Is Video Game Piracy Theft?

Is Video Game Piracy Theft?

Society’s transition to digitally-distributed entertainment is exciting, but it’s not without a few speed bumps. When games were invariably encased behind three inches of bullet-proof glass at the local Toys R Us, there was no question about how you were supposed to go about procuring the latest Mario adventure: You whipped out your wallet, and a shuffling red-shirted employee would pick through his ring of keys and open Heaven’s Gate just long enough for you to grab your slice.

Nowadays, many of the games we pay for aren’t physical products that are built, shipped, distributed, and released at a cash register. Much of the retail middleman is cut out: The developer instead puts an idea directly on a distribution service, and we play a game we never hold. Maybe that’s why pirating a game doesn’t feel much like, well, stealing.

And it’s not stealing, according to Markus Persson, the creator of the PC indie hit, Minecraft. Persson talked about theft, piracy, and digital distribution at this year’s GDC.

“If you steal a car, the original is lost,” he said, “[but] if you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.”

Theft and piracy in the games industry is a volatile topic that whips all debate participants into a froth. As far as digital downloads go, it’s difficult to pinpoint the nature of the crime, as is evident by the comments thread on PC World’s write-up of Persson’s declaration (is it theft, copyright infringement, or justifiable anarchy?). There are no easy definitions. There are no easy answers.

If you enjoy playing video games, however, and if you enjoy contributing to the health of the industry as a whole, keep one simple fact in mind: Developers work hard, and they enjoy eating food. Rumor has it that they enjoy feeding their children, too. Money helps them achieve these simple joys. They count on gamers for that money.

A digitally distributed game might be difficult to think of as a product, but it’s not hard to imagine it as a service of sorts. A developer envisions a game, spends his or her time in front of a computer, tests it, scraps it, starts over again until he or she has a product worth selling online. Going back to Persson’s car metaphor, if a mechanic fixes your car and you drive away without paying, that’s not stealing in the traditional sense. After all, it’s your car to begin with. But you’re going to get busted regardless because you’re supposed to pay the mechanic for his or her time and expertise, even if extra parts weren’t needed for the repair process.

Video game piracy is a little less black and white because we’re still a bit foggy about what counts as game ownership. Once we buy a game, aren’t we technically free to do what we want with our purchase–including making copies, even if we’re not distributing them, nudge nudge wink wink? Big publishers say we’re not, which makes us bristle, which causes publishers to implement DRM. The battle rages on.

But let’s be honest, the gaming community is not thick with Robin Hoods who only aim to steal from the rich. Indie developers are hit hard by pirates, too. Last year, the “Humble Indie Bundle” on Steam offered five DRM-free games at any price. All the money collected went to charity. One-quarter of the bundles moved were pirated. We don’t even want to think of how many heroes offered up a penny. Digital distribution has bestowed enormous convenience upon us, as well as a sense of entitlement.

Persson says that more developers should discourage piracy by taking a cue from Rovio’s Angry Birds and Minecraft, and continually adding content to a game. A workable idea in many respects, but not convenient for every type of game. Nintendo, for instance, isn’t in the habit of adding any serious additions to a game that’s already been released, nor do any of its popular franchises really suit an episodic formula.

Ultimately, there’s no way to police every gamer in the universe. You can side with Persson’s opinions, or you can battle against them, but all you can do in the end is what you feel is right. Just remember, though, that the video games we play don’t pop into existence merely because we wish them to be.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. I like the service analogy.

    That said, one could argue that the car one steals isn’t the original, but merely one of many copies of an original prototype which was put into production. Digital is sort of like that, only less tangible.

  2. Theft is theft. Infringement is infringement.

    Even the industry doesn’t allege that piracy is theft when it comes time to press charges. They use the word “theft” when speaking to the press in order to push people’s buttons. In court, they sue under the intellectual property laws. Violating someone’s intellectual property rights is called “infringement”, and not “theft”.

  3. What this article failed to mention is that there’s a reason why people pirate. That reason is that games are way too overpriced. Games seem to get less content and become more expensive everytime. And besides that, they clutter the games with (useless) intrusive DRM.
    DRM only harms people and has absolutely zero effect. Most DRM gets cracked the same day it gets released and it only bugs legit users.
    Take a look at Valve’s games. Steam is the DRM and it’s one of the easier things to crack. But Valve barely cares and they make a lot of money, simply by games worth playing and worth your money at the same time. Pirates still pirate, legit users still play. No one gets bothered. Everything works out fine.

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