Personally I feel the piracy discussion is one that’s been hyperboled so far into the extremes on either side of the fence that a proper dialogue is near impossible to have, since everyone has their own preconceived notions about what constitutes piracy and the (assumed/alleged) harm it does.

That being said, I’ve got nothing against someone being proactive in defending their product, if that’s what they want to do. It’s their game/software, if they want to put in a few traps to nail pirates, it’s their reputation on the line. What Garry Newman did with his build-it-pose-it Source modification Garry’s Mod to trap people who had pirated the $9 thing, made me laugh. However, I hope he’s cognizant of the hazards implicit in burning your biggest advertisers: the people who enjoy your product and support it via word of mouth.

Here’s what Newman did: he quietly tweeted asking if anyone was having trouble “shading polygon normals”. Some people did, and quickly went to the Steam forums to report the problem, and the error number it spurts out when the game crashes with the error. Unfortunately for those people, the error number was actually a 64-bit Steam ID. By comparing that Steam ID to the master list of Garry’s Mod sales, that Steam tracks, it was easy to see who were pirates. Those people now find themselves banned from the Steam forums.

Newman had inserted some programming that would crash GMod if it thought it was a pirate copy, thus making clueless pirates report themselves on the forums as they complained about the crash. And boy, did he catch quite a few pirates.

This kind of thing isn’t new, and I’m sure Operation Flashpoint players may recall the terrible “Fade” copy protection that would sometimes erroneously trigger, making the game slowly degrade its experience by making trees grow huge or enemies run super fast, etc. Securom-protected games would fail if it thought it was a pirated game, often a false-positive ruining it for the legitimate buyers while the pirated copies were easily cracked to circumvent the Securom protection.

At the end of the day, such anti-piracy measures, and even of piracy itself, is purely symptomatic of the growing pains the digital frontier and its participants face. The nature of digital goods, the intangibility of copying non-physical products and distributing them, is something businesses are going to have to learn to work with, instead of fighting tooth and nail against the tide and only harming legitimate customers in the process.

At the end of the day, it’s probably going to boil down to services, not licences or products. Services that don’t leave the consumer feeling like they got short-changed just so the multi-billion-dollar corporation can hand out a few more million-dollar raises to the people up top, while the people doing the actual work – programmers, engineers, artists – get increasingly lower salaries and benefits. And eventually, fired, because the publisher blames their latest big-budget flop on “piracy” instead of it being a crap game in the first place, or just another ho-hum addition to an over-saturated genre. I’m looking at you, Guitar Hero/Activision and Homefront/THQ.

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