Cliff Harris Q&A: Why Do You Pirate My Games?

Last Updated Aug 11, 2008 12:00 PM EDT

Pirate flagMany in the software and entertainment industries hire lawyers and involve the courts in an attempt to stop product piracy. But few ever ask the people who use their products without paying why they do so. Cliff Harris, owner of Positech Games, has actively fought piracy, but started wondering what motivated participants and decided to ask people who had pirated games to email him and honestly explain their reasons. A few days into his experiment, he's received hundreds of emails and comments on his blog and I asked him about his experiment.

BNET: What made you ask people why they pirated? Cliff Harris: I've fought against piracy for quite a long time. I'm under the impression that that's worth doing and does make a difference. But because I'm outspoken about it, I get occasional comments on my blog that I take it too seriously or I don't get it. I suddenly thought they might be right and I might be wrong. I never had a civil conversation with a pirate. Normally, the interaction between me and a pirate is me shouting about it and them shouting back. No one really learns [anything]. So I thought it would be interesting to step away, see why people are doing it, and more for me, [learn] what I could do to lessen its impact on me.

BNET: How do you know when you have a problem with piracy? CH: It's very hard to tell. What you can do is ignore it and pretend it's not happening. But the moment you investigate how big a problem it is, it seems to get bigger and bigger, because the more you look, the easier it is to find. Someone did a mod for one of my games. I offer to host any mods people do for free, so they're always available. There were a lot more downloads of the mod than there were sales of my game, and not everyone downloads a mod, so that was pretty obvious. The other thing is it's quite easy to put out a fake piracy copy. You take the demo and put it on the pirate web site and see how many people download it. It's amazing how many people download it. Obviously once the demo expires, they realize that it's not the real thing.

BNET: Any guess as to the ratio of illegal to legal copies?

CH: I'd say there are probably three times as many people who have a pirated copy as have a legal copy, but that's a guess. At minimum it's 50-50.

BNET: What have been the responses to your question?

CH: Some of them have been people who are kind of admitting it, saying they knew they wouldn't get caught and they wanted to save money. I'd say maybe a quarter of the responses are that. It's at least a sign that the responses are honest. A lot of them have told me their whole life stories. There are a lot of people who pirated games and now don't because when they were kids they had no money, and now that they've grown up, they don't pirate. There were at least a hundred people [saying that]. Then I think there are two other big groups. There is the group that are still kids or for whatever reasons don't have money. They can't afford to buy the games and they would if the games were a lot cheaper. There's one other big group, which is people that have got some argument against the games industry. They are critical of the products generally, in that they've played a lot of games that are low quality or that have bugs, and they're annoyed about that. There are a lot -- things that have disappointed them, and they worry about buying a game because one of these things might happen to them, like it won't work on the PC or it will be dull. [A] lot of people -- pirate to be sure of what they're getting. Those are the longest emails.

BNET: What have you learned? CH: We assume that all of the pirates are just trying to rip us off. The assumption from the pirates is that all of the games are making loads of money and greedy and don't really care about the customers. I don't think either is really true, but it's easy when you're on one side of the fence to get defensive. It's slightly scary when you're a big game company and people say, "I don't want to buy your game because it stinks." It's quite difficult to think that maybe there's a point. A lot of [pirates] have said that they don't trust the demo of the game. They don't think the demos are long enough or they show what they games are truly like. When you're selling something, it's difficult to see that side of it because you don't want to deliver the [whole game] up front.

BNET: Is there anything you can do in response? CH: I think that changes to demos will be something I will do. Demos will be more generous, let you play more of the game. One thing I am going to change is that the last game I did had a simple digital rights management system. I was planning on using that again, but I think I probably won't now. One of the major things that people complain about is that if there's any form of copy management on games, it's going to cause problems on their computer because some have.

BNET: So you're putting people off and not getting a lot of benefit? CH: Yeah, because my games are still pirated. It's not actually making me any more money to do that.

BNET: How about lowering prices? CH: I don't know about the price of the game. I'm still thinking about that. This is the big question, because my games are generally $23, and there are lots of similar games at $19. But the general assumption is that the price isn't a big deal. I have changed the price of the game up and down and found that the same amount of people buy it, so I'm not keen on [dropping the price]. It's a scary thing, because it currently pays the bills, so any change as you can imagine makes me worried. I could halve the price of my games and sell no extra copies at all, in which case I'd be in real trouble. On the other hand, I have hundreds of people saying that games are too expensive.

What [pirates] think is that we don't understand. There are a lot of cases where they lecture me about economics, which is quite funny in some ways, because I have a degree in economics from the London School of Economics. They think we are fairly silly and stupid that if we dropped the price we'd sell a lot more copies of the games and make a lot more money. We who make the games say we're not so certain about that.

BNET: Why hasn't anyone asked the question before? CH: I think the mentality that the larger companies and trade bodies have is that it's like negotiating with terrorists. They can't be seen doing that. But I've found it interesting and I'm glad I've done it. I'm getting information about potential customers and their motives for free. They're emailing me and telling me. I could pay a third company a lot of money to get the same information, or not get the same information. It makes perfect sense to ask the question, even if I don't change anything. Even if all of this enforces that what I'm doing is right, it's still worth doing.

Pirate flag image courtesy user monosodium under standard site license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.