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Old 09-15-2013, 05:24 PM   #1
Seneschal
 
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Default Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

So, I've decided to pause a TL10-11 sci-fi campaign that I was GM-ing; it had been written long ago, without player input or any real goal, so now when we dusted it off and tried to populate it with PCs, it didn't hold up. Namely, it was difficult to envision who the characters could be, what they had access to, and what the relationships between the factions were; every planet/habitat seemed to be floating in a separate reality from the rest, and it was difficult to derive any tension when the world felt decentralized and tenuously connected. I'm currently rewriting it to be less broad and hodge-podge.

A particularly problematic element were nanofabricators, which were introduced due to pure cool-factor (and because biotech/nanotech were supposed to be TL11 while everything else was TL10), which kinda reduced all space trade to automated bulk shipping of raw materials. I didn't consider this a problem at the time, since I thought that information, ideas, media, and art becoming the only valuable commodities might make for an interesting setting.

But the players decided to play a crew of space pirates.

I told them that, if we didn't change technological assumptions, their space piracy operation would look more like "bank robbers/art thieves/kidnappers that also happen to have a ship," and they seemed fine with it. But now that the setting is getting a full rewrite, I asked them how we could build it from the ground-up with space piracy in mind (without slipping into retro-space-opera).

One player suggested nightmarish digital rights management: most things can be fabricated in one's home, but large companies (or a single consortium) control all blueprints and artificially inflate prices. Blueprints are licensed, heavily encrypted, cannot be copied, are limited to a number of uses, tied to a device or an account, and regularly check with home office to make sure the user isn't up to anything funny. Maybe they aren't ever really downloaded - they either go to a dedicated terminal on the nanofab, or delete themselves after fabrication is done. (I think you can guess what recent piece of tech the player was inspired by.)

So space pirates would be of the copyright-infringing variety this time. They'd use ships to intercept tight-beam data transfers, copy blueprints, programs, music, invids, slinks or whatever, get the data to a kind of Port Royal for cracking, and resell it as "hassle-free" data (or give it away for free if they get their funding from some kind of infosocialist government).

So, how many holes can you people poke through this? Is such a system sustainable? Are there easier ways of doing it (both stealing and protecting data)? What kind of adventures would you give to such a party? What would the ramifications be on society? I'd greatly appreciate any help I can get.
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Old 09-15-2013, 07:13 PM   #2
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

Safe tech and older items (10+yrs or more) can be printed at anytime. However, they are well, plain and basic. This is your household goods, most furniture/electronics and items you would find in a dorm room or person's first apartment. If you want the latest items ranging from weapons to fashions you need to steal it. Some companies may pay you to steal the latest designs from a competitors. Then the infosocialists want to look for the upgrades to the infrastructure. Plus on the frontier the latest music, videos and slinklys can be used to gain support from the locals.
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Old 09-15-2013, 11:43 PM   #3
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

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Originally Posted by Flaco76 View Post
Safe tech and older items (10+yrs or more) can be printed at anytime. However, they are well, plain and basic. This is your household goods, most furniture/electronics and items you would find in a dorm room or person's first apartment. If you want the latest items ranging from weapons to fashions you need to steal it. Some companies may pay you to steal the latest designs from a competitors. Then the infosocialists want to look for the upgrades to the infrastructure. Plus on the frontier the latest music, videos and slinklys can be used to gain support from the locals.
There will probably be a lot of legal open source hardware to begin with from various programmers who do that sort of thing, just like in the real world.

One thing I know is that anything that is on a computer can be stolen. One just needs an unlocked version of the fabricator, probably available a few weeks after the locked version.

I can't picture ships being useful in intercepting tight beam communication. At best they can be used to move stolen info from system to system. Or to steal new items so they can be reverse engineered.

Also I could picture open source hardware being a big selling point so that if the company goes bankrupt you can still build repair parts. I really think that DRM will be the plaything of totalitarian regimes. Most people seem quite willing to pay a reasonable price for what they want.

With open source hardware I could picture research costs being lower because most complex devices could be made of low-level components that are freely available. Open source object oriented hardware!
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Old 09-16-2013, 04:05 AM   #4
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

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Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
I told them that, if we didn't change technological assumptions, their space piracy operation would look more like "bank robbers/art thieves/kidnappers that also happen to have a ship," and they seemed fine with it. But now that the setting is getting a full rewrite, I asked them how we could build it from the ground-up with space piracy in mind (without slipping into retro-space-opera)...

So space pirates would be of the copyright-infringing variety this time. They'd use ships to intercept tight-beam data transfers, copy blueprints, programs, music, invids, slinks or whatever, get the data to a kind of Port Royal for cracking, and resell it as "hassle-free" data (or give it away for free if they get their funding from some kind of infosocialist government).

So, how many holes can you people poke through this?
My big concern would be if you could really build a sustained campaign on this premise when at the end of the day it is going to boil down, depending upon the precise setup, to sitting dead in space waiting for either a randomly timed signal or getting shot out of the sky by whatever passes for IP enforcement.

To complicate matters I would also expect that on an interplanetary/ interstellar scale these plans will be distributed through local servers with the long range data transfers being carefully orchestrated one off affairs using multiple separate channels with product data being in place before the product is formally announced. If this is the case then your pirates would be better placed trying to raid local transfers which is probably a dead end as far as your campaign is concerned.

On the other hand a one off interception of a specific transfer might be an interesting change of pace in something resembling you original campaign premise of 'ship borne art thieves'.
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Old 09-17-2013, 03:17 AM   #5
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

Sorry for the thread-orphaning, it's been a busy couple of days.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Flaco76 View Post
Safe tech and older items (10+yrs or more) can be printed at anytime. However, they are well, plain and basic. This is your household goods, most furniture/electronics and items you would find in a dorm room or person's first apartment. If you want the latest items ranging from weapons to fashions you need to steal it. Some companies may pay you to steal the latest designs from a competitors. Then the infosocialists want to look for the upgrades to the infrastructure. Plus on the frontier the latest music, videos and slinklys can be used to gain support from the locals.
I've had to reacquaint myself with what "safe-tech" is. It seems pretty accurate, you could fabricate yourself a car or even a rocket without bankrupting (provided it's not a new, trendy model, marked-up to pay for the brand name - boy there'll be a lot of discarded "out-of-fashion" tech lying around!), but you'll have to invest quite a bit for the cutting edge.

To reinforce the core premise of the setting, any upstart blueprint/media IP holder will run into two problems - most "plain, generic" stuff exists in public domain, and if they undercut the main IP holder with cheap trendy designs, they'll be bought and dissolved by the monopoly.

The setting would have to be really connected (or really tiny) for the "trendiness" to be so urgent and profitable. Might also come across slightly comical - "We're live. We need to sell a million copies in the next 2 hours before the price drops. If any pirates crack our system before then, our profit margin is ruined!"

My initial idea is was to have one big triple-star system (colonized slower-than-light quite a while ago), but the players requested something bigger and interstellar. To take advantage of that, I thought I'd make use a few other reviled corporate practice: regional locks and forced exclusivity! Different systems, or even different parts of a single system, would get their latest IP at different times and at different costs, maybe even modified and tuned just for the audience in that system (possibly in concert with the local authorities).

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Originally Posted by DangerousThing View Post
There will probably be a lot of legal open source hardware to begin with from various programmers who do that sort of thing, just like in the real world.
Undoubtedly, but if 90% of the nanofacs are made by the same company that holds 90% of the blueprint rights, they'll tie the two together. You won't be able to print one of their super-trendy guns on just any fabricator, you'll need their fabricator. And if you stick to open-source hardware, you only have access to 10% of the available technologies, with all the unpolished unintuitiveness that comes with open source design.

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Originally Posted by DangerousThing View Post
One thing I know is that anything that is on a computer can be stolen. One just needs an unlocked version of the fabricator, probably available a few weeks after the locked version.
I'm not sure how this works in real life, actually - if you jailbreak an iPhone, is it still allowed to make AppStore purchases?

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I can't picture ships being useful in intercepting tight beam communication. At best they can be used to move stolen info from system to system. Or to steal new items so they can be reverse engineered.
Yeah, that kinda comes with the premise. Space pirates, as a rule, will always be a warp in reality that bends the setting until they begin to make sense. I'll make sure the ship is more of a transport to get the PCs from job to job. Given that we're using conventional Spaceship reaction drives, intercepting tight-beams is very much possible, whereas ship-to-ship assault, boarding and pillaging is insane (everyone spots you instantly unless you do it in deep space, where matching velocities with your target will cost you more in fuel than you'll gain by robbing them).

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Originally Posted by Frost View Post
My big concern would be if you could really build a sustained campaign on this premise when at the end of the day it is going to boil down, depending upon the precise setup, to sitting dead in space waiting for either a randomly timed signal or getting shot out of the sky by whatever passes for IP enforcement.
True, intercepting signals seems like something that won't crop up for the PCs, but is probably useful as a setting assumption - it will force sensitive information transfer to be physical, which enables many heist-movie plots.

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Originally Posted by Frost View Post
To complicate matters I would also expect that on an interplanetary/ interstellar scale these plans will be distributed through local servers with the long range data transfers being carefully orchestrated one off affairs using multiple separate channels with product data being in place before the product is formally announced. If this is the case then your pirates would be better placed trying to raid local transfers which is probably a dead end as far as your campaign is concerned.
Actually, all of this sounds great - moles, contacts, blackmail, hacking, surveillance, and social engineering will be vital in the preparatory phase of the data-theft. The current party makeup seems well-suited for this: a Buddhist monk/AI programmer, a glitzy socialite memeticist, and a extroverted, internet-famous vlogger.

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Originally Posted by Frost View Post
On the other hand a one off interception of a specific transfer might be an interesting change of pace in something resembling you original campaign premise of 'ship borne art thieves'.
The fourth party member is an art connoisseur (yes, they insisted on being space pirates, and then made their characters ponces and celebrities), so I fully expect them to oceanseleven their way into a few museums.
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Old 09-17-2013, 08:31 AM   #6
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

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Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
To reinforce the core premise of the setting, any upstart blueprint/media IP holder will run into two problems - most "plain, generic" stuff exists in public domain, and if they undercut the main IP holder with cheap trendy designs, they'll be bought and dissolved by the monopoly.
Ergo, go for non-publicly-traded corporations if you're an upstart. SJG isn't publicly traded, as far as I can tell, for the closest example.

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Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
The setting would have to be really connected (or really tiny) for the "trendiness" to be so urgent and profitable. Might also come across slightly comical - "We're live. We need to sell a million copies in the next 2 hours before the price drops. If any pirates crack our system before then, our profit margin is ruined!"
What's wrong with the same 'trend shockwaves' happening all over again in a different solar system two weeks later?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
My initial idea is was to have one big triple-star system (colonized slower-than-light quite a while ago), but the players requested something bigger and interstellar. To take advantage of that, I thought I'd make use a few other reviled corporate practice: regional locks and forced exclusivity! Different systems, or even different parts of a single system, would get their latest IP at different times and at different costs, maybe even modified and tuned just for the audience in that system (possibly in concert with the local authorities).
The question is would this be profitable for them? At some level of control, the expenses for draconian measures will be greater than the profits from cutting down on movement of commercially-sold information.

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Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
Undoubtedly, but if 90% of the nanofacs are made by the same company that holds 90% of the blueprint rights, they'll tie the two together. You won't be able to print one of their super-trendy guns on just any fabricator, you'll need their fabricator. And if you stick to open-source hardware, you only have access to 10% of the available technologies, with all the unpolished unintuitiveness that comes with open source design.
10% of the new-and-trendy technologies. There's still the issue of generics/public-domain stuff being less cool but much more cost-efficient. This is an interesting dynamic in that it means that (a) you have to work really hard for a minuscule improvement, and there are rapid diminishing returns and (b) this makes the open-source armies/mercs/pirates quite competitive with the cutting-edge corporate armies/mercs/goons.

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Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
True, intercepting signals seems like something that won't crop up for the PCs, but is probably useful as a setting assumption - it will force sensitive information transfer to be physical, which enables many heist-movie plots.
Key movement will be physical. Or they will be sent between secure stations using quantum comms (obviously this doesn't work where a laser comm doesn't work). The keys will be long - long enough to prevent decryption for a year on a cluster taking much if not more than a planet's processing power. If a key is stolen, all stations will instantly cease using it (or its public pair) for encryption. And the valuable info will be sent encrypted, just like that.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Seneschal View Post
Actually, all of this sounds great - moles, contacts, blackmail, hacking, surveillance, and social engineering will be vital in the preparatory phase of the data-theft. The current party makeup seems well-suited for this: a Buddhist monk/AI programmer, a glitzy socialite memeticist, and a extroverted, internet-famous vlogger.
The important point is that you can't afford to let victims know their security has been compromised. As soon as they do, the operation becomes pretty much doomed.
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Old 09-17-2013, 09:05 AM   #7
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Have you read Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross? I bring it up because it is a book with pretty hard science, plentiful nanofabricators...and space pirates.

While getting into all their schemes would be telling a bit too much, their major interests in boarding ships appear to be inspecting them and their cargoes, partly for insurance reasons (they are technically an insurance agency branch office) and partly so that they can engage in commodity futures trading using inside information about any cargo that hasn't been publicly disclosed. (Actually physically stealing bulk cargos would be a waste.)
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Old 09-17-2013, 09:42 AM   #8
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Have you read Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross? I bring it up because it is a book with pretty hard science, plentiful nanofabricators...and space pirates.

While getting into all their schemes would be telling a bit too much, their major interests in boarding ships appear to be inspecting them and their cargoes, partly for insurance reasons (they are technically an insurance agency branch office) and partly so that they can engage in commodity futures trading using inside information about any cargo that hasn't been publicly disclosed. (Actually physically stealing bulk cargos would be a waste.)
I never thought an SF book whose science was economics would be that interesting. Charles Stross is just that good!
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Old 09-17-2013, 09:51 AM   #9
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I never thought an SF book whose science was economics would be that interesting. Charles Stross is just that good!
Honestly, I was more impressed with Stross' SF economics in the Merchant Princes books, but those seem not to have caught on as much.

I thought the banking system was developed entirely too little for the importance of its role in the book. What was the medium-money/fast-money split supposed to actually constitute? What is medium money really? Slow money was fairly well covered, but slow money was a serious contender for primary character of the novel.
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Old 09-17-2013, 10:11 AM   #10
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Default Re: Nanofabricators, DRM and Forced Scarcity

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I thought the banking system was developed entirely too little for the importance of its role in the book. What was the medium-money/fast-money split supposed to actually constitute?
Fast money is cash and other liquid assets that can be redeemed for face value or nearly so in short order, like mature bonds and home equity. IIRC, medium money is longer-term investments like multi-year bonds and ownership of private companies, but still in-system.
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