Why Doesn’t the Punishment for Game Piracy Fit the Crime?
I just finished reading an Australian news story about James Burt, a 24 year old Brisbane resident who is facing a $1.5M fine for illegally distributing his copy of Super Mario Bros. Wii, which he received six days earlier than the release date. Nintendo actually hired a P.I. to track Burt down, and they claim his copy has been downloaded “thousands of times” since it was uploaded.
Is this verdict fair? Is one copy of Mario Bros. Wii put on the internet really worth $1.5M in damages? Most distribution of stolen property or grand larceny laws max out fines at around $7,500 to $10,000. So why the hell does piracy inspire such ridiculous sums of money? Is it legal to increase fines to such a preposterous proportion just to “make an example” of a pirate to other pirates? To me, that’s like saying you can cut off the hands of a murderer to “make an example” of him to other murders, which might be an effective deterrent, but we don’t do that in the U.S. (or presumably Australia), as it’s what’s known as “cruel and unusual punishment.” So to fine someone that large of an amount of money for an offense that minor would seem to be over the top, much like the recent verdict of the woman fined $1.9M for downloading twenty-odd songs from the internet.
That being said, I believe there should be a difference in punishment between someone distributing illegally gotten merchandise and someone taking it. If someone downloads a game illegally and is caught, it would seem to be fair that the punishment be the same as if that person was caught shoplifting the game from a store, which would likely be a fine of $250 to $500 and probation. On the other hand, a distributor of stolen goods (like say, someone selling copies of Mario Bros. Wii from the back of a van) should face a steeper penalty, like the aforementioned $10,000 fine and maybe even a bit of jail time or community service. Note that none of these numbers are anywhere close to $1.5M, and I can’t for the life of me figure out just who the hell thinks that kind of number is justified in cases like these. And in the case of a distributor like Burt, his offense would seem to be even less severe than someone selling stolen merchandise out of the aforementioned van, seeing as by giving it away for free, he’s not even profiting from the endeavor.
The moral of the story here is that yes, I do believe game piracy is wrong (unless it’s combating idiotic DRM issues), and there should be consequences for those who steal games or give them away for free. But because pirates are seldom actually caught, this allows companies to believe that when they do hook someone, they should be able to publically filet them to an inch of their life with fines that have no bearing whatsoever to actual damages caused by the piracy itself.
There is currently nothing short of a price fixing scheme going on in the video game industry right now. Game prices are WAY higher than that of any other form of media, but seemingly not for any good reason. You may argue that 60 hours worth of Mass Effect 2 is worth $60, but what about five hours of playing time of Halo Wars? The across the board, sky high prices of games exist solely because all the companies have agreed that’s how much games should cost, and frustrated consumers have turned to piracy for titles they think aren’t worth their hard earned cash.
In order to combat problems like this, game companies should be looking into straight-up digital distribution, and eliminating price-gouging middlemen like Gamestop which would make games more affordable for everyone, and would create a legal download system that would be a welcome alternative to brick and mortar purchases. This is already happening with places like Steam, which offers downloadable games on the cheap for PC users, but as of yet, there’s nothing really like that for consoles, though I predict that will change soon enough.
If you view piracy like a virus like most companies do, don’t try to stamp it out altogether, which is a feat you will find impossible. Rather study it, and maybe you’ll be able to come up with a cure.