How Kickstarter allows companies to "double-dip" their fans.

The Double Fine logo, consisting of a two-head...

The recent monumental successes of both the Double Fine and the Order of the Stick crowdfunding has also kickstarted (Beware the puns!) some heated discussions between my group of friends and myself on what the ethical thing to do is, once the project exceeded the requested amount by that much.

Regular readers (with amazing memories) might remember me writing on this issue a while ago, but the recent heated discussions prompted me to explore this issue once more and perhaps go into more depth into how this applies to non-software projects such as the Order of the Stick comic.

First of all, I should explain what my criticism is:

I believe that the only ethical thing to do, once you decide that you want your project to be funded by the public, is to make the end result public as well. The reason I find this the fair thing to do, is because by crowdfunding your project you take away the actual risk of developing a new product, and thus it makes no sense to take advantage of a system which rewards you based on the expectation that you took such a risk.

In this case, that system is copyrights and the capitalist markets. The expectation in the current world is that a creative project was started by a person or a group of people, who took a risk in creating something and then trying to make a living out of selling copies of it (I’m not going to criticise the expectations themselves ((I will only say that they are very wrong. Perhaps I will explore this in another post.)) but rather take them at face value for now.) This is where copyrights come in at their theoretical level. Copyright’s purpose is to incentivize new creative works, by giving a state-provided way for their creators to monetize them once they’ve been created.  Thus someone who took a successful risk in judging what popular demand is can get fabulously compensated for it ((while those who didn’t get to starve, but that’s another issue now isn’t it?)).

But if copyrights are supposed to be the incentive for creating new works of art, then it makes no sense to provide them for crowdfunded projects, since there that incentive has already been provided by the crowd “patrons” of the project. People have already provided a monetary incentive for the creator which has also taken away all the risk.

For the creator to now take the finish project and monetize it as if they took all the risk and required the incentive of copyrights to do so, is unethical.

What would be the ethical thing to do? Try to circumvent copyrights you did not have to rely upon and release the work into the commons, once all your costs have been repaid. Release it as free software if it’s software, or release it in the creative commons with the most permissive license if it’s anything else.

But what is happening here, is that the creators have to work with such lowered expectations from their audience, that they can easily get away with what see as straightforward double dipping. The creators not only get a significant part (if not all) of their costs covered, and once the project is finished, the get to keep any and all profits from the sales of copies the product as well. They get to have their cake and eat it too.

People criticise me at this point by reminding me that the fans knew what they were getting into when they agreed to fund these projects, and that makes everything OK. I do not think that’s a good excuse. First of all, people voluntarily give their money to many causes and projects, but that does not mean that every such cause is ethical. Not only do people act irrationally in most economic decisions, but I find that the moral imperatives also change when we’re talking about these amounts.

It is one thing not to expect a project to be released for free when you’re only funding just 5% of its total cost, but here we’re talking about projects who’ve been funded 100% and possibly more. When the crowdfunding success is that big, when the mutual aid sentiments are that great from your fans, the creators have a duty to modify what they give back to the community just as much. But instead what I continuously see happening is that the extra rewards are something that will make the creators even more money!

For example, the Order of the Stick (OotS) kickstart required something like 60.000$ to work. They got 20 times this amount last time I checked. The original result of the crowdfunding would have been one book being able to be reprinted. With 20 times the amount, it’s going to be 5 books and a board game. I.e. the cost and risk of these reprints is being taken over by the community, while the author gets to keep the profits. And everyone is too far caught up in the euphoria of the project’s success to notice that they just made the author practically a millionaire overnight and in return got the opportunity to buy some new books in the future.

I’m told this is a fair deal because they agreed to the original plan.

Now I have to clarify that I have nothing against rewarding the creators of such works, especially when people like Burlew have been releasing their comic for free online for a long while (which they monetized in other ways already, but that’s beside the point). I’m very happy for the success of these projects, but I can’t avoid seeing the reality of the situation just as well.

When there is such overwhelming support for the creators to create new works, to take advantage of an artificial monopoly granted by the state via threats of violence (copyrights) as if it was a required incentive as well is an abuse of the goodwill of your fans, even if those fans are too starstruck or privileged to realise it.  And I just can’t ignore this “double-dipping”.

I am cynical enough to fully expect that now that new roads have been paved by the pioneers and the indies of the creative world, the big companies will also start dipping their toes into the crowdsourcing pot. We’ll see giants like Activision offering carrots of classic and loved IPs such as Dungeon Keeper or Descent to crowdfunding, so that they can get some money upfront and only then start working on these titles, with either reduced risk, or completely risk-free. And why shouldn’t they? They will develop an IP with some money upfront and then sell it back to the people who already funded it.

And because the expectations of everyone for the rewards crowdsourcing will be for the public are so low, these companies may cynically abuse this concept, until the burn out the crowdfunding goodwill.

Alternatively, I hope that now that crowd funding is gaining momentum, we’ll see perhaps a sort of competition between projects for these funds, and eventually those projects which promise full ownership to the crowd that funds them will be seen as the better offer, while the others are ignored. This is my optimistic scenario.

If you want my support, why don't you give me the code?

A new development company recently announced its attempts to crowdfund its upcoming game. I explain why it makes sense to Open Source it as well.

I just heard about the upcoming Diablo-contender game Grim Dawn which is still in its early development and has now dipped its feet into the concept of crowdfunding. That is a step in the right direction but I feel not enough to convince. You see, I’m a fan of Action RPG games (or more aptly called Diablo Clones) and I’ve even been playing Titan Quest the last few days as well but I see no reason to put my money on a game coming out 1 year from now just to “show my support.” Where is the mutual aid? Why are people asked to fund a company’s ventures but then expected to not receive any of the benefits any publisher or venture capitalist would get? Ownership.

When a publisher funds a game, they end up owning all the “IP” behind it. The copyrights, the trademarks, everything. The developer doesn’t get to keep anything, which is incidentally when developing companies go under, the actual team behind them cannot keep working on the settings they created. We end up with stuff like games truly deserving of a sequel simply disappearing. As such, it’s very worthwhile to try and get away from such a restrictive contract if possible.

However to jump from that to a concept of crowdfunding where you get to keep all the benefits and take none of the risks just strikes me as very unfair for those actually putting their money on the line. Not only do I give my money one year in advance, without knowing the quality of what I get or even if I get anything at all, but all I get is a license to play the game I funded? Does this seem  like a good deal to any you? Personally, I feel like a sucker.

If you want to crowdsource or crowdfund your ventures, then you’d better be willing to give something back to those who help you. And no, simply a license to play the game is not enough. You’d better give us the code in the form of free software. In short, if you do a public venture, it’s only fair that you create a public content. Not only will you then show that you are willing to meet those helping you half-way, not only will you ensure to those taking the risks (i.e. putting their money on the line) that they will get to keep whatever you started even if you get hit by a bus, but you also create a feeling of goodwill which will go a long way in making people willing to support you.

And not only that, but you will also get free support and development from the community you’ve become a part of.

The downside? If your game becomes insanely successful, you won’t end up swimming in money but with games like Diablo 3 coming out in the same year and you being a small-time developer, do you think that’s a possibility? You will still be able to sell your game just fine but you’ll simply have to find a way to give people a reason to buy. WIll that be dedicated online servers and scarce material goods? More likely. Will you end up losing the revenue from trying to sell a bunch of bytes? Sure, but then again, you got your money beforehand and those who want to support you will do so anyway, as they do with any free software project (of which many survive with substantial donations). Those who wouldn’t pay any money and simply play the gratis version are the sames who would pirate the game anyway.

Think about it. It makes sense to free your code if you go down this path. Think of the goodwill. I know for a fact that if you announced that the game would be licensed under the GPL, I’d already have given you my money and so would many others. Think of the free publicity from all the free software and open source related sites that announced this bold move of yours, from all those free software enthusiasts which now join your ranks of ARPG enthusiasts to spread the word of mouth. Think of freedom and the fact that your game will survive and continue to improve no matter the money.

UPDATE: I posted a link to this post on the official fora and an initial response seems to indicate that opening the source is impossible since the game is built over the proprietary Titan Quest engine. If this is indeed the case, it is very unfortunate as it takes the free software licensing just out of the table altogether. This again points out the problems with building a game on a proprietary engine or base. If the engine of the game was open sourced, it would have been improved and updated by the community and new ARPG built on it relatively cheap, creating a wealth of such games to play. See the Quake3 engine for example.

Also, it’s worth noting that GNU/Linux support is not planned.

EDIT2: Thread was closed, so even if you do want to argue a point, you now can’t. This personally does not fill me with any confidence.

Libertarians and Intellectual Property

The only thing more inconsistent than a libertarian who supports Intellectual Property (IP) is a libertarian that doesn’t but continues to support Private Property (PP).

Intellectual Property Zone
Image by gurdonark via Flickr

The only thing more inconsistent than a libertarian who supports Intellectual Property (IP) is a libertarian that doesn’t but continues to support Private Property (PP).

Renunciation of IP is actually a very trendy thing to do by fledging right-libertarians. I would venture to suggest that it might be the very first dip many take in libertarian waters.

Some will do it on a purely practical grounds, such as the devolution of the Free Software concept that is Open Source, by taking out all the ethical base in order to make it more “business friendly”. Others, on the other hand will renounce it on ideological reasons, namely by claiming that the concept of IP is nothing more than a state sponsored monopoly and thus illegitimate. I’ve actually been stumbling on this type of reasoning quite a bit lately and something about sounded inconsistent.

And the other day it struck me as I was arguing with an Agorist, who was at that point defending private property. The argument he had made in another passing comment against IP was the same as above (IP is state-sanctioned monopoly blah-de-blah) so as  I was pressuring him to explain how PP would remain in a stateless society where the workers would be capable of seizing the factories without fearing state reprecursions he gave me a most underwhelming answer: “Any sensible free market court would rule against workers who tried to violently seize the factory they worked in.”

But why would any such “sensible court” side with PP? Because it is self-evident? But obviously it is not, for the workers attempting the seizure of the means of production. don’t see it. Because it is a Natural Law? Don’t make me laugh.

But lets for a moment consider that indeed the courts side with the Capital instead of labour. The question then arises of why such a “sensible free market court” would not in a similar way side with IP as well? Any possible argument one can make in defence of PP can most likely or with slight modifications be made in defence of IP as well.

The thing is, that here the anti-statists ((No, they aren’t Anarchists. That’s much more than simple anti-statism)) are blinded to the fact that PP claims are state-sanctioned in exactly the same was as IP. They assume that in a post-state world, the federation of courts (or what have-you in Agorist Libertopia) will protect private property in exactly the same way as before but for some reason refrain from doing so in regards to intellectual property.

And since their dismissal of IP is not based on an ethical argument but rather on the infantile “It’s not legitimate because the state does it”, in a stateless future where IP is still supported by the courts and enforced by those private insurance/security forces, they can only stay silent.

Of course there are the few libertarians who do dismiss IP on purely utilitarian grounds. But then they go on to support PP on ideological reasons, which is a clear sign of ideological bankrypcy. This is because from a utilitarian perspective, the abolition of PP is superior (for reasons I shan’t go through here).

And because of this, such libertarians will forever remain inconsistent, for to avoid that, they would have to look at both types of property on ideological grounds and therefore support both or to look at them from utilitarian grounds and thus reject both.

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