Close-Up: Video Game Piracy  

Biting the Hand that Feeds
by Elliot Guisinger

   Piracy is a problem that has plagued digital media since its inception. Despite countless measures taken by legislators and publishers, the problem is still going strong and shows no signs of going away any time soon. Even in the face of lawsuits by investigative agencies, some people still choose to risk their freedom to enjoy media without having to pay for them. The draw to piracy is clear: pay less for the same entertainment you'd otherwise pay more for. Who wouldn't want that? The repercussions for dabbling in such activities are also clear: massive fines and prison time. Why then is piracy still so rampant? For several reasons, the draw to participate greatly outweighs the risk. Only a tiny fraction of software pirates have been caught and dealt with, giving many the illusion of immunity.

   Pirates are no strangers to the video game industry. Virtually every game ever made can be found on the internet and downloaded for free--it has been this way nearly since the internet was made public. Pirated games are often converted to computer files called ROMs--the name refers to the Read Only Memory of a video game cartridge that has been saved on a PC. ROMs are played on PCs with special software that emulates the operating system of a specific game console. For example, a Super Nintendo emulator is required to illegally play Super Nintendo games. Emulation software, however, is perfectly legal. More recently, with game consoles coming equipped with hard drives, it has become possible to install ROMs and emulators on systems such as the PS2, Xbox, and, with the help of an unlicensed flash drive, even the GameBoy Advance.

   More commonly, though, game systems are outfitted with mod-chips that enable them to play burned copies of games. Though mod-chips are often used to bypass region coding on games, allowing American gamers to play Japanese games and vice versa, they are notoriously known as tools for piracy as well. Whether mod-chips are legal is unclear. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act included passages concerning the disabling of copyright protection, which a mod-chip does. Also, some mod-chips have copies of a console's BIOS written into them, which is a direct violation of copyright laws. A BIOS, or Basic Input-Output System, is a start-up routine that prepares the console for operation. Console makers are usually more successful at preventing modification of their systems than law enforcement is.

   Games that use the optical disc medium, however, aren't converted to ROM files. The pirate copies a game or obtains a burned copy of a game on a CD-R/RW or DVD-R/RW and plays the game straight off of the disc on a PC using emulation software. The end result is the same as using ROM files, though: playing a stolen game.

   Some aspects of game emulation, however, are sometimes allowed. In just about every case this requires ownership of an original, legitimately obtained copy of the game the player plans to emulate. The only legal reasons for making copies of a game are comparable to ripping a purchased CD onto a computer--to create a back-up copy. Keep in mind, though, that United States copyright laws require the destruction of any back-up copies of software that is sold or given away. It's also illegal to sell or give away a back-up copy without the original version along with it. Furthermore, since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed, it may be a crime to back-up personal copies of software in some areas. It's a good idea to check if a piece of software is copyright protected and to be sure backing-up the software is in compliance with local laws.

   It's important to note that the copy of the game must be made by the owner of the game. Sharing, downloading, or game distribution of any kind is illegal whether the offender owns an original copy or not. Emulation in cases where an original copy of the game is not owned is impossible to legitimize. These include downloading and emulating a game for a short period of time, even for the purpose of merely deciding whether to purchase the game. Piracy websites sometimes claim that downloading a game for a test period is legal as long as the file is deleted within 24 hours, but that's merely propaganda promoting piracy--downloading games for any purpose is very much illegal. The only instance in which downloading a game isn't illegal is if the game is homebrewed and made available on the Public Domain. These games are not commercial games, but homemade, so they haven't been sold for profit.

   It's not difficult to see the harm that game piracy causes the industry. If someone obtains a game illegally, the game's developers and publishers don't get the profits they deserve from their years of hard work. What about older games, though? What about the games that are no longer being produced and sold by the publisher? If such a game is pirated, what harm does it cause its creators if they are no longer making profits from its sale? Though most companies don't usually concern themselves with pirated copies of games they no longer produce, this is still a technical violation of copyright laws. In the case of games that are re-released, however, such as earlier Final Fantasy titles, the producers may begin to pay much closer attention to what's being done with their work--especially since they intend to begin making profits on the titles once again.

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Currents - News Column: 06.04.2005

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