Finding Chivalry and Stealing Software

Scott Farrell comments:

Here’s an essay about a place where technology and chivalry collide: the concept of software sharing. Today it’s easy to burn games, movies or mp3s onto a disk or put them on a website to share them with friends and colleagues — it’s also easy to overlook the fact that this type of “sharing” is, in fact, stealing other people’s work. Mr. Tamas, a professional software reviewer, enjoyed a number of free games and programs over the years — until he realized that his anonymous acts of theft were hurting talented, honorable people. He realized that all that is necessary to create a dishonorable society is for honorable people to accept the benefits of ignoring the rules. Living by the Code of Chivalry means observing the highest standard of integrity and paying for what you own and enjoy, even when you have the ability and opportunity to “share” for free.

Corey-TamasI used to copy software a lot. In fact, I think from 1993-1997 pretty much all the software I had was pirated. It’s not so much that I couldn’t afford it, though I did go through periods of wealth and poverty in those four years. I think it had more to do with just the sheer convenience of it. On the other hand, maybe it was the indignity of having to pay for something that I could also acquire for free. Maybe there’s a certain amount of cool to the bravado (or seeming bravado) of stealing something. Let’s face it; in our culture, criminals are cooler than people who hand in their assignments on time, floss twice daily and pay full price for their game software. I don’t know why this is, but I don’t think the answer would be very flattering.

The last game I actually stole was Unreal from MacSoft. It’s a dim memory now, but at the time Unreal was pumped up as the greatest visual experience a gamer could ever dream of having (keep that in mind next time someone tries to sell you a game with screenshots; there’s always a “greatest visual experience” waiting to happen). My Mac could barely run it; that sad, beleaguered UMAX C600 Mac clone (back in the days when there were Mac clones) with the Voodoo 1 card and hacked drivers. It did, however, run and I did play it.

This all pre-dates the era when the RIAA was going after individuals who downloaded or uploaded copyrighted music and an age when broadband was ubiquitous, and so few people could move the 650 mb a CD fills up with much ease. The software was definitely out there though and there were those whose jobs it was to stop it from being shared. It wasn’t like it was today; not nearly so many anti-piracy measures and certainly not so many legal precedents to give muscle to copyright holders who wanted to bring the hammer down. If the era of anti-piracy we’re presently in was a bonfire, then in 1997 one could say the coals were heated to the point where they couldn’t be cooled down again.

Despite the chest-beating posture of the law in both the USA and Canada (where I live), I never felt so much as a glimmer of fear about the legal implications of piracy. As I copied games or put the burned CDs on my shelf, I never felt the sense that I was ever in any danger of having the police or anyone else come after me. To the contrary; I’ve always seen the law makers and enforcers as bumbling around in the dark, grabbing at tiny noises that might be a pirate here or there and, in reality, doing nothing to slow the progress of the piracy practice. No, I never feared the law. Shrouded in a haze of confidence, urban myths and – let’s face it – relative anonymity, I felt pretty safe that no one was going to send me to jail for copying Unreal.

Time passed and when I began working as a writer for MacGamer.com way back in 1998 I still wasn’t sure why I would stop pirating software. Sure, I was working in the industry that would be hardest hit by the proliferation of software theft, but it simply never sunk into my skin. Unreal still sat on my shelf with its utilitarian white label and scratched-up jewel case. Even as I began writing reviews for games I did not feel a sense yet of how the software on my hard disk somehow connected to a person somewhere. There was no feeling that I was taking from a specific individual or group of individuals, but instead I saw myself as “borrowing” (why I thought that is anyone’s guess) from an amorphous mass of busy professionals too many to count and that the impact of my worst crimes would be felt by them no more than a block of steel feels a flower pedal dropped on it.

In 1999 I went to Macworld Expo for the first time. For me this was a big step into a world of professionalism that I had not previously come in contact with. I was shaking hands with representatives for Sierra, Lucasarts, Aspyr and, of course, MacSoft. It was the first time I’d been so close to the faces behind the software and, frankly, it was not what I was expecting. At the beginning of the expo I was shaking hands and passing out business cards, but by the end I was exchanging baby photos and friendly hugs. I came to really like and enjoy people like Al Schilling (senior product manager for MacSoft), Ted Staloch (sales guy from Aspyr), Mark Adams (later to become Glenda) and of course his wife Suellen. We all enjoyed dinners together, many interesting conversations, lots of laughs and Suellen had even knitted my new baby daughter a sweater (in the Apple colors, no less).

Now, I’m an easy person to persuade with flattery and free pizza, so it would be easy to assume that I made a complete turnaround in my pirating ways because all of these industry types were being so nice to me. Believe it or not, I don’t know for sure if that ever would have been the case, though I suppose it’s as good a reason as any. No, something else happened for me there. In between the parties and dinners and great conversation I learned something about most of the folks who make Mac games. I realized that they don’t make a whole lot of money. I realized that they don’t get much thanks. I began to realize, through overhearing conversations and learning a bit from the source, that almost everyone behind the best Mac games throws away evenings and weekends for months on end without ever getting them back, or even a few extra dollars of overtime. It occurred to me that the degree of personal investment in the world of Mac games from the people who make them is a testament to their dedication to making them the best games they can. It was a culture of work ethic that I admired.

In fact, it was a level of work ethic I personally aspired to.

What I realized was that real honest work by average people went into the triple-A games that I had previously thought were somehow spit out by enormous machinery manned by faceless masses of people I would never know or understand. I realized that their car payments, rent and grocery money hinged on the sales of the games they developed, and if that game didn’t break a certain number of copies then the next year would be tight for them and their families.

When I got home, I looked at my sad little copy of Unreal and realized that it had been made by someone who thinks and feels as I do and only wants their hard work to receive the same kind of compensation that a plumber or engineer or teacher would expect. I realized that money disappears from their pockets because for some reason there are a culture of people like myself who think that it’s ok to keep their paycheck back from them because it’s possible to keep it back.

Somewhere in my head I heard the old adage that “no single drop of water ever thinks that they’re responsible for the flood.” I tossed that burned copy of Unreal in the trash and felt like I needed to apologize; not to Mark Adams or MacSoft or Westlake Interactive, but rather to me for tricking myself into thinking that burning this CD in the first place was somehow in harmony with my values. The law meant nothing to me, but the notion that I was perpetrating the myth that I should enjoy the hard work of good people without giving anything back stopped me in my tracks.

That’s my personal story. Yours may differ.

©2006 Corey Tamas

About the author: Corey Tamas is the editor of MacGamer webzine. He also shares his thoughts about the computer gaming industry and life in general through his daily blog on his website. This article may not be reprinted in any form without the express permission of the author.