IMPORTANT NOTE: Let me preface this article by noting that I am neither criticising nor supporting any specific people or groups. To be crystal clear, Otome Jikan DOES NOT support piracy in any shape or form. However you may construe my stance, please DO NOT view this as Otome Jikan's collective opinion(s).
Before I get started, I want to thank each and every participant of my survey. Thank you so very much for your honesty, as well as to those who praised or politely criticised my survey. Thank you to those who had spread word of my survey. Special thanks to magusgs, a user from the Visual Novel Database (VNDb) for pointing out to me how I initially failed to account for English players in the early stages of my survey. Also, for being the inspiration behind my question, "Why do you purchase visual novels?"
Piracy is something that is deeply rooted in the online world, and the visual novel community is no exception. It's so common, that it's a safe assumption that every visual novel gamer has some knowledge of it. Many of us have views on why we think it happens. Even more of us have belief and moral stances surrounding this topic. I proceeded to search online for some studies relating to piracy in the visual novel scene. I searched in English and Japanese extensively for quite some time, and was met with nothing of the sort.
I know that visual novels don't nearly have markets as large as the "conventional" video game scene. Yes, visual novels, despite the rising popularity, is still a niche market in the West, and it's only a big market in Japan. To give you perspective on just how far ahead Japan leads, allow me to use the Visual Novel Database as an example. At this time of writing, there are 12,335 visual novels catalogued on their website. Of the 12,335 listed, 11,508 are original Japanese visual novels- that's around 93% of all visual novels! According to a 2006 Anime News Network article, nearly 70% of PC games in Japan are visual novels. English is the second most produced- at 5.7% (705 titles). Russian comes in third place at a very, very modest 0.39% (49 titles).
I'm sure you get my point now- visual novels are a significant market in Japan. So why don't they even have a single study about piracy? More accurately, not a single publicized one? From my reading experience, I find that visual novel companies do not like to provide detailed loss, marketing and/or sales figures. Well, that's just like many companies out there, so that isn't an oddity. The most you typically get out of them is that it did, "good", "okay" or "not so well", if they even reveal anything at all. So perhaps these statistics do exist somewhere, but of course, in no place within my reach.
Interested in the facts, especially in relation to the non-Japanese market, I decided to create a survey and conduct it over a seven day period, with a total of 606 participants. Due to my inexperience with survey creation and statistics-gathering as a whole, I really would rather readers to NOT cite this poll as "solid proof" of anything. So please treat this more like a guideline or a "peek" into our thoughts and opinions. 606 people is certainly not a fair representation of the visual novel community at large- at least, I think so. I'm very happy that some have commented that companies should have a look at this, but my survey is too much of an amateur creation to really be of any credible help to the professionals.
The survey and its results can be found here, where I posted them on MangaGamer.com forums: http://forums.mangagamer.org/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=59&start=20#p3141.
My initial plan was to analyse the results, discuss them and make educated guesses on why certain responses had higher frequencies than others. However, after reading all of the comments I received, and discovering that close to half of the participants- around 44% to be exact- don't feel as though they know enough about piracy laws, I decided that I want to provide information to the best of my ability just as much as analyzing it. A majority of the comments focused on elaborating on the reasons why they think piracy is so prevalent, and why they themselves do so. Due to the large volume of comments pertaining to discussing the reasons behind the prevalence of piracy (some respondents even dropping an e-mail wanting to discuss the topic with me in greater detail), I'm choosing to further expand upon on just that. However, since it would get too long, my first post on the subject, which is this one, will focus more on informing, while my next post will focus more on exploring.
So What Exactly is Piracy, Copyright Infringement, Intellectual Property, etc?
Given that almost half of the participants answered, "I don't know enough about them [international piracy laws] to make a judgement" in the survey, I feel as though it would be worth writing a section about the (simplified) details of what piracy, copyright infringement and intellectual property is all about.
First of all, piracy is a form of copyright infringement, and copyright is a type of intellectual property right.
Let's look at "piracy" in further detail. Piracy can come in many forms, but I've organised them into three key definitions:
- Downloading or uploading any unauthorised virtual copy of a product. (A.K.A., "virtual piracy".)
- The making of any unauthorised physical copy of a product. Examples: Burning a CD for a friend or making an exact replica of a Versace dress and selling it as a genuine item. Knowingly purchasing unauthorised copies is illegal (like buying a bootleg movie when you know it's a bootleg). However, due to the difficulty of conclusively proving if somebody had knowledge of something, buyers can simply say, "I didn't know" and it typically all ends there. Additionally, anti-piracy authorities care far more about those creating the illicit products.
- The term given in maritime law defining robbery and criminal violence on the seas.
To go into further detail about the type of piracy I'm focusing on, it is legally defined as "copyright infringement". Definitions 1 and 2 are examples of copyright infringement. To understand copyright infringement, it's best to make sure you understand the definition of copyright. At its simplest definition, a copyright is basically an exclusive right which enables its owner(s) to decide how their material(s) is/are copied, credited, licensed, reproduced and sold. If you find my definition to be too simple and want to learn more, perhaps you may be interested in reading the World Intellectual Property Organization's document on "Understanding Copyright and Related Rights". So that leaves us with "intellectual property". Intellectual property, as nicely defined by Wikipedia, "is a legal concept which refers to creations of the mind for which exclusive rights are recognized." Copyright is just one of the many types of intellectual property rights. Examples of other forms of intellectual property rights are patents (like the idea for the automatic pop-up toaster in 1921 by Charles P. Strite) and KFC's "secret blend of herbs and spices" is a trade secret. As you can see, they're both not property that can be "physically owned"- they're ideas and concepts; creations by the mind.
Does Piracy = Theft?
From my experience with talking about this subject to others, it's certainly what the average Joe thinks- after all, DVDs have ads equating downloading movies with outright stealing them. All manner of those affiliated with the games, movie and music industries essentially deem pirates as thieves. I realise that some of the anti-piracy people who use this argument are likely to be exaggerating on purpose; to "illustrate a point" or their disdain, but even so... How right are the people with this view?
First of all, let's re-explore the definition of piracy, and introduce the legal definition of theft:
Piracy: The unauthorised reproduction of a product.
Theft: The intentional and permanent deprivation of another's property without consent.
As we have just read, they're different things. So yes, in the legally definitional sense, piracy is NOT theft. So why is it that some people- despite knowing the finer legal details- still insist that piracy = theft?
This is because the argument extends beyond the legal definitions, and can get more focused on the philosophical aspects. You will encounter very, very few people who will dispute that piracy is illegal. We all know that it is.
However, one of the most argued points in this topic centres around the concept of ownership. A very common belief is that when you purchase a game, ownership is pretty much a given (along with the rights that come along with ownership of a product). After all, if you buy something, you own it. If you own something, you can do whatever you want with it, and it shouldn't be any company's business, right?
From a legal perspective, at least, you'd be wrong- and this is the part where the debate heats up. As the law stands now, buying a game is more like renting it. Essentially, a purchase of a "game" is in fact, much more akin to renting it. Video games are classified as software. By purchasing a game- whatever your personal stances are on piracy laws- it's as though you're agreeing to the "licence agreement". Naturally, not redistributing without authorisation constitutes as a "condition of usage." Also, using a game means that one must obey its licence agreement, so playing it without first having paid for it "breaks" the agreement.
Furthermore, many with anti-piracy views argue that while piracy may not technically be theft, they feel that breaking the licence agreement is similar to "robbing" copyright holders of the right to decide what they do with their product (copyright infringement). However, those who aren't anti-piracy feel as though it's unfair to pay so much money for a game that they don't really "own".
So, in summary... From a legally technical perspective, piracy doesn't equal theft. However, I think that what this morally means to you should be your own decision.
What Are the Effects of Piracy on the Visual Novel Industry?
Not enough (if at all) credible studies and reports publicly exist regarding piracy in the visual novel community, so I felt it would be folly for me to present the information from interviews as cold, hard facts. Even so, interviews with English industry professionals on the matter definitely deserve a mention, and from what they say, piracy appears to have a large enough impact to be a source of constant frustration. Of course, many would be inclined to believe that the professionals will exaggerate the threat- but to me, in the absence of unbiased, purely objective studies of any kind, all I have are the interviewee's words. Furthermore, it's hard to brush off the visual novels selling poorly as having little or nothing to do with piracy.
While the Japanese market certainly seems to be marred by piracy, the "booming" English visual novel companies suffer further.
Almost half (46.7%) of the participants of the survey cited that one of the main reasons they pirate a visual novel is because it isn't in English. Many have also expressed sentiments that since they're not the target market of the Japanese companies- a few respondents even calling the companies "racist" and "xenophobic"- pirating games not marketed towards them is of little-to-no consequence. While us visual novel fans are in a frustrating position of having to pay way more just to get a legitimate copy of a non-English game, pirating just because it isn't in English actually perpetuates this very gripe.
This is because the English companies that seek to get games translated go through a negotiation process with the Japanese company that produces the particular title they're after. Translating itself is already a large expense, plus the Japanese companies are anxious about the possibility of cultural differences having a negative impact on them (be it due to litigation or reputation concerns). English-translated editions have the added burden of needing to sell more copies to even recuperate production costs as well as the need to make a decent enough profit to encourage the same company to localise again. According to this article on Siliconera, in which MangaGamer discuss the challenges they face when trying to collaborate with Japanese companies, one of the larger factors in being able to negotiate a localisation deal depends on how well they [in the article's case, MangaGamer] can prove the business will be sustainable.
Bottom line, companies like [Kikokugai: The Cyber Slayer developer] Nitroplus are very focused on the raw number of copies sold as a bellwether to success, so fans who fail to cast their “dollar votes” for titles they want to see more of in the future will be sorry later.
At the rate the industry is going- besides companies becoming forced to close down- what are some of the drawbacks we'll face? While nobody can speak for future events in absolute certainty, there are a few unideal paths we're approaching. Creators will become forced to ignore public opinion and produce uninspired, "safe" games that will guarantee profits. In an interview conducted by Business Journal (English translation is available here, on Akira Scuro's WordPress blog) with Sakai Nobukaze, the CEO of minori (a bishoujo visual novel company), while he believes piracy isn't the main problem, he cites a loyal customer base as a countermeasure to going under, and even mentions the possibility of having to switch to a "patronage" business model, which could translate to a dulling of the creative process.
Companies may eventually become forced to raise prices higher, which will only serve to perpetuate the vicious cycle- players pirate the game because they can't afford it, and the company needs to stay afloat so they raise the prices, which will likely result in increased piracy... This isn't outside the realm of possibility, since almost 60% of the survey participants are unemployed students, and just over a third of the participants (35%) indicated that expense is one of the largest reasons why they pirate visual novels. Luckily for the companies, the top reason why people decide to purchase a visual novel is to support them- 66% of participants buys to support the industry, making it the top reason to purchase visual novels according to the survey. A significant desire to support the industries is present, so perhaps it's not all doom and gloom.
Supporting the Industry: How the Sales Work... and What About Used Games?
Does buying a used visual novel help the developers, publishers and/or industry as a whole? The very short answer would be no. At least, not directly and financially.
I was interested in looking into this, because I know quite a few people who do prefer to buy used visual novels. Even some of the survey participants commented on waiting for used copies. While I couldn't find articles relating solely to visual novels, there were quite a few articles relating to used games across the "conventional" genres. Given that the retail procedures don't seem to differ between visual novel sales and "normal" genre game sales, I decided to use information obtained from "normal" genre-related articles. Even if you're not a regular fixture in the conventional games market, just quickly looking through related articles will make this very clear: unsurprisingly, gamers tend to be for used games, and the companies, against it, some going as far as factoring in used games as a major reason for plummeting sales.
Before I go on, it's best for you to understand the difference between a developer and a publisher (if you don't already). A developer is an individual or a company that creates the game, whereas a publisher is an individual or (far more commonly) a company that funds the creation (making the copies for sale, and sometimes the game itself), distribution and marketing of the finished product. The developers come up with their game, and take it to a publisher. If a publisher believes they can profit from the game, they agree to fund for the creation, distribution and marketing of the game. The game is then launched, and both the developers and publishers obtain a pre-negotiated percentage of profits for each copy sold. This is very similar to the way an author (the developer) may get a publishing company to print and distribute their book.
Publishers tend to collect a larger sum of the profits than the developers... so why do developers not just publish the game themselves and snag more profits for their hard work? The simple answer is that most developers can't afford to both create and publish their creations! Creating the visual novel itself is already a highly expensive process. Most developers simply don't have the funds to pay for their own publishing. They have a far better chance of improving sales by getting a large publisher to pay big bucks for quality copy-creation, distribution and marketing of their game.
So where do used games stand on their contributions to the industry? Buying a used visual novel benefits the reseller only- on a financial level, that is. Figures and profits are obtained from direct sales, or authorised-reseller sales. Basically, if the company sells their games from their own store or website, or if they sell their games to a store (which in turn sells it brand new to a different customer). Game stores make more money selling a used game because they have grounds to purchase the used copy for less. Predictably, they massively inflate the price, which results in a much higher profit for them. This is why used game sales tend to rub many companies the wrong way, because not only do the retailers make more money to themselves, but gamers obviously want to pay less for the same product, hence, reduction in new game sales.
Aside from newness, there is no difference in game content between a new visual novel and an old one. This being all said, it is more of an issue in the conventional market than in the visual novel one, with AAA game makers giving gamers alike the steel toe. For example, introducing codes a gamer must purchase in order to "unlock" the used game. One of the ways Japanese companies try to combat this is to include bonuses with brand new purchases, like drama CDs and soundtracks, or store-specific pre-order bonuses (of course, they're not allowed to sell the bonuses separately).
Whatever the case, if you want to financially support a company, used games don't help them in that capacity. However, I'm sure many of you have had the experience of enjoying a developer's game so much, that you decide to purchase their next game, or a past game of theirs brand new. If you want to help evern further and have the funds to spare, perhaps you may even try and find a brand new copy.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I'll explore the myths of piracy, as well as more reasons why it occurs.