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Some Hazy Thoughts About Intellectual Property as it Relates to the World of Lighting Software

Allow me, dear reader, to take you through my last month with my computer. I realize a lot of what I’m going to say below also applies to hardware, but I’m not going to address that here.

Like many of you, I have a laptop that I do basically all of my work on. I have a desktop at home to run MA3D and heavily-modded TES III: Morrowind, but my laptop does a lot of heavy lifting for me. It’s an older-model MacBook Pro, which will sometime soon need to be replaced by a not-Apple device (I have reasons, but they’re beyond the scope of today’s post) but for the time being, the ol’ 2013 MacBook Pro gets it done. That all changed recently when I updated Vectorworks to 2022. Ho-lee crap did it bog my machine down. Way down. Basic operations would have the fan spinning up, sounding like a damn Hoover until I quit the program. This isn’t all that unusual for Vectorworks – as a piece of software it seems designed especially to use more processor and memory than it really needs to, but this was unusual even for standard VW levels of bloat. Indeed, Activity Monitor showed that VW was hogging a tremendous amount of resources. Poking around online, I discovered that my older version of macOS, 10.10, was clashing with VW over the implementation of Metal (the Apple graphics API) and OpenGL, the old standard. I did a lot of futzing around, but there was no getting around it: macOS had to be upgraded, which I did. This fixed the issues between macOS and VW, but now Cinema 4D wouldn’t start. Poking around again, I discovered there was some thing that R21 and macOS couldn’t agree on, so I had to update my version of Cinema. Of course, all my plugins now had to be moved over. And when I went to check and see if the Very Important Plug-In known as Stage 2, by Hantmade, had been released for R25 of Cinema, I made a most unwelcome discovery. Michael, the lead (and only, as far as I know) developer for Stage, has just this last week (as of the time of this writing) thrown in the towel. Stage would no longer be developed for Cinema 4D. I can no longer do renders for clients in Cinema with that plug-in.

His reasons will be familiar to anybody who’s ever tried to develop things for big software companies outside of the gaming community: they’re generally indifferent at best or hostile at worst to plug-in developers. Nemetschek / Vectorworks cut off access to beta versions, etc – and while I am highly critical of Vectorworks and like nothing more than to complain about their myriad shortcomings, that can wait for another blog post. The bigger thing he mentioned that really caught my eye was this:

“It is also very disheartening when we see how many large studios and companies are actually using a non-licensed version of Stage.”

Michael, from Slack

Yes, yes I imagine it would be.

Now, rendering software and previzualization software aren’t exactly the same thing, but I think they fulfill somewhat overlapping roles in in the world of lighting design, and I think it’s instructive here to look at the case of MA Lighting vs the pirates to draw some relevant parallels. I first became aware of how cool offline programming could be around 2008, when I was working at Bandit Lites. Big Jake (he was not particularly large, but he had to be differentiated from Little Jake) showed everyone the grandMA OnPC and grandMA 3D software. This was grandMA series 1, mind you, the graphics were a little less spectacular than we enjoy these days, but it was a dream for all of us at the time.* I programmed a whole bunch of cool music to light show videos which I’m now deeply ashamed of on that software, and in generally thought it was quite generous and really cool for a company to go out of its way to produce a high-quality free previsualization software suite for anybody to use who wanted to. Not too long after this, grandMA2 was released, and it was after that release that quite a few more people started to take notice of MA2 – including a large number of…shall we say…lighting hobbyists. Many in that community – on forums such as r/lightingdesign and in other places, were very interested in putting together rigs of grandMA software supplemented with MIDI control surfaces of inconsistent quality. What they really needed, though, was a way to turn the “internal” DMX into external DMX, and unlock licensed parameters from the software through grey-market devices purchased from the likes of Alibaba.

And buy them they did. There are lots of faux-MA posts on r/lightingdesign, and I personally know a few professional-level LDs who’ve bought devices for getting parameters out of MA2 OnPC. Now, I can’t totally lay the problem of software and hardware piracy on the scale that China engages in at the feet of individual “hobbyists” and half-broke mobile wedding DJs who might just be poking around in grandMA, or any other software for that matter. It’s self-evident that an industry like that can only exist if people are purchasing these products at scale – and the United States (and the aforementioned mobile DJs) are largely not supporting the billion-dollar industry that is large-scale hardware and software piracy. (It’s also worth mentioning that these devices are (mostly) probably just spun off from the standard components that are already in those “consoles”, and some smart pirates realized a market.)

But there’s a fine line between a kid who wants to do a cool light show to make a few hundred bucks being a DJ and someone who’s making real money off software that someone else spent time creating – and subsequently did not get paid for. It’s easy to understand why somebody would make that choice – a lot of industry standard software is very expensive. Vectorworks costs a few thousand dollars, not to mention cumulative weeks of frustration learning all things it can’t do that should be simple. Licenses of higher-end visualization software are similarly costly. Depence and Carbon both break past the $3K range, and that’s expensive.

But, of course, they should be expensive. They represent, generally, years of hard work by talented and passionate people, finding workarounds, having their efforts frustrated by bureaucracies at places like Vectorworks, and hoping that enough people will see their software and see the utility in it to pony up some of their hard-earned cash to pay for it. In the case of Stage, it represents the dream of one person who was trying to do the entire industry a favor by making a useful plug-in that allowed us to visualize lighting directly in a modeling / rendering program, and that was pretty cool. And now it’s gone, and part of that reason is that people were stealing the software.

Piracy is not the only reason why Stage 2’s developer quit, and plenty of other programs have survived this Age of the Internet, and piracy, through luck , relative obscurity, or other means. And while there’s not much to be done about this on an individual level – The Pirate Bay and torrenting exists, after all – but people at the companies making money off software they didn’t pay for should absolutely know better, and they should know they are Bad People and they should feel bad.

This shouldn’t be controversial – and generally isn’t, I don’t think. Software developers have families and bills to pay. Their work generally happens away from the eyes of the end users, and this disconnect perhaps makes it easier to rationalize adding that Torrent to your downloader. But doing so is not only morally wrong – we ought not to take other’s property without their consent, and when consent involves monetary cost, we should pay it – doing so tends ultimately to be self-defeating. Why is it so prevalent? There are a few reasons I can imagine, but I’m speculating a bit: it feels like a victimless crime, it’s difficult to enforce compliance, especially when these software packages are run on people’s personal computers, and, of course, it’s fabulously easy to get working copies of unlicensed software.

How can this be solved? I’m not really sure. MA obviously thinks that this is enough of an issue for them that since like v3.2.2.3 (or something) they’ve included a modal dialog with a statement about piracy that pops up every time you start MA OnPC with a Command Wing attached, and word on the street is the software phones home and thoroughly screws your showfile if it detects you’ve ever run the show on counterfeit hardware. (I have not personally confirmed this.) I find this pop-up annoying, since it has to be dismissed every time you start the software, but I’m even more annoyed at the people using technological means to bypass MA’s parameter control that caused them to enact such measures. And MA, it must be pointed out here, is a very large private company with the resources to thoroughly lock down the parameter-getty-outy bits of their software through difficult-to-circumvent technological means. While Stage did use a license system, obviously people found ways to bypass it with relative ease. That isn’t a dig at Stage – I’m sure Michael had much better things to do, like try to make the buggy Vectorworks MVR export work with his software.

This is largely a screed directed at those in this industry using pirated versions of software, and in particular directed at people making money off of those stolen copies. I realize I run the risk here of sounding like the modern incarnation of MC Double Def DP**, but this is an issue that really strikes a nerve with me – a piece of software that I paid for, used, and made money with is going away now, and part of the reason is that people were stealing it. That sucks.

And eventually, it hurts all of us.

* I imagine that in a several years, we’ll all look back on the time that we weren’t programming in fully-immersive realtime volumetric holodeck-like environments as the dark ages.

** In a criminally underrated performance from M. E. Hart.

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