Censorship of Media; Copyright and Video Games

I came across two articles today that aren’t explicitly connected to one another, but are certainly evocative of similar issues.

The first is from CNN: The Pictures that Horrified America.
The article discusses the big push to censor comic book publishing in America, because critics alleged that these materials were corrupting the youth of the day. It certainly directly affected the industry, which took many years to recover.

I’m reminded of a trend we notice in copyright and technology: The New is Scary.
Phonographs? Evil. Cable? Evil. VCRs? Evil. MP3s? Evil. Etc., etc. The emergence of “disruptive” technologies shakes up the status quo, and the powers that be in the status quo respond fearfully- in the case of copyright, sometimes to save their existing power structures and business models. In the case of media, it’s generally to save society (or “the children”).

So video games are the new comic books. Or rock and roll. Or film. Or television. Or television show. Or cable. Or book. We’ve seen the same types of arguments used, the same types of language used, and the same types of “reform” proposed. We’ve seen many, many attempts at the passage of state legislation- that have been found unconstitutional.

The role of research in these arguments- copyright and media alike- is an important subject that needs to be addressed.

Moving on, Law of the Game is a great blog to learn about video game related legal issues. The author, Mark Methenitis, communicates clearly to a wide audience. In his most recent column for gaming weblog Joystiq, he provides a solid introduction to how video games and copyright interact. Because the subject is copyright, naturally there’s a lot more to it- but it’s a great starting place.

There is an occasionally acknowledged tension between copyright and free speech. One thing that makes video games different from other types of entertainment media is that they are generally interactive experiences that require the mediation of technology. Video games themselves are directly attacked as a new media in the manner I mentioned above- that is, there are clear free speech concerns dealing with the publication and expression in games themselves and those that seek to stop such expression for whatever reason. In the copyright realm, though, it’s the end-users who are most affected by law and policy.

Like other forms of software, video games begin their digital lives as digital objects, making them subject to some of the strictest areas of copyright law, such as the DMCA- which prohibits what might otherwise be fair uses. All digital technologies have to deal with those issues to a large extent- particularly when it comes to the preservation of older technologies- but video games are particularly difficult to deal with because of their interactivity. It is difficult to preserve interactivity, and one of the more obvious ways- copying- has a big hurdle to jump in existing copyright law.

Recent actions by the publishers themselves haven’t made this preservation any easier. DRM is both illegal to circumvent- even with what would ordinarily be legal uses- and provides significant technical barriers exacerbated by the commercial lifespan of a game. For example, it’s been announced that console hit Mass Effect is going to have a- well, silly- amount of DRM in its PC release in the form of software that requires one to be connected to a network in order to check the validity of your copy every 10 days or so. Of course, that means the game itself is only playable while those servers are supported. We’ve seen problems in this approach with music or video services that are ended- for example, when Microsoft ended MSN Music, MLB’s changing of access mechanisms, or Google ending Google Video’s purchasing programs. Furthermore, a person is restricted to installing the game on three computers (shades of Apple’s authorized iTunes computers…). This isn’t particularly friendly to end users, and it’s a sure way to destroy the longevity of your work. If I want to play Planescape: Torment now- nearly 10 years after it was originally released- I can. I won’t be able to say the same thing about Mass Effect. That is to say, I wouldn’t have been able to say the same thing had I purchased it- which now, I’m not going to. I’ve got a limited amount of money to spend on entertainment, and I don’t particularly feel like spending it on something I can never return to.