13 February 1998
Piracy: Collectors' Friend or Foe (originally for Suite 101)
[Suite 101 articles introduction]
It is with regret that I tell you this will be my last Suite 101 article for now. But it is with happiness that I tell you the reason is because my wife and I are having a baby. I was hoping to be able to continue my Suite 101 duties during her pregnancy, but as the due date gets closer, there's more and more to do and less time to do it. I simply don't have time to even write a monthly article any more, which is why this article is so late. I apologize for its lateness and thank you for your patience.
Now let's see if I can go out with a bang . . .
Software piracy is a touchy subject with classic video game collectors. Some flaunt it, some do it secretly, some avoid it, and some ignore it. Software piracy is simply owning a copy of a piece of software (in this case, a game) that you do not own in the original or other legally licensed format. (In most cases here, a cartridge.) Today, most piracy over the Internet is copying the ROM chips within cartridges for use with an emulator. Approached from a strictly legal perspective, it's wrong. Period. Most collectors, however, approach it from a moral and ethical perspective. This is where the arguments begin.
Some that argue against piracy simply believe that the companies or individuals who wrote and/or released the games have the right to do whatever they want with the games, including nothing, since they own them. This is, for the most part, the same as the legal viewpoint. There is a great deal of merit to this argument. If video game copyright laws were done away with, developers would be hard pressed to make any money from their products because once one copy was sold, it could theoretically become the most popular game in the world without a second copy being sold. Without the ability to sell copies, the monetary incentive for creating games is gone, thus fewer games will be produced. True, some games would be produced just for the sake of doing it, but most developers would be unable to devote the time it would take to produce a game like Doom without receiving any pay for it. So, by disregarding game copyrights, we begin a breakdown of the system the is responsible for these games' development.
On the other hand, most of the games classic video gamers are interested in are 10 to 20 years old. Their commercial life would seem to be over. Most of the companies that produced them either no longer care about them, no longer remember them, or have completely dissolved. If the company no longer has any interest in them and has already made their money off of them, what's the harm in those that still want to play them sharing copies?
Well, the harm comes when products like the Stella Gets a New Brain CD come along. The CyberPunks went to a lot of trouble to get legal permission from the game owners to create the CD. As a result, it was far more than pirated copies of the game code. It contained scans of as much Supercharger-related material as they could find and other tidbits. The CD has been universally praised by those collectors lucky enough to get one as an outstanding piece of work.
There is also harm when sales of a commercial product like Activision's Atari 2600 Action Packs are hurt by the availability of emulators and ROMs. The first two sold well, but the third one didn't do as well. When the first Action Pack was released, there were no other Atari 2600 emulators available, but there were several by the time the third Pack was released. Admittedly, this is not the entire reason the third pack sold poorly, but it must certainly figure into it.
Having the permission of the owning companies to sell some sort of product that uses game binaries is the absolute best way to make sure these games survive, as the Supercharger CD has shown. Unfortunately, some companies seem to value their past games only when it is convenient for them. They turn a blind eye to the piracy on the Internet, but as Glenn Saunders, head CyberPunk, puts it, "Common sense indicates that inaction = consent, and ultimately breaking the letter of the law is rewarded whereas go to these companies and seeking to cut a deal PERPORTIONATE [sic] TO THEIR LIMITED COMMERCIAL VALUE, PARTLY DUE TO THIS PROLIFERATION OF PIRACY, and they spout off unrealistic figures or fail to deal with you at all."
This creates a catch-22 situation. The games' best chance of long-term survival, particularly prototypes stored on EPROMs that will eventually go bad, is through their use in emulators. Unfortunately, the companies involved don't seem to want to be reasonable about their licensing fees, thus the images are pirated, thus the commercial appeal of releasing licensed packages is reduced, and so on.
So what are collectors to do? Should they condemn piracy in the hopes of getting more licensed products? Or should they go ahead and keep as many ROM images as they can get to help preserve them? Frankly, I don't know, but if we don't start doing something soon, we will begin losing rare prototypes that hundreds of people might otherwise have gotten to play and enjoy.
Copyright 1998 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.