On Piracy And Halo 2

The response of the Bungie fan community, and indeed much of the online gaming community, has been one of sympathy and support for those at Bungie affected by the French-language copies of Halo 2 that are now circling the world ahead of their official release date, in defiance of international copyright laws, and allowing users to consume expensively-produced entertainment content without paying anything to get it.

However, some, of course, have expressed slightly different sentiments, which is desireable and understandable. Such an outpouring of support for Bungie would mean nothing were it not sincere and well-considered, something impossible to generate if the possibility of differing opinions did not exist.

Unfortunately, many of these expressions of doubt, anger, jubilation and skepticism-- as well as some of the expressions of support-- are not based on careful consideration, knowledge of the market or the law, or any basic insights into human behavior; and many are just appeals to humanity's baser instincts, or to rank paranoia.

So I thought I'd take a moment to address some of them.

The leak helps Microsoft. There have been a number of reasons used to justify this conclusion; some call the leak a kind of unofficial demonstration.

However, the bottom line is that Halo 2 is already one of the most-hyped console games ever, and certainly the most hyped on the Xbox. It had advertisements in movie theaters, for goodness' sake. And if it weren't for Doom 3, it'd probably be the most hyped game coming out in 2004. Some may argue that it still is.

In short, the pirated copies of Halo 2 don't, and cannot, benefit Microsoft. The download is so large, and the hurdles-- namely, modchipping an Xbox-- so high, that nobody who can successfully use it is someone who didn't already know about Halo 2, enough to decide whether or not to purchase it. If they're purchasing it anyway, then they are breaking the law out of sheer impatience; if they were not, then they are doing so with an intent to steal.

And if we rule out the ludicrous idea that someone who doesn't already own an Xbox would purchase one to play a game they got for free, we have to admit that every illegal copy of Halo 2 out there is, at least, a potential loss of a sale for Microsoft.

Piracy is good because it builds mindshare/marketshare. This is actually a more reasonable concept; the only problem is, it's being applied to the wrong market. There are markets in which Microsoft, like other companies, either ignores, tolerates, or takes a slightly more conciliatory than usual attitude towards the piracy of their products; mainly emerging markets with developing economies, where the usual retail prices of such essential tools as Microsoft Office are simply out of reach of most businesses and individuals, and illegal copies are freely available. Such is the case in much of the Former Soviet Union, for instance, and much of the Far East. In those markets, it affects not just operating systems and applications, but games and movies as well.

In short, while Microsoft may tolerate bootleg copies of Windows in emerging markets for the purpose of, say, forestalling the adoption of free alternatives like Linux, this simply doesn't apply in this case.

The leak was caused by Microsoft. This is the one of the more ludicrous variations on the first two myths, which takes as its prerequisite the idea that piracy is good promotion, and that in order to get free publicity (as if Halo 2 wasn't getting enough paid, and, through I Love Bees, enough free or cheap publicity as it is) they leaked a copy of the game.

This really is ludicrous; you have to be an aficionado of conspiracy theories not to break into a smile when you hear it. Next thing we'll be hearing there was a Spec Ops Elite with a Carbine over on the grassy knoll. Next.

Piracy is just a way of markets doing "right-pricing" adjustments. Actually, I don't hear this one much, but it's probably one I'd use myself if I was trying to justify a position that it was OK to pirate Halo 2. So please allow me to burn down my own straw man.

The right-pricing argument-- the idea that people who are pirating something aren't lost revenue because they can't afford the item they are stealing anyway, and that as such this trend should be an indication that a company could, in fact, make more revenue at a lower price point-- does not apply to Xbox games. The Xbox console, even though it loses money, still costs a good three times what a game does, and is a prerequisite for playing a stolen game (not to mention the modchip's cost). And given that Halo and now Halo 2 are widely regarded as system-sellers, reasons to have the box in the first place, the idea that someone can afford an Xbox, but can't afford Halo 2, simply doesn't hold water.

So piracy may indeed, if looked at from a purely economic, rather than legal, point of view, be a legitimate market force to be considered, rather than something to be sued into oblivion-- but even so, it doesn't apply to Halo 2.

Now, let's move on to deconstructing some of the positive statements.

Those who stole, copied, uploaded, downloaded or played Halo 2 are thieves, scum, horrible human beings, and should be whipped, boiled, chopped into bits and jumped on. Let's have some sense of perspective here. Yes, these people have broken the law for no good reason other than the fact that they want to brag about it, to do something they think will be perceived as a successful assault against Microsoft, or because they want to play the game early and/or without paying. But they aren't serial murderers. If you have information that is credible and seems as if it would lead towards catching someone responsible for making the game available for download, or downloading and playing an illegal copy, send it to Microsoft as they've asked.

But I've seen so many incidents in the past week of people saying that a friend of theirs emailed them links to some spoiler screenshots, and then that they're going to report them for piracy. Let's keep a sense of perspective; I doubt Bungie was intending to provoke Two Thousand Betrayals when they asked for help locating pirates. Sure, spoilers suck; but there's a difference between passing on spoiler material, which is bad (and earns you a ban from some forums and chat servers) and uploading or downloading the game (which is a crime punishable by law).

All piracy is illegal and morally wrong, so let's report everyone who does it to Microsoft, get their XBL accounts banned, their websites taken down, and shun them in polite society. Actually, this one isn't so much wrong (which it isn't, really) as it is hypocritical. Because, you see, I've also seen those statements uttered by people known to me to have pirated other software. Sometimes games, sometimes other things. Usually, they've used one of the above arguments to justify why they've done so.

If they're supporting Bungie now because piracy is illegal and morally wrong, they are creating something of a double standard for themselves, which leads me to my final point, which I think explains accurately the community reaction, but which admits that it is not based on morality or legality:

Bungie is a sacred cow. Let's face up to it, perhaps even embrace it. There are few in any gaming community who can claim to never have copied a piece of software, although there are those who can credibly claim to have outgrown it, both philosophically and economically. But the real basis of the outrage here is the respect for Bungie as a developer different from other developers; that somehow pirating a Bungie game is more wrong than pirating anything else. This may be morally and legally indefensible, but in a real and practical way, this describes the attitude of the community.

Bungie fans know how long it's taken to make this game. Through the Weekly Updates, they've seen the process of it going together; perhaps not from as technical a viewpoint as provided by, say, John Carmack's .plan file updates, but one need not be overwhelmed by technical detail to see the care, love and attention showered on the Halo universe by those that work at Bungie. It's apparent in every facet of the first game, and I've no doubt that faith in that attention to detail will be upheld by the sequel.

Those who abhor moral relativism in all its forms will no doubt be repulsed by that argument, and consider it soft on piracy; so be it. But let's not kid ourselves: Bungie is special. Bungie's fans know it. And that is what distinguishes this event from others like it; Bungie fans are taking it personally that someone has decided to steal Halo 2, and that others are spreading material designed to spoil the game for those who will play it later. That their objections are emotional rather than legal or moral should not be looked upon as a criticism of the fans, but rather as a credit to the work of Bungie that has engendered such respect.

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Comments

Well said, my friend. Well said.

Just wanted to comment -- I really enjoyed the read. I'd also like to shamelessly whore my own article - Leaky Pipes over at The Junkyard.

Best quote, though? "If they're purchasing it anyway, then they are breaking the law out of sheer impatience; if they were not, then they are doing so with an intent to steal." Truest words I've ever heard about this situation.

-- Evergreen98