on his tablet. At lunch he looks at the transfer window on his PC. On the way home he chooses his kit on his smartphone.

Here’s the thing: when he gets home to play again on his 360 that evening, all those achievements and upgrades will be alive in his game. We’re very focused on transforming all of our brands into these online universes. That gives the consumer full control of how and when they play in a rich world of content.”

With the inclusion of this new policy, consumers were once again put off by the restrictive culture of the DRM. Games were now tied to an E.A. server that would require an internet connection to play games. Already feeling the sting of an oppressive DRM, gamers now felt that the content that they purchased is now at the mercy of EA and its Origin service.

Some of EA’s most popular franchises are being primed to be put into the “online universes” such as FIFA, Battlefield, The Sims, and the March 2013 release of SimCity. The company has also shut down servers to older games which makes some games unplayable online. The Sims 2 was the most recent casualty when EA pulled the plug earlier this month.

Piracy is affecting game publishers and developers daily, but it is impossible to tell the extent of the damage. Steps have been taken with many publishers to weaken the flow of illegitimate copies floating around the web. Unfortunately for EA it has done a lot to damage its brand with its DRM and other practices over the years. EA received the dubious distinction of being awarded “The Worst Company in America” by Consumerist, a consumer affairs blog.

With the rapid development of technology and software, copyright laws need to evolve in line with the growth. Any attempts by congress or publishers to slash piracy has been met with extreme opposition from legitimate and illegitimate users. The entertainment industry has an uphill battle in the fight against piracy, and based on the evidence, legitimate consumers will be dragged through the mud as well.

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