Let's Talk about Theft, Piracy, and DRM

Feb 16th 2023

Continuing our series about Blender, Blender add-ons, and the GPL, it’s inevitable that the discussion will eventually swing into the direction of this question: “What if someone steals my work?”

This question is one that gets asked frequently across the entire expanse of creators in all fields... but it also applies in the realm of open source software. You’ve put a lot of work into your code. It hurts when you discover that someone isn’t compensating you for that work. It’s even more concerning to consider the possibility that someone else is making more money off of your work than you are.

These concerns are both entirely natural and completely unrealistic.

Hear me out. We already know that when you sell software, you’re selling much more than code. To be successful, your work has to be more than just writing code. Your expertise, your support, and your communication with the users of your software are also your work. They’re part of your promise that you’re selling and they’re the things that your users ultimately value the most. More importantly, these are things that can’t be easily copied, stolen, or taken away from you.

Sure, it’s possible that there’s someone out there who is more of an expert, is better at offering support and updates, and communicates more clearly than you. Realistically, though, if this hypothetical person is that good, they’re more likely to create a legitimate product that competes with yours rather than go through the effort (and potential legal troubles) of stealing your work.

Of course piracy does still exist. I’m not denying that. If it remains a concern of yours, the Blender Market has a great article on how to deal with any piracy you’ve discovered. You may note that in that article, there’s nothing in there about adding any kind of digital rights management (DRM) mechanism to your code. There’s a reason for that.

If you’re not familiar with DRM, it’s basically additional code that either attempts to prevent piracy from happening or tries to track already pirated work back to the person or organization who shared it. These are things like copy protection, code obfuscation, digital watermarks, or “dialing home” to validate with license servers.

For the time being, let’s set aside the fact that all of these DRM approaches are difficult or impossible in an open source environment where you have to share the source code. Even if you could do any of them in a way that’s compliant with the GPL (which is necessary when we talk about Blender add-ons), they’re still a bad idea. All of these mechanisms involve more code, more effort, more maintenance, and more things that can potentially break. That’s a lot of energy to put into code that ultimately doesn’t help your users and, in fact, tells them that you don’t trust them.

Tracking down the source of piracy requires an enormous expense with very low return on investment.

Furthermore, let’s say you manage to track down the source of a stolen copy of your software. What then? Now you have to wade through legal channels, find out contact information, issue copyright notices, and possibly even bring the person to court (where you’re not guaranteed to win). That’s even more of an energy expense. And what’s the payout? What’s the return on that investment in time and effort? Is the money you hope to recoup from this effort enough to pay for that time?

Let’s get back to the beginning. Why did you make your tool in the first place? Why did you share it? Hopefully it’s because you found it useful and you thought it would help other people. That’s a good, positive mental space to start. However, when you chase pirates, you’re working with a fear-based mentality. The nature of this way of thinking puts you in a position where you are distrustful of your audience, the people who are using your software. You know, the people who you’re trying to help. You end up putting time and energy into things that don’t actually help those people.

What if you took a different approach? You created a tool. That’s creative energy. People who make things rarely ever create just one. You probably have more ideas of features to add to your existing tool. In fact, you probably have a list of other tools you’d like to make, too. This is the basis of a growth mentality. This is really the thing that separates you from anyone who’s pirating your work. Let them steal your ideas. You’ve got more!

It comes down to this: building a DRM solution, maintaining it, and going after a potential software pirate has costs, both in terms of energy and money. Imagine if those resources were put into making your product even better, or making another useful tool. Your existing users would be happier. Your improvements might even earn you more users who like your work and appreciate the trust you have in them.

And I daresay that the effort to gain those users will be more rewarding—both personally and financially—than any effort to track or prevent bad actors from stealing your work.


Jason van Gumster