The news that Wizards of the Coast is planning to throw nearly their entire D&D catalogue into eBook format (discussed earlier) got me thinking again about the topic of filesharing/P2P/piracy/what have you.
So far, the publishing world has not gone into hysterics over the P2P problem the way that the RIAA and MPAA have with music and movies. One reason why this is the case... is that there is still no paper-slayer hardware device. iPods, CD & DVD burners, RCA & S-video output jacks on computers, and high-quality computer speaker rigs have meant that the transition of the family (or more likely, dorm room) computer into a media center has been a quick and easy one.
On the other hand, years of experience have taught us that the number of people who want to sit in front of their desktop and read Stephen King's latest novel can be counted on a few hands. People want to read on the bus, on the plane, on the john, and in bed; they do not want to curl up with their keyboard and wake up lying on top of their $2000 laptop. PDA's have done a little better in the eBook market, but the confusion of formats and the small amount of material available (love you dearly, Project Gutenberg, but I'm just really not in the mood for Bartleby the Scrivener right now) combines with the squint-tastic quality of the average PDA screen to add up to a less-than-stellar user experience.
RPG eBooks occupy a unique position. They're not really meant to be read; they're more often there as reference books, a quick (and light) way to transport a ton of gaming material from your inner sanctum to the communal gaming table. There's quite a crossover between roleplayers and the computer-inclined, so RPG books started showing up online soon after the filesharing blitz hit with Gnutella and company in the early twenty-oughts. Quality scans were a while in coming, but even a token peek into a filesharing community these days can quickly net you high quality, color image downloads of rulebooks for every popular game system currently in publication, as well as a suprisingly large number of old, hard to find, out of print, and otherwise rare RPG books.
RPG gaming companies- while typically forbidding discussion of, or linking to, scanned books in their official forums- have avoided the heavy-handed crackdowns initiated by the RIAA and its kin. The most obvious reason why not is that RPG publishers- even the big ones- lack the ready cash and ravenous hordes of lawyers that make copyright infringement lawsuits lucrative, or even possible.
But even if the gaming companies had the nigh-unlimited resources of an industry that's spent years selling 10 cent plastic disks for seventeen dollars, there's several good reasons why they might not want to sue their customers. First and foremost, there's the fact that they're their customers. While Sony or BMG might be able to shrug off the loss of several hundred- or even several thousand- customers who no longer want to do business with them because of ill will, most gaming companies can't afford the same loss. Most gaming companies would be thrilled to have the sales numbers of a single mid-level pop star.
Once your work is already out in the wild, available for free on the Internet, there are really only two things that you can do. What's out there already is as good as it gets: it's high quality, totally unrestricted, and free. The only way to lure customers into paying for restricted-use media is to either 1) appeal to their conscience, or 2) scare them straight.
The RIAA and MPAA have gone strongly with option 2) by filing lawsuits and attempting to get law enforcement on their side. So far, the RPG industry has stayed much closer to option 1), making materials available and appealing to the better natures of their customers. My impression is that RPG customers are a little more loyal (if a bit more demanding) than the pre-teen legions of fickle Christinobritly fans; if you don't want to alienate your customer base, then you can at least piggyback on the trend. If a customer goes from downloading 10 free PDFs to downloading 9 free PDFs and paying for one, that's a net win from the publisher's perspective. While there is some cost associated with putting their 'official' PDFs up for sale, most of the work of converting them into digital formats is already part of the modern editing process. As long as each PDF sells at a reasonable profit, the publisher wins.
What about lost sales? We all know that the lost sales numbers provided by content publishers are insanely inflated. Treating free downloads as equivalent to lost sales ignores some of the most basic facts of microeconomics. People will take something free because it's free, regardless of whether or not they really want it or not. Likewise, people will much more readily drop a 5-minute search and a single click on downloading a book that has piqued their curiosity than spend $30+ for the same book in hardcover/watermarked PDF format.
I'll admit to having downloaded a few PDFs in my days. I can tell you that they fall into two categories. PDFs that I refer to a lot, like core rulebooks, which I already own in hardcover, and PDFs that have sat on my hard drive untouched after an initial browse, before finally being deleted or burned to a CD. In neither case did a publisher loose a sale; in the first case, I already owned the book and just wanted a fast reference for online gaming and travel. In the second, my download was more akin to picking up a book in a retail shop, flipping through it, and then putting it back on the shelf than it was to a purchase.
On the other hand, I can also say with no hesitation the following: if you are a RPG publisher, you have some of my money in your pockets right now that you would not otherwise have thanks to filesharing. Shared scans and PDFs have on several occasions either gotten me interested in systems and settings that I otherwise would not have bothered with, or re-awakened an interest in a game that I had ignored for a long time. In fact, it was fortuitously stumbling across some 2nd edition AD&D material on a fileshare service in college that got me re-interested in gaming as a whole after several years of not playing anything.
There you have it. My RPG "career" was saved by P2P piracy.