What is the Answer to Piracy?

December 24, 2010

Piracy is something that is often seen as something reserved for the scourge of humanity; the lowest dregs of society. Of course a lot of the people flinging mud take part in it themselves, but that’s beside the point. My concern isn’t whether piracy is right or wrong; we all know that it’s wrong (whether you do it yourself or not), regardless of how little it affects the owner of what you’re stealing. The real question is: what’s the answer? In this article I’ll over up three different examples: two using a different method of fighting it, and the third embracing it.


Ask anyone who plays Minecraft and they’ll tell you how incredible the game is. I recently was gifted the game and have found myself unable to put it down. Go read a news article about it and you’ll see that the creator is making around $350,000 a day from the game (which isn’t even officially out yet). However, if you check the statistics on the website for the game, you’ll also see that only around 30% of the current people registered have bought the game, give or take a few points.

Notch, the creator of Minecraft, has been doing his part to keep users from pirating the game with varying degrees of success. As of this moment, pirated copies of the beta version aren’t able to access the multi-player portion, but can still play the single-player.

Now let’s assume that every person playing it bought the game. That’s roughly $1,050,000 a day that the creator is missing out on. Sure, he’s making a lot of money and the game is performing brilliantly, but that’s pretty disappointing when you see the numbers in front of you like that.

World of Goo is a similar story, where the game actually had around a 90% piracy rate on PC. Sure, everyone was championing the game and telling everybody they had to play it, but praise and adoration don’t pay the bills.

A year after the game came out, the creators offered the game on a “pay what you want” model, and the results were interesting, to say the least. As you can see on the graph above, a large majority of people paid $2.00 or less, with the average price being $2.03. These were countered by people willing to pay much more, with four people even paying $50 for the game. The developers posted a blog about the sale, which I implore you to read to see the full results of their experiment.

Another medium comes to mind from a recent event that truly exhibits the point of this article. A few months ago full pages from the comic book Underground were scanned and put online at 4Chan. The poster was trying to get more exposure for the indie comic, but something happened that nobody was expecting – Steve Lieber (the artist) saw it.

In an interesting twist, there was no cease-and-desist issued. Lieber wasn’t even mad. He came to the forum to answer people’s questions about the comic and had discussions with the people there. The original poster offered to take the scans down and Lieber declined. Instead he put the book on his website also on a “pay what you want” model, with a suggested donation of $5 but you can enter $0 if you’re so inclined.

After Lieber posted the comic on his own blog, sales went through the roof. Not in a small way, where he was selling hundreds more…his Etsy store was selling out. The graph above shows the traffic to his page including a review at Boing Boing and the “4Chan Incident”. While this doesn’t represent sales, Lieber told Comics Alliance that the spike in sales would actually be much sharper.

“The sales spike, I think, would be a lot sharper, actually, but we don’t have any way to track that as precisely… After the Boing Boing article ran, I sat down to do the free sketches for our Etsy buyers, and got them all done while eating a sandwich. After this, I’ll be sketching for DAYS.”

All of these are wildly different examples of how piracy affects the creators and owners of a particular property, with vastly different results. World of Goo developer Brighter Minds actually ended up going bankrupt in early 2009, and the success of Underground was doubly the result of Lieber taking a direct approach to the problem and the high quality of the comic itself. That’s not to say Brighter Minds messed up or that Lieber’s success will be easily emulated.

We live in a digital world, and at this point piracy is something that can’t be stopped. I’m not proposing that every game be put out on the “pay what you want” model, and I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone rush out to download every game they can’t afford. But one day soon we’re going to have to address this, and perhaps everyone needs to start thinking of how we want to approach this.

John Colaw

John is what you might call something of a badass. When he's not writing about games or playing them, he's playing in the Kansas City band "Documentary" and drinking as many different beers as often as he can. He's a huge comic nerd in the best sense of the term, with a particular love for the Creator Owned movement.

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