The Unbreakable Lock

I read an article a while ago (somewhere in the vague, dark recesses of the internet) that was talking about a “new” way of breaking open locks.  Somehow, using a blank key of the same format the lock takes and a rubber mallet, a criminal could force open a lock in less than 30 seconds with a minimum of noise. 

In this article, lock makers were protesting the idea that their locks were supposed to be unbreakable.  “Of course they’re breakable,” they said.  “We expect that!  The point of a lock is not to be totally unbreakable, but to take the longest possible amount of time and effort to be broken.” 

This was a new to me. 

If there is no such thing as an unbreakable lock, then why have them at all?  Well, you’re not trying to prevent burglars from stealing anything at all.  You’re trying to prevent burglars from stealing your things.  If your lock is the most pain in the ass thing to get into on the block, then a would-be thief might just leave, or at least go across the street.

Why, then, do software companies insist on continuing to try making an unbreakable lock, in the form of DRM? 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is probably a bit late to the DRM party, since it’s not like 5 minutes after Spore, but… I don’t care]

For the uninformed, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management.  It is essentially any system used to prevent someone from pirating a piece of software.  This would include CD Keys, online verification, and physical hardware required to “unlock” a program.   I’ll be focusing on games specifically, since that’s what I have the most experience with.

There’s been a long and drawn out argument about DRM (which really hit the fan when Spore only allowed you to install it 3 times…ever), especially concerning the fact that it seems to inconvenience the customer who actually purchased the game more than the people who try to steal the game.  Frankly, it’s easier to pirate something than it is to install it sometimes, especially in the cases of lost CD keys or online verification processes.  For a legitimate user, sometimes you may be prevented from playing the game at ALL, whereas a pirate usually just has to download and install something.

There’s a reason that piracy is often easier than purchasing.  The breakable lock makes sense in the physical world; every lock you try and break into is going to be a new effort and time commitment, and therefore just as effective in every single case.  However, in the software world, it is a different beast altogether.  Once a single person breaks the lock and opens up the game, they can then distribute this to anyone and everyone, who is then given instant access without any of the trouble.  Regardless of how much work was put into breaking the lock the first time, there is almost no effort for anyone after that.

So why do we keep locking things?  If people are going to break into it anyway (and they are), then why waste time and money making a lock that will, in the end, amount to maybe 5 minutes of effort for the average thief?  That’s not reasonable, and is a waste of resources.

But piracy is still a problem (sort of).  If people can steal your game easily and with no real consequence, then why would they even buy it? (I think this a fallacy, but let’s assume it’s not)

The solution in my mind is to motivate pirates to buy your game rather than steal it.  Software piracy is unique in that the people who steal your product can later convert and become paying customers.   If stealing something means that you don’t get the benefits of purchasing the game, then people are going to be more likely to convert or purchase in the first place.

What does that realistically mean?  Two things: Community and Downloadable Content.

By restricting access to the community and new content to those who have officially purchased the game, then you are actually creating an incentive for pirates to drop the cash on your product.  However, by leaving the rest of the content unlocked,  you’re not getting in the way of 90% of the end users.  Those who want the extra features just go a little bit out of the way to register their product.  I figure the process could be as simple as a registration code, or as complex as Steam’s system of user accounts being attached to specific game licenses. 

Unlock the main meat of the game, and lock the rest up.  Pirates are, by definition, computer savvy and are probably very into your game.  They’re going to be the most likely candidates for wanting new features and contact with the community.  By restricting that piece, you are locking out the people who are most passionate about it, while providing the least amount of inconvenience for everybody else.  (NOTE: I’m just making this up, but it seems like it would be true.  However, it is not based on any sort of research and may be altogether wrong.  Maybe it’s mostly grandmothers who download games)

This is not fool proof, and is still a hurdle for the customer.  However, I think it’s a good compromise, providing an incentive to for pirates to purchase your product, as well as providing the least amount of inconvenience to the end user, short of unlocking the game entirely (which I am a proponent of regardless, but maybe I’ll cover that later).

So,  game companies, please, stop locking everything up.  Stop wasting the customer’s time .  Stop pissing off the very people who keep you in business.  That’s never a good idea.

[Also note: I can’t find the original article I read, unfortunately, but it was pretty rad, so if anybody does find it, let me know]


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  1. #1 by Jess on September 10, 2009 - 1:12 AM

    Thing is, if someone can break a lock to gain access to an entire game, what’s stopping them from breaking the lock to a smaller restricted area? Morals? Fuck that noise. If people felt bad about stealing, they wouldn’t do it in the first place. There will always reach a point where it’s “easier” (read: cheaper, because deep down, we’re all Jews) to steal shit than buy it, and the people who steal shit in our current setup (i.e., a large percentage of our generation) are just gonna do the same thing. And if they’re unlocking content that only a small percentage of hardcore users are gonna care about to begin with… It just basically means the company’s never gonna make any money. The “honest” users who don’t care enough to want the unlockable shit will just play the game without the extra features. The people who want the extra content will most likely have the means to steal it, and then they’ll spread it around, and it’ll be the exact same thing except even less profitable for the companies.

    Granted, there’ll be a minority of people who both want the extra content AND are willing to pay for it. But it’ll be a smaller minority than the group of people who currently buy games rather than steal them now.

    I don’t know if this comment makes any sense because it’s 2 AM and proofreading is for pussies.

    • #2 by Clint Emsley on September 10, 2009 - 8:40 AM

      Hey, let me find something real quick…

      Ah, here we go:

      If you’re all “TLDR LOL”, basically one game ships with DRM, and one game ships without. Seems like they have relatively the same audience and sales, but the same amount of piracy: 82-90% of users.

      Granted, those are just two games, but I think it’s pretty illustrative. I say we should stop using DRM altogether, it’s just a waste of time.

      I think that Galactic Civilizations actually uses the “game is unlocked, community and content is locked” thing, but I’m not 100% on that.

      SO THERE. I really don’t think that unlocking software will make MORE people steal it. I don’t think it’ll change anything. Right now, it’s almost as easy to steal as if it was already unlocked, so why not just unlock it?

    • #3 by Clint Emsley on September 10, 2009 - 8:44 AM

      Oh, and thinking about it now, I probably should have just said “Screw DRM” rather than advocating a lock on a smaller piece of the software, since that didn’t really make any sense to me either.

      So, note to self: Don’t moderate your opinions unless you want to come off as confused. Yay!

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