Don’t Think of It As Piracy, Think of It As Marketing

Most video-game developers — along with most musicians, writers, movie producers and virtually every other kind of content creator — see digital piracy as an enemy to be fought with every weapon at their disposal. Not Markus Persson. While the Swedish developer of the indie game Minecraft says he isn’t happy about people copying his game illegally, he sees it as a necessary part of doing business in a digital world — and even a benefit in terms of spreading the word about his game. His perspective might help some other content companies think about their businesses differently too.

Persson says in a blog post that the digital world simply doesn’t mesh with an economic system that was designed around physical goods that can only exist in one place at a time, and can’t be easily copied. “We’ve got an amazingly effective way of distributing culture that is extremely beneficial for humanity, but it clashes with our current economical models,” he writes. The ability to quickly and easily make identical copies of movies, books, games and other content is something we don’t want to give up, Persson says, but “to people who want to get paid for their digital works, myself included, that is a bit of a problem.”

The game developer notes that he would rather people bought his games, but if even a few of those who either see or play a copied version decide to pay for it, he comes out ahead.

If someone pirates Minecraft instead of buying it, it means I’ve lost some “potential” revenue… but what if that person likes that game, talks about it to his or her friends, and then I manage to convince three of them to buy the game? I’d make three actual sales instead of blocking out the potentially missed sale of the original person.

As pointed out by the file-sharing news site Torrent Freak, the game Persson is talking about has already racked up considerable sales numbers, despite the fact that it is widely available on file-sharing sites. Minecraft has a page with stats about the service that shows the game has a little over 660,000 registered users, of whom 158,000 — or about 24 percent — have bought the game. In the last 24 hours alone, the company says, more than 10,000 people have registered the game, and 5,000 have bought a copy.

While Persson could have taken the traditional route of blocking unauthorized copies of the game from connecting to the company’s servers, he says that he would rather focus on selling value-added features to users who enjoy the game, regardless of whether they have paid for it. As he describes it:

Instead of just relying on guilt tripping pirates into buying, or wasting time and money trying to stop them, I can offer online-only services that actually add to the game experience. Online level saving, centralized skins, friends lists and secure name verification for multiplayer. None of these features can be accessed by people with pirated versions of the game, and hopefully they can be features that turn pirates from thieves into potential customers.

In other words, the developer sees pirating of the game as almost a loss-leader-style marketing effort — one that could convince users to either pay for a copy or buy other related services. And he’s not the only one to take this approach: it’s a different kind of content from online video games, but Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is well known for having “pirated” his own books by copying and uploading them to file-sharing sites in countries where he is not well known, and credits this strategy with boosting his sales by orders of magnitude in Russia and other markets.

Meanwhile, Persson says at the end of his post that he is planning to vote for the Pirate Party in the upcoming elections in Sweden. And to make the picture complete, he even has a micro-payment widget designed by a pirate on his blog: embedded beside the post is a Flattr button that allows readers to donate to him if they like the content, a system recently launched by Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the popular file-sharing site The Pirate Bay.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Paul Sapiano