Think of a pirate and it's likely that an image of a bandanna-clad, eye-patch sporting villain springs to mind. But these days, piracy has moved out of the high seas and into our homes. For millions of people, downloading an album for free or buying knock-off DVDs in the pub is a normal part of life, with no yo ho ho-ing required.
Until recently, the world of video games had been one industry that had found itself relatively untouched. The methods required to play most pirated games on consoles are too risky and technical to have seeped into the mainstream. Now, however, consoles are in the pirates' sight – and it's all down to a small piece of plastic, no bigger than a couple of centimetres squared.
The R4 is a tiny Chinese-made device – costing around £14 – that for more than seven million owners of Nintendo's hand-held console, the DS, has blown wide open its capabilities. Combined with a small memory card and plugged into the back of the DS, it enables the console to play MP3s and videos, as well as store copies of games you already own.
Crucially, however, it also enables the user to play pirated games from the internet; games which don't have to be brought from a dodgy man in a pub, but can be downloaded for free. Add to this that it's simple to use, and available through retailers such as Amazon, and you can see why the R4 and devices similar to it are bringing video game console piracy to the mainstream.
"There has always been an undercurrent of piracy in the console market, but it's more of a hardcore pursuit," says Tim Ingham, the online editor of gaming magazine, MCV. "You usually need to 'mod' a console to really take advantage – which invalidates the warranty and can easily go wrong. It usually involves some kind of hardware modification, soldering and more."
Tim calls the R4 the "most official-feeling" piracy product he has seen for the DS and this, along with its ease of use and availability, has attracted people, such as parents, who would never have considered pirating a computer game before. The fact that it can be brought from such mainstream websites as Amazon means that many do not even realise its illicit nature.
Nick Welsh has two young children who love their computer games and own a Nintendo DS. He heard about the device from another parent while on holiday. For Welsh, buying a R4 solved both a logistical and a financial problem. "The trouble with kids is you pay £20 or £30 for a game, and they could only play it once," he says. "Let's say I sit down and download 10 new games, the way it ends up is they'll only really play one or two or those, and the others get replaced. I wouldn't be able to afford that number of games."
Since all the games can be stored on one memory card, which stays in the device, it also offers convenience. "You can have 70 or 80 games on a 2GB card," says Welsh, "and they're all on the back of the machine. There's no fiddling around with cartridges – it's all there to hand."
Unsurprisingly, the games industry is not taking this lying down. The Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) estimates that piracy costs the industry £3bn per year, while Nintendo said it lost £560m last year.
Jodi Daugherty, Senior Director for Anti-Piracy at Nintendo, has been tackling pirates for 14 years and believes the fight against the R4 is one of the most challenging she has faced. "What is different with these devices is how they're distributed and the impact they have with regards to the internet," she says.
As well as issuing warning letters to the websites on which the games are hosted, Nintendo is also targeting both the Chinese manufacturers and the distributors who sell the devices, and have conducted several raids on factories. Last July, Nintendo – along with some 50 game producers – launched a lawsuit in Japan against distributors of the R4 and similar devices.
The distributors argue that devices such as the R4 are legal in their own right. One online vendor selling the device even has a disclaimer, stating: "By visiting and making any purchase from our site, we assume that you will not use such products in any way that violates international copyright laws. It is the sole responsibility of the buyer to comply with the laws of their country."
However, Daugherty points out that, in order to enable the games to be played on the DS, the R4 has to circumvent the built-in security software designed to stop this. Daugherty also says that Nintendo are working with online retail giants Amazon to "curtail the global sales/distribution of game copying devices which violate our intellectual property rights".
Of course, a close eye is being kept on the music and film industry, neither of which can claim to have solved the issue. "The games industry is certainly more aware of how things can go wrong – many publishers and developers often mention how they've seen it go wrong in the music world, and that they won't make the same mistakes," says Ingham.
Electronic Arts is one company who have found out the effects of a backlash. When their eagerly awaited God game, Spore, was released last month they included a piece of digital rights management – or DRM - software designed to prevent the game being pirated. They are now facing legal action from gamers in California, who claim the software can't be uninstalled – and, despite all this, the game has been pirated anyway. However, Ingham does feel lessons have been learned. "I think the biggest difference is that within these age-old industry giants, an understanding that things will have to change sits alongside that fear. That's something music in particular never quite appreciated. They tried to control the uncontrollable."
It's not only the game publishers who have reacted to the R4. In July, independent gaming retailers called for a ban on selling the device, after reporting drops in DS software sales. Still, just as consoles and software become more and more advanced, so will the methods used by the pirates. "Many believe that the threat of piracy will eventually not only move games online," says Ingham, "but change the transaction between player and seller altogether. In the casual games sphere, it is already popular, for example, for the owners of games to give them away free, entirely supported by in-game ads."
Welsh agrees that a different approach would make him reconsider his position. "If there was some sort of iTunes equivalent where it was relatively easy and you could try a game for a week for a quid, and pay another four quid to keep it, then I think it's likely I would use it," he says.
It may be too late – the R4 has brought console piracy into the mainstream, and the industry will have a tough time trying to get it back into the shadows.
Levelling the score: The fight against fakes
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (PC) 1989
An early tactic used by videogame makers was to use a game's user manual as a rudimentary anti-piracy device, with players forced to enter information in the game that could only be garnered from the booklet. For their Graphic Adventure, based on the third Indiana Jones film, Lucasfilm Games came up with an ingenious way to combine this with the in-game puzzles. They originally included a copy of the Grail Diary of Henry Jones Sr, which plays a large role in the film, in the box. As well as being a good read, the diary contained various clues which were required by certain puzzles.
The Secret of Monkey Island (PC) 1990
Another graphic adventure from Lucasfilm Games and another ingenious method to defeat those who wished to play the game for free. Each game included a code wheel entitled "Dial-a-Pirate", which had the upper and lower halves of pirates' heads on the outer and inner circles respectively. The game would show a face and ask you to make it on the wheel, requiring you to then type in the year that would be revealed.
Half-Life 2 (PC) 2004
Clearly, illegal downloaders couldn't wait to get their hands on one of the most eagerly-awaited sequels of all time, so its developer, Valve, decided to coincide the launch of the follow-up to Half-Life with the official launch of Steam, a digital distribution system. Users who installed Half-Life 2 – whether they had downloaded it or brought a physical copy – were required to be online to validate the game through the system. Crashing servers meant the idea was originally slated, but now Steam has established itself as a popular form of games distribution.