The Rights and Wrongs of Digital Rights Management (DRM): An eXposition

Yesterday morning, I tried to sit down and (finally) record the first episode of my Let’s Play series for Anno 2070. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been procrastinating on this project. I’ve got tons of excuses, some of them even good ones, but in the end it comes down to the fact that sitting in front of a screen and talking to it makes me feel… odd.


In any case, I had once again built up the courage to give it a go, but when I double-clicked Anno I got a strange message from Uplay: my Internet connection was down so it couldn’t start the game. Well, that wasn’t so weird – my current Internet service is, at best, unreliable. So I dropped into my web browser and checked. Nope, Internet was running fine. Then I checked Steam – also working perfectly well. So, back to Anno 2070. Despite all the other evidence, Uplay disagreed about the state of my connection.

Well then. I went back on the Internet and did a Google search. “Is Uplay down?” I asked. Uplay itself, along with UbiSoft, replied, “Nope, everything is fine.” The rest of the net, however, politely disagreed. I found a chart that showed the number of Uplay complaints rising over a two hour period. Yup, the problem was Uplay and not my computer. I wanted to sit down and play a game, single player, with no need for an online connection at all. But I couldn’t play because someone else’s system was down. My Let’s Play would have to wait for another time.

This is the legacy of DRM, short for Digital Rights Management. DRM is nu-speak for anti-piracy software, the kind of language neutering that people have been railing against for decades. It is the perfect choice, then, for a system of corporate-speak bureaucracy that punishes the people who buy the games in order to disincentivize those that don’t.

You cannot play Anno 2070 without opening Uplay, Ubisoft’s invasive Steam-like gaming client. That means, for most of us, playing 2070 requires having two background programs running (Steam and Uplay) that aren’t even the game itself. Yes, there is multiplayer in the game. Yes, there are a few network-only features like player-response driven polls that distribute bonuses for certain factions and even a kind of public quest system for big, landscape altering events. Anno 2205, the latest offering, has the same online-only requirement but doesn’t even bother to have any online-only content. Seriously, we’re talking about a game that will be played solo yet requires a constant, steady Internet connection. In the words of ethicist and philosopher Immanuel Kant, that’s some serious BS right there.


On, the other hand, Ubisoft is responsible for Rayman. So all is forgiven.

I have no intention of playing Anno 2070 online (nor Anno 2205, nor the latest SimCity, nor Diablo III…), but I am constantly beholden to some distant collection of computers that determine whether or not I can play the game on my own. The people who illegally downloaded those titles, however, do not have that problem. So… ummm… yeah.

Stealing is bad. No, really.

Rather than continue to just throw out examples, I’ll start at the beginning. DRM, or what we now call DRM anyway, has existed for as long as there has been digital media whose rights have required protection. I was 12 or 13 and looking through the Front Page Sports: Football instruction booklet for page 103, paragraph 4, line 2 to authenticate my purchase every time I wanted to play. Today’s Uplays and Steam keys are not all that different. So having to put in some password in order to play my game at age (well, let’s just say not-13) isn’t really all that invasive.

In fact, we can go even further back than that. As long as there’s been ‘stuff,’ there have been people who want to steal that ‘stuff.’ Some, because they need it. Others because they want it and can’t afford it. Some people steal because it imparts some illicit thrill. Some because they see theft as part of a larger political campaign against the current state of the culture. There are millions of reasons why people choose to steal, honestly. We could spend an entire article just listing them. The reality is that theft is a part of all civilizations and probably will be forever. DRM is no different than the guard at the front of the jewelry store or the metal detector in the mall.


Super high tech DRM, circa 1992.

Yet thieving still goes on because there is no 100% effective system of theft prevention. Mostly, these things exist as deterrents – ironically, the more involved the deterrent (see reactance theory, about halfway down), the more it seems to invite some people to try to overcome it. Some people just want to watch the world burn, eh Batman?

There is also a contingent of people who will tell you that gaming piracy is not theft. These people say that they are justified in stealing games because they are overpriced. There are gamers, people you probably know, stealing a game right now because they want to ‘stick it to the man.’

So let me be unequivocal about all this: That is utter garbage.

People deserve to be rewarded financially for their hard work. Every time. I don’t care if they’ve already made millions of dollars (a la Taylor Swift) or they’ve barely eked out a damn dime. Making games may seem like fun, but it is hard work and the people who produce games deserve every dollar they get for your entertainment.

We are walking down a very dangerous road in this culture, where people seem unwilling to spend their money on music, TV, movies, whatever entertains them, like it’s some sort of intrinsic right. I can promise you this: if you don’t reward great creative people, they will go away. You are not protesting the corporate culture. You’re not keeping some asshat from his fourth Mercedes. You are reaching into the pocket of someone who works very hard for your entertainment – you are punishing them for good work.

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 1

Taylor Swift wants to get paid for her work. How greedy can you get?

Why do people steal? As a culture, how can we prevent theft? Should we? What is an acceptable loss due to theft? This is all great philosophy and we could spend pages here. I won’t.

Does Reality Match?

So then, let’s ask the question: does DRM even work as a deterrent? In other words, do games with DRM get stolen less than games without? Sales data for games is notoriously iffy and theft numbers are even moreso. A game that was famously pirate-prevented like SimCity simply doesn’t publicize how often it was stolen. If anything, numbers appear whenever a company wants to complain about piracy, yet mysteriously are unavailable once an anti-theft measure is made available. Gee, I wonder why that is?


Pirates. I hate those guys.

Companies are more than happy to spout out that The Witcher 2 was pirated roughly 4.5 million times within a span of several months, while it was actually purchased only 2.2 million times. Where do those numbers come from? How was ‘pirated’ defined vs point of sale purchase? If we can really get that granular with sales data, why is there no information on a DRM-protected game? What’s the goal for your anti-theft measures? Don’t say zero tolerance, that’s ridiculous. Is 20% theft prevention enough to justify pissing people off? What about five percent? Where do we draw the line? Companies are making us swallow an assumption – stealing is so bad that we must effectively hinder our games – that I’ve yet to see adequately proven. It seems like a simple question: are games without DRM more likely to be pirated than games with?

Other companies, usually smaller, have gone the opposite direction. Brad Wardell at Stardock famously declared that his games would eschew obnoxious copy protection, though Stardock certainly has their own form of DRM. The makers of World of Goo included no copy protection at all (and saw roughly 80-90% of their game sales downloaded illegally for their trouble).

Here’s another example. MuHa games, makers of Thea: The Awakening, chose to release a Linux version, allowing those who want to play their game without DRM to do so. In a recent exchange regarding MuHa’s attitude toward DRM, they said “[providing a DRM-free release of Thea] creates a good vibe about MuHa. [We were] quite surprised and flattered to see several people say that they pirated the game initially, but then decided to buy, afterward.”

Again, we just don’t have reliable data to judge whether the choice to support customers and ignore the possibility of theft was rewarded or not. The gaming community loudly trumpets these decisions as consumer friendly, but then, like the case of World of Goo, gamers go ahead and pirate the game anyway. Way to reinforce good decisions, people.

So what data do we have? To put on the hat from my old career of writing about clinical studies, the information we have is really, really limited and, honestly, not very good. There are small sample sizes, all sorts of source issues, and, of course, none of it is the kind of randomized, double-blind study that is far better for drawing any type of intelligent conclusion. So, yeah, big grain of salt.   

What we do have, however, paints a much more complicated picture of piracy, one that often goes against conventional wisdom.

For instance, pirates (Australian ones, anyway) tend to spend more on media than their law-abiding buddies. Now, there are some massive caveats here. Australia is a very unique market that pays an incredible mark-up on almost all media. We also don’t have key information here such as economic backgrounds that would help us make better sense of the data.

The UK has done similar studies and the data there suggests that, again, pirates aren’t just ‘people who steal’ but rather people who tend to acquire media in a number of ways, including theft. It may very well be that the people who are doing the most stealing are also the best customers.

table 1

One last study, this one conducted for The Software Alliance. Does decreasing software theft improve a country’s overall GDP?

table 2

Yes it does. Shocker. On the other hand, simply encouraging people to keep stealing would still seemingly provide a $20 billion dollar boost to worldwide economy. That’s… a far less common conclusion. What we have here, then, isn’t exactly an indictment of the problem of theft so much as it is a reaffirmation that what it is that really makes economies go: access (legal or otherwise).

So am I saying that we should just continue to pirate games without legal recourse? Hardly. All this data shows is that we’ve done a truly terrible job of understanding the problem, which is probably why we’re so lousy at fixing it. There just isn’t enough data out there to understand this type of theft, its causes, how it is accomplished, and what the true cost is. We’re trying to keep the house safe from infestation, but no one knows whether it’s ants, bees or butterflies. So we’re just putting steel plating up everywhere. That is a remarkably stupid way to go about things.

What’s to be done and how we can fix this?

So there are really three options that I see here. One is really pie in the sky, but I’ll mention it because, honestly, that’s the dream: We, as a culture need to change how we see art, entertainment, and the cost of creation of those things. There’s a perception, I think, that painting is just slapping some color on the canvas. That game makers mostly mess around, smoke pot, and program which, as we all know, is only the most fun ever.

It’s not. It is hard work to create art or provide entertainment. Being creative is no easier than bricklaying or accounting and often, sorry to say, harder. I know we’re not supposed to say that in the current environment where we’ve come to deify the blue collar worker and demonize every other color. But the truth is, yes, making games is hard. It’s very often not fun. Just because it’s a job that a lot of people would love to have doesn’t mean we get to denigrate it.

If we could change how people see art – if we could make them really respect the effort involved, I think a lot of theft would go away. Would it remove theft completely? Of course not. I’m pretty sure everyone knows how hard it is to make a car, but people still steal them. I do think we’d see a lot less of the sort of entitled culture that currently surrounds piracy.

Whatever. I know it’s not happening. I might as well wish for world peace.

Anyway, option two would be to look at DRM as is, and make it work better for consumers while keeping the benefits for the publishers. For example, let’s say I want to play Anno 2205 on my train commute. Could I ping the server to give me a 24-hour code that I can enter that unlocks offline play for that period? A similar feature could be implemented if the publisher chose to close the servers for a game after several years (obviously, that kind of unlock code would need to have a longer duration for that scenario). This is not going to satisfy some people – I understand that. For a great many gamers, it’s ‘I paid for my game and I should be able to use it how I wish.’ I respect that perspective, but I also think those days are long gone. Something that at least allows for greater player freedom might help soften the blow of some of the more invasive DRM problems.

My personal favorite solution, however – because it’s both realistic and fair – is to move on from DRM entirely and change the way we treat theft in general. Rather than punishing everyone for the actions of a few, why not reward the people who do things right? Fortunately, it seems like many companies are moving in this direction after the negative backlash suffered by some games with particularly harsh DRM. Options like season passes or DLC may be annoying in their own way but they are an example of ways to positively reinforce desired behaviors.

An example: whenever you mention DRM, people complain about Uplay, Battle.net and their ilk. You know who gets mentioned far less frequently? Steam. Can I play a game without Steam open? Nope. But Valve has made Steam about more than DRM. As much as people see Steam as copy protection, they also see it as a gaming community and a place to get good deals.

It wasn’t always this way. Steam was no more than a Battle.net clone in the beginning: a supposedly helpful background client that did more to gank a game than help it. To Valve’s credit, they saw the issue and did their best to make Steam something more. I have no doubt this took a lot of effort: to establish Steam as the foundation for almost all PC gaming. Yet Valve has done that work and they’ve reaped the benefits of it. Sometimes a PR win is better than an actual one. The periodic Steam sale, in and of itself, probably saves Steam millions in bad press.


Maybe if they released Half-Life 3, I’d stop complaining

Customers have complained loudly about DRM and it seems like game makers are beginning to respond. The recent SimCity reboot, in particular, was just a nightmare of a release and more recent games that I’ve seen are at least trying to find another way. The last few big game releases have had more vitriol over DLC than DRM. Maybe we’re just exchanging one problem for another, but it’s a sign that things are at least changing. That’s a good thing. It means people are looking for solutions instead of shrugging their shoulders and saying, “too bad.”

The relationship between the people who make games and those who play them is an ongoing evolution made increasingly more complicated by the speed of technological advance. The days of opening a giant instruction booklet for a password are gone for a number of reasons – heck, they don’t even print instruction booklets anymore – and the burgeoning gamer culture has an extra level of difficulty because of that constant change. There was a time when CD-ROM was the ultimate security because they couldn’t be copied. Yes, really.

The only thing we can say about the future for sure is that it will be different. No matter what the technology is, no matter where the culture goes, so long as we treat each other with respect, then I have hope for the hobby. There are no easy solutions here. As one smart person (or, perhaps, several) said, you know you have a good compromise if both sides feel like they lost. If developers and players can treat each other like valued partners rather than bitter enemies, then I think we will find a middle ground that everyone can at least live in, if not necessarily love. And once UPlay’s servers are back up, I’ll be playing more Anno 2070. I still have that Let’s Play to finish, after all.

Special thanks to Steam user Franknfurter for assistance with the creation of this article, specifically the charts and data.



Categories: eXpositions, Site Stuff

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20 replies »

  1. Once I was playing Heroes of Might and Magic VI, bought through steam but run through uPlay, I was doing my single player campaign when suddenly the game closed because it “lost the connection with the servers” although the internet wasn’t down, and I lost my progress from last autosave … obviously I insta-ragequit and never played a uPlay game again (except for FarCry:Blood Dragon which is awesome).

    Anyway, great read, customers should stomp the foot down against these dodgy actions by companies. We need a sense on ownership of the products we buy, and should boycott ones with intrusive DRMs.

    I could suggest you to do a series on Anno 1404, it’s great and doesn’t need uPlay ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “We, as a culture need to change how we see art, entertainment, and the cost of creation of those things. There’s a perception, I think, that painting is just slapping some color on the canvas. That game makers mostly mess around, smoke pot, and program which, as we all know, is only the most fun ever.”
    Once upon a time a painter was considered no different than a blacksmith or a butcher, just a person that offered a service and was paid for it. Artists are not exactly blameless in how they are viewed now.

    “Can I play a game without Steam open? Nope.”
    Actually, yes you can. But it depends on the game.


  3. Artists won’t go away if they stop being payed for their hard work. Throughout most of mankind history, artists were on the low end of the social ladder and yet they produced some of the most significant works of art that is still revered today.

    What instead started happening around the mid of the 20th century was the idea that it is OK for artists to get disproportionately payed for their art. Hence Taylor Swift. While on the other end, Ana, a single mother of two, with high school finished, who wakes up at 5 am and get homes at 11 pm and that at the age of 32 looks like she’s in her 50s, won’t get 1,000,000th of Taylor Swift pay for spending the day cleaning Taylor Swift-like people toilets or washing their underwear.

    But if the Taylor Swifts of this world disappear, mankind will always have art. In fact it may get back to having good and ageless art. Not the pop culture of today centered on vanity and self-promotion, but pure ageless art as a true form of human expression.

    Let’s face it, there’s plenty of room in this society of ours for social justicers, or people that think they are social justicers. Today we award entertainment above all other human activities. Above politicians, above business owners, above scientists, teachers, or other noble forms of production. And this reflects a decline in our social values. Much like in the last days of the Roman empire, our society is at its lowest point when circus and lions dominate the daily lives of our citizens.

    Piracy is no excuse and it is certainly no way to combat social inequalities and the excesses of the 20th and 21st centuries. But it is something else.

    It is no less true that there is a tremendous sense of frustration in how the consumer has been consistently loosing ground in the tug-of-war with business interests. The DRM issue is a tremendous invitation for social disobedience. DRM, Patents, and Copyrights that span across several generations instead of the original author and its siblings, are the signs of a world gone mad to the economic appeal of mass markets. And they are breeding grounds for disobedience and the natural human tendency for tinkering its way around economic obstacles.

    The simple truth of the matter is that in our modern society, in 2016, if you payed for every single piece of software in your own personal computer, every single piece of web service in the internet, every single piece of music you listen, every single movie you watch, every single mobile service, you would have to calculate your monthly budget on the same level of a very small fraction of the human population; the very rich. And you would still have to somehow pay for clothes, food, gas, electricity, medical bills, house downpayments, … you know…

    Piracy arrives as an economic basic need to a large portion of the world that can’t stay disconnect from modern world, or risk losing their opportunity to leave the ghetto that are their lives. For others piracy arrives as a pure form of communicating disagreement and battle what many feel is the oppression of economic regimes, who are today (despite piracy) giant powerhouses of political power.

    But for the vast majority, piracy is indeed a convenience. A form of stealing for the sake of stealing. One pirates because they can. And that is the price borderline social behavior always have payed in history. It always presents opportunities to the opportunistic. And why in history borderline social behavior has always been poorly seen, until much later when studied as an historical event and finally understood in the context where it emerged.

    The challenge today is not how to fight piracy. Forget it. With our standardized and open architectures, there will always be room for piracy to sneak in. For good or bad intent. The real challenge everyone fights today is how to adapt their business to a connected world transferring money and products through a network or cables and light waves. And our companies and our governments are, generally speaking, completely incapable of moving their businesses forward into this brave new world that the 1960s brought us. They still cling to old business models, hence DRM, abusive copyrights or weird patents.

    And this discussion is largely moot. It doesn’t have any effect in how the world is shaping up to be. We discussing it here won’t be finding a magical solution or have any epiphany and save the world from itself. The simple matter of fact, is that the modern economy and its rules has to crash and burn before it can rise renewed. That is at least the direction we are taking. Piracy will be largely irrelevant when businesses finally understand how to fairly distribute their products in the modern world, which faces modern needs and can only accept fair compensation. Either that or we move the way of a dystopian society and keep pushing police states as a form of government.


  4. I have accepted steam and purchase all my games thru steam now. I have tried to play Heros of Might and Magic VI several times and after taking a long time to fix Uplay so that I could actually run the game I found that it was not worth the effort. I don’t play any Ubisoft games anymore as in, if I see Ubisoft anywhere in a game I don’t even bother to learn anything about the game and automatically click “Not Interested” in my steam account.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Digital Restrictions Management is always wrong, we agree.
    Piracy is not stealing because for theft to occur you must lose something, it’s copyright infringement and it’s different for many reasons, and if you took the law as a basis for morality, it’s a much worse sin. It’s not the same because we’re, theoretically, limiting free speech for a finite (but not really) amount of time to promote creation of culture. You can believe in copyright while also believing that the current system, as much of our economies, is only promoting rent-seeking and destroying the commons. By calling it theft, you’re giving huge industries an excuse to do all the shenanigans (EULAs, DRM, DLC, no used sales, no lending, all the abuses with the DMCA, rootkits and so on and so fort) they do while paying very little for it – real properties have taxes, devaluation and maintenance costs.
    Also, depending on what you pirate, you’re mostly not actually depriving any creators of any money, but mostly the middle men who control the industries. It doesn’t apply to much of what I consume, but it is a thing.

    It’s complicated… but support the good guys. The others, meh.


  6. As an older gamer I have two issues what fears me most. What if a service shut down for some reason not because internet downtime but just because the service goes bankrupt. Am I able to play Anno 2070, Homm VI and VII after ten years? I have hope in the internet community that when games become abandoned there will be always ways to play them because of some smart guys/girls crack the code.

    I have issues with Uplay myself. For some older games I bought on Uplay only or in the original boxed version (Total Homm collection for example) since the last big Uplay update on Windows 10 the whole registry settings are messed up so Uplay cannot find the games I have installed anymore and games I don’t have installed anymore I can’t download because they excist still in the registry. Also Homm VI takes seven minutes to load and close because of synchronizing with their service while it was ok before.

    The biggest problem is that when I send them mail for support nobody seems to care about the problems. They just keep sending me standard answers with checking my msconfig for start up programs and send them Directxdiags but no help at all.
    Uplay is a very bad example of DRM indeed not only because their product but for their support on older games.

    I really hope this cannot happen to Steam, but it still is a fear. Since I use Steam I can build a collection like I did when I was young with the boxed versions and I’m happy with it.

    But what if they turn Steam into a subscription service? Or we have to start paying a monthly fee for newer games like Origin started this week?

    I play games from Slitherine and Paradox where games can last days or turns can last hours. I’m a strategy gamer not an action gamer. So what if I have to pay every month for my favorite game?

    Their is much unsure about the future of gaming and DRM but I really hope I can keep some kind of collection in the future and play games when I want and how much I want without paying for them on a monthly base because they are not on my disc but on a cloud and when the service shut down my games are gone.


  7. Personally I am glad there are ways to get around Online DRM games. Because games get their servers shut down at one point. For example BattleForge, this game is legally useless. But I can still download a cracked version and at least play the single player. Without the cracked version I would have bought a game that no longer functions, not because of software/hardware limitations, but because a shitty company never released a way to play the game without a server.


  8. There is an easy answer here :: DONT BUY UBISOFT GAMES. Id say dont buy EA games too but no one actually buys that crap on PC. There is really no need to get philosophical about theft because very very few gaming companies bother with DRM. Only Ubisoft and EA has this stupid requirement. The age of DRM is dead..they tried it and it pissed consumers off. UBISOFT and EA are big goliath companies that dont care about customers or gamers – Dont reward them. The market will sort out the last gaps of DRM if people stay away from vile money grubbers like UBISOFT and EA


    • Interesting food for thought, mariofig and Cablenexus. :) Juxtaposing the value of entertainment against other equally (if not more) valid pursuits and professions in modern society/culture is something particularly relevant when examined from a Biblical worldview….Are either of you Christian by any chance?

      @David Walsh: What do you mean, Steam is not DRM?
      I’m not that familiar with it, since I haven’t used anything like it in a long time, if ever. I did download some ND games (along with a few casual games) from Amazon a few years back (usually I purchase them hardcopy on DVD); and I recall having to download something that ran at startup in systray, in order for the games to work (that may have been it, idk).
      But, will Steam allow you to sell one of their games on the secondhand market, if/when you tire of playing it, similar to a hardcopy book that you’ve finished reading?
      Also, can you play the games on computer without a persistent internet connection or online server authentication? If you upgrade PCs, or wish to have the game simultaneously installed on both your desktop and laptop (that you yourself own), is the Steam licensing agreement okay with that? Even if you haven’t done anything with the game in the past five years or more?
      Or is it a bit of a hassle where you have to have an “account” in good standing and all that?
      Finally, are you protected from licensing agreement changes, at least for games that you already own? I am thinking of something similar to Cablenexus’ proposed scenario. Many software companies have found it more profitable (to customers’ disadvantage) over time to go with a more complex, subscription-based “fee-for-service” model over the sale and support of software outright… So what’s preventing game distributors from going the same route? Digital multimedia services such as iTunes, eMusic, Netflix, VUDU (or whatever they call themselves), etc. were among those setting the standards for SAAS early on (which is why I never patronized them); but the tendency has been for other companies, like Google (with their cloud services) and Amazon (with Kindle-e-book digital files) to follow suit. In my experience and observation, any time you are required to have an online authentication or connection in order to use something you have already bought and paid for, it is opening the door to further restriction and abuses of the EULA/TOS agreements down the road.


      • Hey Cmauze,

        Steam is absolutely a form of DRM. You only need to connect online the first time you play for authentication, and when you want to update your game. It is a digital format with a lack of physical copies. That in my book makes it a form of DRM for certain.




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