Reflections on the Humble Indie Bundle Piracy

Earlier this month, a group of independent game developers got together to create the Humble Indie Bundle, a group of games available for purchase under a “pay what you want” business model.

The idea was that, rather than charging a flat rate for the bundle, purchasers could pay whatever rate they wanted for the games, as low as a single penny, and could also decide how much of the money went to the developers or to two charities chosen for the event.

For the most part, the sale was a smash success, bringing in over $1.2 million in revenue and earning almost $400,000 for the two charities. By no means is this a failure or even a small success.

However, as the sale was ongoing, the operators, Wolfire Games, noticed something unusual. The number of downloads for the bundle exceeded the number of copies bought and not by a small margin. A full 25% of the downloads were unpaid for, even at the rate of one cent.

To be clear, this doesn’t count the people who swapped the game on Bittorrent or other file sharing networks, just those who downloaded the game directly from the source. This also means that the pirates actually cost the developers money with their piracy by making them pay for the bandwidth.

This raises a lot of serious questions about piracy, ones even I have only begun to chew over. Even sites like Cracked, which often lampoons the RIAA and MPAA for their anti-piracy efforts, have come down on the pirates of the bundle, saying that it highlights that gamers have some “serious entitlement issues“.

But while many of the implications about this bundle, along with similar offerings by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails in the music industry, will be long-debated, here are some of the thoughts that seem to be running through my mind repeatedly.

Ending Piracy Excuses

Whenever I read comments from pirates who talk about why they download content illegally, there is usually a set of reasons or excuses they fall back on. However, in the case of the Humble Indie Bundle, all of them fall flat.

  1. Sticking it to the (Middle) Man: The Humble Indie Bundle was produced by small, independent game developers without publishers or other middle men. Every dime went directly to the people who make the game. But even if one believed these developers were “fat cats” that wouldn’t be hurt by piracy, there was also the option to donate every penny to charity, one of which was the EFF, which is actively working to defend accused file sharers.
  2. Too Expensive: The Bundle could have been purchased for as little as a penny. No matter how limited one is with their financial resources, one cent is not too much to ask, especially for five games that required hundreds of hours to develop. This also cripples the “try before you buy” excuse as one could have donated a penny, downloaded the games, and made a real purchase later, all legally.
  3. DRM/Crippled Features: The games were distributed DRM free. There was no copy protection on the games and they could be played on any operating system. There was no “better” version of the game to be obtained.

The Humble Indie Bundle was, in many ways, an experiment to see what happens when the excuses for piracy are stripped away and, like it or not, the answer was that piracy continued to take place.

To be clear, the developers did list other causes for the discrepancy between purchases and downloads. One possibility being those who purchased the bundle as a group, such as friends contributing to make a single donation and then sharing download links. However, given that the links were so widely distributed on the Web for those who had not bought the game and the game was also pirated on other file sharing services, it seems likely this only represents a small part of the problem.

The only potential excuse left is one of convenience, something the developers mention in their blog post. The links to download the bundle were widely distributed and many likely preferred to click the link and download directly rather than go through the checkout process. This, however, was an unavoidable inconvenience for the developers as they had to set up some system for accepting payment though systems such as Steam, Amazon with its one-click purchases and even iTunes are working to mitigate this issue as well.

Still, it is unlikely even a truly “perfect storm” of catering to the pirates will result in a complete cessation of piracy and this offers hard lessons to copyright holders.

Making a Business

I’ve repeatedly said on the Copyright 2.0 Show that any remedy for the copyright climate online is going to require changes to the law, business models and technology. There is no silver bullet solution.

Here though, you have a group of developers that did pretty much everything they could do on the business model side to reduce piracy and, though they definitely seemed to put a dent in the amount that took place, were very far from eliminating it or making it trivial. Though the bundle was definitely a success, the amount of piracy raises concerns that such an approach may be a repeatable business model for others to follow and not just a novel idea that caught on.

In short, though the Humble Indie Bundle was a great success, it is also a warning to those that wish to try a similar approach.

Though there are many who tout business model solutions as the way to solve the piracy problem, it is clear from this that those are only part of the answer. More complete solutions are still needed. This is something I deal with at CopyByte, my copyright and plagiarism consulting firm and try to help clients understand.

But more importantly, it exposes the excuses in favor of piracy as being just that, excuses. The people who cheer at pirates of movies, music and mainstream games were faced with a very different dilemma with the Humble Indie Bundle. Many, despite the clear differences, still chose to pirate.

Though piracy is no more ethical or legal when it is against big corporations, the touted logic by many in the pro-piracy community took a hit with this bundle show that, for many, it isn’t about who you’re pirating from or how much it costs, but rather, about getting stuff quickly, easily and for free, no matter who it hurts.

Bottom Line

In the end, the developers of the bundle have said that they are going to take no action against those who pirated the game. The strongest response they made was asking them to please use a peer-to-peer means of downloading the game to avoid costing them money on bandwidth.

While I am sorry that the bundle was pirated so heavily, though still less than other games, I am glad it was a success, that two charities are getting a great deal of money and the developers had a good payday.

But the long-term future of many entertainment industries relies on pirates and copyright holders coming to the table to meet each other’s needs. The Humble Indie Bundle showed that at least some creators are willing to go to great lengths to cooperate while many pirates are not willing to spend a few clicks or a single penny to reciprocate. This only highlights the chasm between the two sides and the hugeness of the task that lies ahead.

The question now for copyright holders is not “How do you eliminate piracy?” but “How do you minimize it while maintaining a business model?” or “How do you bring as many possible pirates into the fold as reasonably possible?”

These are fundamental questions that actually predate the Internet, going back to physical media piracy, but are now being shown in a very new light.

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