Digital Rights Management And Piracy Affects Ubisoft Fans

Word cloud for Intellectual property. Today I’m going to provide some detail around some of the issues around digital rights management, and how that impacts how software publishers do business.

I obtained a key through what I thought was an authorized/legit 3rd party at the end of December and yesterday my key got banned. I didn’t even think to contact Ubisoft to complain or ask for help, but I can see how people would think this is a Ubisoft issue because the key “worked” for a period of time, and it was Ubisoft’s action to ban the key.

This is a digital rights management (DRM) issue. Certainly everyone can understand that game publishers have to take measures to prevent piracy of their work, because for whatever reason people don’t view stealing a piece of software as an equal moral crime as walking into WalMart and stealing a hard copy of a DVD. Anti-piracy measures often do impact paying customers in the form of inconvenience or restrictions, such as in the olden days requiring a physical CD or DVD to be in the drive in order to play the game.

One common way DRM is done is through key codes. It is not possible to hard code all the possible key codes into the game code, and not include any that aren’t yet sold, because once you buy the game the game wouldn’t know about your transaction. So there have to be unused keys within the game code, and when you buy a code from Ubisoft (in this case) or a partner such as Steam, you can rest assured that the code you bough will work for good.

You can probably guess that the keys are driven by an algorithm so that the key can be traced to where it was (or should have been) sold from. I am sure Ubisoft knows which keys are from their direct sales, steam, etc. and I doubt you’ll ever find a case where these keys did not work or got banned.

So how can a key work at first? Simple – someone found a way to break the algorithm and obtain a code from the “not yet sold” pool of codes the game can recognize and sold one to you. But that doesn’t mean you are home free yet.

The second part of code-based DRM involves tracking the codes in use and trying to enforce and police that only properly procured codes work indefinitely. In the olden days, before games were Internet connected, people could and did “share” copies of games by sharing their CD key. You were supposed to register your CD key and tie it to your email address, phone number, or something. Then when you call for support they know you are a legit paying customer… of if they’ve seen 500 registries against the same code they would know that 499 of them are thieves and 1 was a purchaser but enabler of thievery so they didn’t mind pissing that one guy off.

Or, people found ways to simply crack the key algorithm and use for their own use or sell to unsuspected buyers.

In this day and age, games don’t even work if your don’t connect the game to some online identity. That allows for a better player experience through multiplayer, online communities, etc. But that also allows the intellectual property owner to better enforce that only legit paying customers can play the game indefinitely, because they have direct visibility into everyone that is playing the game, the codes used to authorize the game, etc.

The unfortunate fact is that everyone that is impacted by a banned key is in that position because they have been sold a code that, for whatever reason, turns out to not be legit. The code may have been intended for use in Thailand where the game retails for $30 and the player’s IP address obviously comes from the US where the game retails for $60. I am making that up as an example by the way, but yes games. movies, etc. have a different retail value in different countries due to local economic conditions, value of their currency, etc. So rather than say “tough” and charge Thailand people the equivalent of $60 USD, which most can’t pay, publishers discount to be competitive in that local market.

But keys that should have gone to a non-US region that show up as coming from players in the US, will be considered invalid.

Another scenario is the business relationship between third-party and the publisher. Obviously Steam, Amazon, Best Buy etc. have some type of relationship and agreement with UbiSoft to re-sell the game digitally and issue codes. I am sure that relationship includes paying Ubisoft the agreed wholesale cost for each purchase, and the retailer gets a small margin. The wholesale cost is probably not $20, and hence why all the big retailers have the same price Ubisoft has…. $60 USD. But Ubisoft and the re sellers account for the number of copies sold and compensation back to Ubisoft.

The retailers selling this game at $25-$30 may or may not be operating within an agreement with Ubisoft. What is probably happening is these sellers have figured out how to crack the keys, or get a hold of a lot which they aren’t entitled, or buy a lot on bad credit, fake bank account, stolen credit card etc. I am not saying the retailers that sell keys that end up getting banned are doing these illegal things. Some are, hopefully many are not. But they still, for whatever reason, haven’t lived up to operating within some agreement with Ubisoft to be able to sell the game.

I was very disappointed when the key I bought for $35 USD went banned. Despite my best attempts to research the seller and not finding any rip-off reports, etc. I obviously ended up in the middle of an attempt to deprive Ubisoft of the rightful compensation for use of their intellectual property.

I bought my first copy through Steam for a steep discount in November as gift to my Son… I can’t recall if it was $19.99 or $29.99, but it was not $59. Obviously a sale like that would be done in accordance with an agreement from the wholesaler. The site I bought from “explained” why they can offer the game for $35 USD and that was because they purchase codes in volume, etc. So I bought into it when I wanted a second copy for myself. Clearly, I was misled since my code got banned a handful of weeks later.

I contacted that seller promptly, and gave them two options — either an immediate refund or that they would work out whatever issue is between THEM and Ubisoft and get me working within 4 hours. They tried to talk me into giving them “time” to investigate and get back to me, but at that point I know what I was dealing with and what they would try to do — which is to get me off their case and then not reply to future communications, etc.

I told them either refund for that I would detail the experience on my blog for others to be ware and I would track down their legal entity and file a small claim lawsuit and asked if that was worth $30. The response I got back (in support chat) was “No, it isn’t.” and then they proceeded to refund my PayPal account.

This is what people who got pulled into this issue need to do — pin it on your retailer and force them to make it right. The retailer will try to direct you to Ubisoft just to get you off their case.

That being said…. Ubisoft needs to re-examine their process around enforcing DRM to include some form of forewarning notification, explanation of the above, etc. But perhaps they have tried that in the past and it just ends up costing them a lot of money handling the complaints that will arise from the people that won’t get that this is a retailer issue.

Ubisoft also needs to also examine that households with multiple players sharing one PC should NOT have to buy multiple $60 copies of the game. This gets back to the issue of not being able to have multiple save files, profiles, etc. Since each player needs and online account and such which adds to the cost of Ubisoft’s operations, I could understand a fee of $10-$15 for additional players/profiles.

However, I am sure that if the above was done, that would be another mechanism that would be exploited to deprive Ubisoft from their rightful revenue (by “selling” the additional profiles to others as another complete copy of the game).

I ended up re-purchasing an authorization code from Ubisoft directly, paying full retail, and they were running a special buy-one get-one deal, so I ended up getting a deal.

Thank you,
Tom C

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