Video Games in Cuba: Piracy

IMG_7408 In December 2014, Barack Obama and Raul Castro gave simultaneous speeches to their countries announcing that the United States of America and Cuba would, after decades, finally be normalizing relations. We jumped at the chance to see how video games exist, if at all, in the island nation that’s been, at least legally, so cut off from American cultural influence. We bring you LoreSabueso.

I’m not sure about you, but when I was younger on the prepubescent Internet I dabbled in piracy. It was juvenile then. Both the Internet and piracy. You had little idea what you were getting. Perhaps it was what you expected or perhaps it was a deltree script set to destroy your Windows installation. And it would take hours for anything over a few megs. A crapshoot for most endeavors, but like real crapshots, it was interesting nonetheless. Yes, many people pirated because they were too cheap to pay for their items or actually couldn’t afford it. Others dipped into the original black market Internet not out of greed but access. That’s exactly why Cubans practiced and have become well-versed in piracy. International piracy to boot

The journey of pirated materials starts in one place for the video game community we visited in Havana; Florida, United States of America. Relatives and friends of Cubans on the island nation begin the process of gathering up new and interesting material. This isn’t limited to video games. The package can include everything from movies to magazines to Wikipedia collections. It’s not simply entertainment that’s desired. Cultural knowledge and pure, free information are hot commodities. The only true restraint is the size of the smuggling device, USB flash drives or small pocket-sized portable hard drives. These small electronics are easily smuggled into the country without disguise. I couldn’t determine if this was a lack of effort by government officials or a lack of understanding. After all, anything on any device could be easily hidden contraband. Let alone information that could rock your hold on “connected” individuals (or simply entertain them).

lh_videogames_in_cuba_dreamcastThe most obvious way that pirated materials would spread once in Cuba would be some sort of Internet. That doesn’t exist though, at least not legally. Instead, the most relatable experience of piracy would be the old BBS days. Days before widely available access that we know today. Internet denizens in the US in those days viewed 5.56kb/s as lightning fast. The best way to trade material was, well, basic friendship. You’d hand each other floppy disks, which were actually hard, or, if you were loaded (and years later), CD-Rs. That’s the libertarian way in Cuba. One that’s pervasive, but limited due to the geographical and technological challenges. The material has to leave Habana somehow.

The Oregon Trail of piracy starts in Habana. Our guide showed us how it proceeds. It’s, frankly, a facile process. The communities begin the spread, locally first and with little risk. In fact, no one had a single example of actual persecution. But it takes a capitalistic leap when the group’s reach has expired. If you’re not someone who’s friendly to the circle you’re charged a rental fee. It’s 2 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), roughly $2.28 to us, but over 10% of a tour guide’s monthly wage. You’ve 24 hours from delivery to capture whatever you want before you’re due to return it to the courier. Allow me to reiterate. People are paying 10% of their monthly salary not to own something, but for pirated material.

The courier, as you may have surmised by now, delivers this material by hand in the same vehicle the video game community began with. It’s traveled by foot, basket or ancient car. The baskets are comically dropped from upper floors to the courier on the street. Completely in the open thanks to this manual transfer being a common mode of exchange. Couriers go block to block, exchanging the device, which they also rent from the international courier for 2 CUC, for another pair of Castros. Every 24 hours it’s a pickup and dropoff farther and farther from the home community. Eventually, somewhere, it’s copied and distributed to another city through the inconvenient travel of city-to-city car or train ride

IMG_7393There’s no doubt that piracy is rampant in Cuba. Is it morally acceptable? Certainly the copyright holders would say no, but if it had any impact on Raul Castro’s decision to begin opening relations they may be okay with it. Assuming the copyright holders can use their brainpower to entice the upcoming market to pay for the wares that is. I’m not holding my breath, but I truly believe there community is willing to pay given the correct lever. Let’s hope the RIAA, MPAA et al. have learned their lesson and approach the new, if small, frontier with fresh ideas.

We’ll have more on Cuba’s technological future in our near future.