GOG.com’s “Reclaim Your Game”…

Because 20% is, sometimes, better than nothing… After the break…

GOG.com’s “Reclaim Your Game”…

Ever since the age of recordable media began, there has been a constant struggle between content creators protecting their intellectual property and those who sought to make reproducing that media easier, faster and cheaper. It is another re-telling of the age-old tale of the arrow-proof armor versus the armor-penetrating arrow.

Spice traders and makers would spread false and misleading information about the location and manufacture of their spices so that competitors would either wander about aimlessly looking for the source of the spice or the recipe for that spice would be so complicated that not even the most dedicated competitor would attempt to replicate it for their own sale or use.

Leonardo da Vinci, the famed Renaissance inventor, used to amend the diagrams of his inventions with false information that only he would recognize so, that if his diagrams were stolen, the resulting construction of those inventions would lead to faulty performance.

One of the first intellectual property cases in the United States involved the invention of the self-playing piano (“player pianos” as they were called) with their paper punch-out reels that would be used to tell the piano what keys to play and when. The case involved fears by human pianists and song writers that, once the player pianos became popular, no one would need song writers or actual human players anymore and that the ability of a piano to “automatically” play music without the use of a human pianist was akin to stealing that song.

Whether the media has been records, cassette tapes, broadcast television, VHS tapes… There have been attempts both large and small to both make the reproduction of that media easier and to prevent that reproduction from ever occurring.

And, so too, with computer and video games.

Before the age of the Internet had matured, before everyone had both the Internet and fairly high-speed Internet, copy protection of computer games was physically-based. There were code wheels or manuals with elaborate colors that would be hard to copy on the photocopiers of the day… There were tricks and techniques concerning how a floppy disc or CD-ROM was read or special programs on that media which would act as barriers for physical copying… There were very elaborate alpha-numeric CD-Keys that read sort of like the number on a credit card that needed to be entered before a computer program could be installed onto a computer.

For every copy protection scheme, though, there was always an illicit answer: Fancy photo-copiers could outsmart even the fanciest, most elaborate manuals or codewheels; Professional disc copiers, used by companies to create discs, could be used to copy those discs with absolute impunity to all of the physically-based copy protection schemes; Hackers and crackers could pry open executable game files (called “decompiling”), figure out the copy protection scheme of the program and disable it by amending those files.

For every armor-penetrating arrow, there has been an arrow-proof armor and, for every arrow-proof armor there has eventually been an armor-penetrating arrow.

And then came the Internet and the “Steam” or Internet-based copy-protection scheme. No longer did computer games need physical-based protection. Instead, in order for a computer game to be installed onto a computer, the user would have to log onto the Internet and contact the company and then, over the Internet, the company would validate that particular copy of that particular game for that particular user. Don’t have the Internet? Sorry, you can’t install that game.

To be fair, the hackers and crackers caught on fairly quick to this new kind of copy protection, too. Yet Internet-based copy protection schemes have a problem: They need the Internet to work, yes. But there is another weak link in this Internet-based copy protection chain: They need the publisher of that computer game as well.

Players of Massively Multiplayer Only Role Playing Games (MMORPGs as they are abbreviated) know of this weakness all too well: These types of games rely upon special publisher-run servers in order for the game to operate. A computer player either download or installs their part of the computer game onto their computer and then logs into the game server to play the game. A player installing their part of the game onto their own computer isn’t enough to play the game; The critical components of the game are all located on servers that the player never sees.

When a game publisher is successful, these MMORPG servers can last for as long as there is interest or activity in the game. Yet there are many reasons for why a publisher will discontinue the operation of an MMORPG: Namely, for starters, the publisher goes out of business. Game publishers, just like game developers, are notorious for losing enough money that they become bankrupt and can no longer house the servers that run the game. Publishers can also discontinue a game if it isn’t making them enough money. They can discontinue a game simply because they no longer want to support it, such as the game is too old or the developer of that game no longer exists to create new content for that game or the publisher can’t find another developer to take over the content creation or maintenance for that game.

In the end, for whatever reason, when the distant game server that computer gamers rely upon for a particular MMORPG game ceases to function, so too does the game. Kaput. The End. Enjoy that fancy new “beer coaster” that you now have because that is all that you can use that computer game disc for. Now, to be fair, that’s not the fate for what happens with EVERY MMORPG. Some publishers and developers are nice and they give out instructions and software files so that anyone willing to put the time and effort in can create their own game server for that MMORPG, effectively extending the life of that game for awhile. However, these types of servers (sometimes called “public servers” or “open servers”) only extend the life of the game as it currently is. They can’t amend the game in the event that a new operating system “breaks” the way that the game operated under a previous operating system. They can’t add new game content such as lands or castles or weapons or enemies or power-ups.

There is, however, an invisible, informal ‘contract’ that MMORPG players sign when playing such games, though: They know that the lifespan of these games are finite; That is how these types of games operate. They know about the servers that they will never see that operates all of the core functions of the game. They know that all that they are buying is the piece of the MMORPG that allows them access to play the game and that what they bought was not a “full” game.

The same, though, can not be said for people who buy regular, normal computer games.

Yes, many computer games have a “multiplayer” component, sort of like a “MMORPG” section. There are even some PC games that are multiplayer-based.

Yet these computer games that have Internet-based copy protection don’t need the Internet for the game to operate, they just “need” the Internet to validate their copy protection so that the player may install the game onto their computer so that they may play it.

So what happens when the publisher of an Internet-based copy-protected game goes bankrupt? What then? Are there any legal protections for gamers who bought an Internet-based copy protected game so that they may continue to play their game for as long as the physical media itself is intact? Does that CD-ROM or DVD-ROM become nothing more then a fancy “beer coaster” when the validating servers that allows the game to install onto a computer are disconnected?

Society has no mainstream equivalent for the type of predictament that gamers face in these situations. When you turn the ignition switch on your Ford-made car or truck, it does not send a signal to some server maintained by the Ford company to see if it will allow the car to start. There’s no validation needed to install a microwave oven or turn on a desk lamp. Everytime you open a book to read, the publishing company isn’t calling you to make sure that you are the owner of that book.

The company “GOG.com” has decided to take matters into their own hands. They have begun the process to acquire the rights to games where the copy protection schemes for those games have become either outdated or discontinued. If you can verify that you own the physical copy of the game, GOG.com will then proceed to give you a modernized version of that game which will play on current operating systems. They call this “Reclaim Your Game.”

What GOG.com is attempting to do is very gracious of them and I, for one, thank them for it even though I have no games currently that use this particular service. I also deeply encourage them to continue this service.

Yet I can not help but continue to express my support for an official, legal solution for the dilemma that game owners have when dealing with games whose copy protection schemes no longer work on modern computers or the schemes do not work because the publishers or developers no longer exist to maintain that scheme. If I buy a book today, I ought to have the legal right to place that book on a shelf for twenty years and, for whatever reason, one day take it off of the shelf and read it without hassle. The same thing with a car. The same thing with a music CD or a VHS tape or a movie DVD. I own one instance of a PC game and, as the legal owner of that game, I have the right to play that game when I choose.

The philanthropic gesture of a private company is a good one. I salute it. If only there were more gestures just like it.

It is time for a real gesture, though, by governments. Gamers are not kids anymore. We’re adults. We have full-time jobs. Mortgages. Cars. Families. Just as there were generations of serious-minded adults who partake in the leisurely activities of reading books, listening to music or restoring automobiles, there are now such adults who entertain themselves with computer and video games.

Copy protection schemes, as unfortunate as they are, serve a legitimate purpose in protecting the financial health of those developers and publishers who take on the financial risk of developing and publishing a computer game. It is now time for the government to step in and create legal relief for when those same schemes prevent the legal owners of games from playing them. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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