DRM: what the hell is that all about?

It seems the worm may have turned, at least for everyone who isn’t Ubisoft.

I read with joy the news that Dragon Age 2 will come with very little in the way of onerous DRM restrictions. The Steam version will use the standard Steamworks scheme, while physical retail copies (what those?) will require occasional online ‘check in’ to keep playing offline. There will be no disk-based protection system like SecuROM (thank your choice of deity).

 

Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2, courtesy of Bioware

 

While this does still effectively bar anyone without a reliable Internet connection from playing, it is a step in the right direction. Always-on connection-required DRM is an abomination that punishes legitimate customers and doesn’t hurt pirates in the least.

Read on after the jump.

Take the example of the ridiculous flawed implementation in the Settlers VII for instance. I live in London, in one of the more populous and infrastructurally sound boroughs. I have a fairly reliable Internet connection, with more than enough bandwidth to ensure glitch-free streaming off iPlayer. So why then can I only play about ten minutes of S7 before being booted out of my game with a condescending little message about a network error, and promises of resuming straight away, as soon as Ubi’s server deigns to respond.

 

Settlers 7

Settlers 7, crashing.

 

To be honest, people I know have been insistent that the DRM servers have become far more reliable recently, and screens like this far less common. To me though, this sounds like saying how grateful you are that the bully now only pokes you in the eye with a pencil once a day, rather than every hour or so. I cannot abide a situation whereby I am penalised for be honest enough to stump up the cash for a new game in a series that I have loved in the past. I haven’t played S7 for quite some time, but if I were to go back I would consider downloading a crack to rid myself of the DRM purely as a matter of principle.

And that’s the big problem with this situation. You see, pirates don’t have to deal with any of this nonsense. Piracy is easy, and since we’re never going to get hardware companies to start making less capable machinery, cracking copy protection on code just gets faster. Add to this that pirate games are often available before the official release date (usually due to leaking review builds), and the case for shelling out just gets harder to make.

DRM is a completely fallacious solution to this issue, in that the companies believe that making it fractionally harder to crack their code will put off dedicated hackers. However, what they don’t understand is that traditional calculations of effort/payoff based on economics do not apply to these people. Hardcore crack groups do it for the respect, and making a deviously difficult lockdown mechanism just encourages them to work that bit harder to build a skeleton key. No one is paying for their releases, so they are simply not subject to the time or competition pressures that apply to commercial coders. Add in a spirit of competition between the leading crackers in their respective fields, and you have a recipe for copygeddon.

This is how we have ended up with the frankly ridiculous situation we find ourselves in now. The fact is, that we don’t own all that lovely code that runs on our machines. All that we own is the licence to use them, under the conditions set forth by the publisher. That only becomes a problem when the publisher imposes onerous terms, or chooses to unilaterally change the conditions of use.

This rarely leads to the kind of reaction they were looking for, such as when Sony removed the ability to run Linux on the PS3 due to the fear of piracy. What did they end up with? A console that was comprehensively hacked, consumers having the choice of running pirate games for the first time, and an escalating arms race with hackers over firmware updates.

The trend towards ever greater lockdown of our consumer products is indicative of a greater structural problem within the industry, and perhaps within all industries whose products are amenable to digitisation. The early 21st century was characterised by a penetration of the Internet into not just our lives as consumers, but also as producers. The conditions of production have changed, while the structures that control, direct and ultimately sell the commodities produced have remained substantially the same.

A process that began with the digitisation of music, and reached a critical juncture with mass popularity of sharing networks like Napster, is still wracking the music industry. Giant concerns have recognised that their main adversaries are now no longer the individual artist and rival studios, but rather the consumer as file sharer. While some areas of the industry have blossomed under the new conditions of production (see communities like 8bc.org), the capitalist mode of competitive accumulation, at least in the form it took in the latter part of the 20th century, is threatened by it.

Giant bloated business-ogres like Sony and Microsoft had a monopoly on the distribution of artistic content, except on a very small local scale. They will inevitably attempt to retain that control of distribution through any means they can, even if that means compromising the independence of the Internet itself. In my opinion, that effort is doomed. The technological revolution that made modern gaming possible has undermined that business model permanently.

Which is not to paint the Internet as some sort of free and equal information utopia. Clearly, capitalism is a dynamic system capable of absorbing and responding to massive shifts in the productive base of society, and changing the structures of existing relations in order to survive. And this technological revolution will most probably not be different.

What this does mean is that we live in interesting times. By making, sharing and distributing work online we are building a new set of productive relations, and that means that what we do and argue for matters.

/rant over

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