Digital rights management (DRM) has long been a controversial subject since the inception of digital rights with the beginning of the <a href="http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d105:H.R.2281:">Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998</a>. The law, signed by President Bill Clinton, was policy implemented to address the growing concerns about digital rights and meant to help define what constitutes property and ownership. While there are still limitations in place to protect users of digital media, these exceptions have been slowly blurring the line between copyright protection and tyrranical consumer abuse.
DRM can affect virtually any form of intellectual property that can be converted into a digital form. Media such as music, videos, documents, and games are all subjected to various forms of DRM. Some of the most fluent abuse of copyright holders is through false flagging campaigns on websites like YouTube, where through poor protection policy from YouTube itself, copyright holders can circumvent Fair Use laws and bring down videos that did not violate any copyright law. Thankfully, Fair Use is a broadly defined legal term almost intentionally, to protect minor instances where copyright is being used, but would not constitute losses for the business because of the way in which the original material was used.
A great example of what is meant by this is provided by <a href="http://w2.eff.org/IP/DRM/fair_use_and_drm.html">Fred von Lohmann</a>, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Lohmann describes numerous instances where, were it not for the broad protection of fair use, the following activities could be deemed sueable copyright infringements:
"whistling a tune...cutting out a New Yorker cartoon and posting it on your office door. [P]hotocopying a newspaper article..."
Whether you're quoting a line from The Simpsons or playing an excerpt of "Pretty Woman" for class, Lohmann points out that fair use protects these individuals from liability and infringement.
So, what does this have to do with games and game design, specifically?
Currently, the controversy about DRM has hit an all-time high, first with the botched launch of <a href="http://www.ubergizmo.com/2012/05/error-12-error-37-diablo-3/">Diablo 3</a> (a launch failure so widely reported that it reached internet <a href="http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/error-37">meme</a> status almost immediately.) Now, with the recent issues surrounding Electronic Arts and the release of SimCity. What make these two games especially controversial is their insistance on a form of DRM known as "always on" where, in order to play the games, one must always maintain an internet connection. This internet connection is even required for those wishing to play single player campaign modes.
Thousands of people, during the launches for both games, raged at the inability to play independently because of this restrictive form of DRM. To make matters worse was that, even in the independent single player modes, once people could log into the servers of SimCity, they're faced with the issue of forced multiplayer where neighboring areas are populated by other players who, in turn, can negatively affect you city based on how they operate theirs. Coupled with other limiting features that were prevailant in previous installments, most notable being SimCity 4 Deluxe which allowed for terraforming, larger cities, and an offline single player mode; playing the modern SimCity is a step back on every single aspect for both keeping consumers in mind as well as game design in general.
The discussion surrounding DRM hasn't changed much. Supporters claim that it combats piracy and helps protect sales, as well as making online environments safer for those with legitimate copies of the game, because it makes player activity easier to monitor. Opponents, however, state that piracy is inevitable and that, even in the case of both always-on DRM games, pirated versions already exist, and that the DRM only punishes the consumers and stifles creativity and, ultimately, fun.
Digital rights and the definition of ownership is currently in a great flux since the rise of the internet and the information age. With the United States banning the practice of unlocking and jailbreaking mobile devices, and the growing trend of making more always-on DRM, it is tough to see what the solution is, or where to begin making changes in the gaming industry. As designers, this growing change in the industry will have an increasing effect on our ability to market future games as more gamers become disillusioned with the way large studios handle their consumer base. In my next article, I will go into further detail about the different types of DRM, from the first use in games, to the modern use, as well as highlighting games that fought the industry standard and released games without any form of DRM and still have a comfortable profit. I'll ultimately conclude with the new wave of independent game development with the upcoming open-source game console, the Ouya, and how this could be the catalyst to change the industry for gaming forever.