“Unable to Shade Polygon Normals” — a Creative Approach to Trapping Pirates
Pirates who had illegally downloaded “Garry’s Mod,” based on the same engine that runs games like Portal and Half-Life 2, received this message: “Unable to shade polygon normals,” followed by a long string of numbers. Many posted this message in the developer’s technical support forum. Developer Garry Newman had apparently decided that enough was enough. He wasn’t willing to continue to support those who wouldn’t pay for a copy of his game. Those users who posted this message (only produced by pirated copies of the game) were banned from the forums and subjected to the wrath of loyal, paying players.
With a pervasive network of systems for downloading illegal copies of computer games like BitTorrent networks, DRM has become increasingly more important in this realm. This particular approach to a piracy-prevention system is a welcome departure from more traditional DRM systems.
For one, the pirates themselves are the ones who report this sort of violation. Anti-piracy systems are plagued with concerns over false positives, i.e., legitimate users being adversely affected by attempts to prevent piracy. Some games require connections to a remote server before being playable. If that server is unavailable, users are locked out in the name of digital rights management. Even changing hardware causes problems for legitimate users. With Garry’s Mod, only those users who had actually pirated the game and attempted to seek help were outed as pirates. While no actions were taken beyond banning those users from the support forums, more could have been done — the user had, in effect, admitted to pirating the game, and could have been further blacklisted from other games or services based on their unique Steam ID number.
This is definitely one of the more inventive ways of shaming (and stopping) pirates. A number of users reacted angrily. There’s always a certain feeling of entitlement from those who pirate copyrighted material, be it games, music, or movies, so this sort of feeling isn’t unexpected. Still others laughed at him because they thought they had found a way around his system, but it was easy to subvert by design. It was never intended to be a fool-proof system; the developer did it to enable those who bought the game to “point and laugh” at those who hadn’t. According to Newman, “disconnecting from the Internet” allowed pirates to play again.
Alas, this type of system only works once. Once the word is out, everyone knows how the system works and, more importantly, knows not to ask for support. But as a first strike against those who wouldn’t spend the $10 to purchase the game, it’s effective and puts pirates on notice that they aren’t going undetected.
The system’s not perfect — it’s not usable anymore, and future pirates will be more skeptical when reporting errors. But innovative approaches like the false error messages work for a while, shame pirates into changing their ways, and are fun to watch unfold.