2008-09-15

Time for change.

When I saw Will Wright's talk about Spore on the TED website I was looking forward to when the game was coming out. Then, when it did come out, the whole launch seemed to drown in reports of EA's draconian DRM-solution making life difficult for what seemed like a significant number of legitimate buyers.

This seems to be a recurring theme: software being laced with the poison that is DRM. A poison that only affects legitimate customers, while those who use pirated software enjoy not having to jump through all the hoops.

We also know that all software that is released is cracked sooner or later. Usually sooner than later. If something isn't cracked it is usually because nobody is interested in it.

Anyone with a browser and a bit of time can get hold of pirated software. It doesn't take long to figure out where and how to get your hands on a pirated copy of practically any piece of software. Once someone has figured this out once, the threshold for repeating the exercise is low. Both from a knowledge point of view and from a moral point of view.

Then, of course, you have people like me. People who don't mind paying for software, but who just doesn't want to waste time, attention and effort on a piece of software that suddenly stops working -- or never starts working. For me the solution is fairly easy: forget Spore. Not interested. Don't need the hassle.

So what should software companies do? Well, I think a lot of companies need to rethink what they are doing.

Simple licenses.
Most people have no idea what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do with the software. Nobody reads end user licence agreements, nobody understands the legalese in them and most of them are a complete overkill. An EULA should be at most one page and it should be understandable to a moderately intelligent 14 year old. No, really. It needs to be that simple.

Simple copy protection.
It's an arms race and the people on the defensive side, the software publishers, are losing, have always been losing and will keep losing to crackers in the forseeable future. I have yet to read about a DRM system that has not eventually been circumvented. Go back to simple license keys. Stop trying too hard; you are only hurting your legitimate users. Forget about any involved systems that require authorization etc.

It should be more important to you that it works for all legitimate users than delaying crackers by, at most, a day or two.

Besides, in the case of Spore, really "tough" DRM wasn't even needed. The aspect of Spore that makes it really cool is to interact with other users online. And for that you need an account. So EA could have put a more traditional flavor of copy protection on the game (to discourage casual copying), and then just solved the problem on the server side. No self-respecting gamer would want to lose out on the online experience anyway.

Pricing.
Software is too expensive. A good example is Photoshop CS3. I think I paid $600 for Photoshop in the USA. It costs about twice as much in Norway. Among the 50 or so Photoshop CS3 users I have met only two actually have a legitimate license. The rest had no problems getting a pirated copy and it works just fine for them. They have no incentive whatsoever to buy a license.

I seriously think a more suitable price tag for Photoshop CS3, for non-professional use, is somewhere in the $60 to $100 price range. (Yes I know about Photoshop Elements, yes it is over-priced and yes, it is most definitively a redundant and fairly pointless product. Its sheer existence is an artifact of the exorbitant pricing of CS3).

Given the number of pirated copies of Photoshop I've seen in use over the years I can't help but think that there's a big, fat slab of the market of consumers that Adobe is missing out on. Adobe make zero dollars on sales in this market (though it does serve as a great marketing tool since people do learn Photoshop).

For games the pricing is a bit trickier. They are usually not as perversely over-priced as Photoshop and often sit comfortably at the price point where people buy them even if they are not going to play them that much.

Finger on the pulse.
Executives and board members at most traditional software houses today are not paying that much attention to how the world has changed. Their ignorance is slowly eroding shareholder value by not seeing problems and opportunities -- and when they do see problems, not exhibiting any signs of intelligent behavior (ie. learning from their mistakes).

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