Can software piracy actually help the games industry instead of hurt it?

Over at PC World, Benj Edwards has made an argument supporting piracy, not just because it is the popular thing to do but because it preserves our cultural history. The article analyzes how obsolescence and medium shifts have lead to software’s short halflife. Pirates have kept alive several of these nearly lost works and it is due to illegal copying that many now crucial literary works have been maintained and proliferated.

Through the centuries, the tablets, scrolls, and books that people copied most often and distributed most widely survived to the present. Libraries everywhere would be devoid of Homer, Beowulf, and even The Bible without unauthorized duplication.

Edwards argues that piracy is the most effective method of archival due to the sheer mass of backups across users and platforms. He warns against things like Apple’s app store and cloud storage questioning what will come of the games once the services shut down. Edwards does not advocate illegal action but wants revisions made to the Copyright law that never could have envisioned the digital age.

Our body of copyright law makes a 19th-century-style legal assumption that the works in question will stay fixed in a medium safely until the works become public domain, when they can then be copied freely. Think of paper books, for example, which can retain data for thousands of years under optimal conditions.

In the case of digital data, many programs will vanish from the face of the earth decades before the requisite protection period expires (the life of the author plus 70 years in the U.S.). Media decay and obsolescence will claim that software long before any libraries can make legal, useful backups.

As someone who has studied games critically and only recently experienced games like Zork and Adventure, I hope future generations have the chance to play our games the way we played them. 

Thanks to the work of preservationists that flout the law, future historians will be able to more fully consider Mario’s cultural impact and answer deeper, ancillary questions like “Why did people wear T-shirts with pixelated mushroom people on them?” and “What games, exactly, did Mario appear in and why?”

Why indeed.

– Adnan Agha

P.S. For a different take, see Caleb Crain’s argument on Slate.