by Jim Edlin


Jim Edlin is the designer of Wordvision, a "writing tool" program for the IBM PC sold without copy protection and priced significantly lower than earlier programs of its type.

Programs and data are the stuff of life for personal computers, the binary elixirs that animate them out of paperweighthood into utility and playfulness. Programs and data are also a form of "intellectual property": lawyers' parlance for the notion that he who thinks something up, figures it out or puts it together in a new way is entitled to control over his creation and any commercial rewards it can be made to yield.
    Intellectual property, like the more tangible kind, is subject to trespass and theft. Such crimes against patented, copyrighted, trademarked or confidential material are known as "piracy," but how can the unsanctioned use of computer software be equated to plunder at sea? There is scant swashbuckle to typing DISKCOPY and pressing the ENTER key. Nonetheless, "program" and "piracy" are two words often linked together in the new dialogue of personal computers.

Three Kinds of Piracy

Software piracy is not a simple phenomenon. It takes in a broad territory with many gray areas.
• Private piracy. This is piracy on a personal scale. Someone makes a copy of a disk for a friend to use. Or a person whose office has three computers buys just one copy of a program, then duplicates it to use simultaneously on all three machines.
Organized piracy. This is also piracy for personal use, but less casual. People gather to exchange programs like baseball cards ("Trade ya two Zorks for a Pac-Man!"). Or somebody sets up an electronic meeting place through which programs can be traded via phone lines. (Volunteers who lend their computer and phone to such an enterprise can collect as toll a copy of every program passing through.)
Commercial piracy. Here's where program piracy becomes a business, whether for small change or big bucks. At one end of the scale are the shady merchants who throw in "free software" to close a sale and forget to mention that they're getting it as free as you are. Over at the big-money end is the organized counterfeiting that goes on whenever a product has high demand and limited distribution, or a big spread between its production cost and selling price. Like designer jeans and replacement auto parts, some software now qualifies on both counts.

Three Things That Encourage Piracy 
It's easy. Copying a program can be as simple as putting the original in your computer together with a blank disk, typing a command or two, and waiting less than a minute. Also, everyone who has use for pirated programs and data already owns a machine that can copy them efficiently.
It's inexpensive. Compare copying a program to copying a book. The program not only takes a lot less time and effort, but can be copied for a lot less money. Photocopying a book often costs more than buying a second original, but the reverse is almost always true for software. And unlike the case of books, there are no hidden costs of reduced quality in the copy; every software copy is as good as an original.
It's comfortable. High program prices contribute to this. People can console themselves with the thought: "They robbed me on the price of this program. I'm just getting a little back by giving a copy to a friend." But a determined pirate can rationalize even when prices are low: "They'll never miss the little profit they'd have made on this inexpensive thing."

Five Ways Publishers Try to Foil Pirates 
Persuasion. The publisher's first line of defense is to try convincing customers that the practice of piracy is self-defeating. Successful piracy, the argument goes, reduces incentive for people to create more software. Today's ill-gotten gain becomes tomorrow's loss for those who hunger for software if the supply of new goodies dries up.
License agreements. These are the fearsome gray broadsides of legalese often seen scowling out at you from behind the plastic wrapper of software packages. They are a carryover from the days when programs were written mainly for the giant computers of giant corporations. In that context, it makes perfect sense to have a strictly worded document giving, say, an airline the privilege of using a reservations program on one computer in one location for a six-figure license fee. Enforcement was easy and economically justifiable.
    In the context of programs sold by the thousands in discount stores and used in the privacy of homes, many authorities dismiss license agreements as out of place and ineffective. Their presence on such packages may be a bravado gesture akin to sticking an alarm-system decal on the windows of your house without actually installing the alarm.
Copy protection. Most of us have experience with this approach. It's the one the U.S. Treasury uses when it puts those little red and blue threads in the currency and prints it with ultrafine engraving beyond the capacity of ordinary presses. The underlying idea is that it's easier to do right when it's hard to do wrong. In practice, it means throwing sand into the wheels of the copying process.
    Programmers are infinitely clever in figuring ways to impede copying. One popular program deliberately imitates the behavior of an improperly manufactured disk, after modifying the computer's standard instructions for handling such problems; this modified error trap, the only gateway to the rest of the program, cannot be found unless the planted error is encountered in the right place at the right time. If you try copying the original with its deliberate glitch, your faithful computer will gallantly correct the problem without troubling you to mention it. When you try to use the copy, it simply won't run.
    Unfortunately, copy protection is also sand in the wheels of convenient computer usage. There are manifold legitimate reasons for wanting to copy: for safety, of course, in case of spilled coffee or teething puppies, but also for such conveniences as gathering on one disk items that are often used together or having multiple versions each preset for a particular task. For this reason, some would-be buyers boycott copy-protected products. Fewer may be stolen because of copy protection, but fewer are also sold.
Hardware keys. You can make all the copies you want under this approach, but none will work unless an electronic "key" is inserted in the computer at the time. To this end, one company invented an inexpensive gizmo that plugged into the little-used cassette jack on IBM PCs. Sadly, the jack was so little used that IBM eliminated it in newer models of its machine. Even when it worked, it was no picnic, because the key fit around back in an inaccessible spot. It was okay with one program, but would have been a pain if you had to swap keys a lot.
    Other companies are lobbying computer makers to include program-readable serial numbers in their machines. In this variation, the first time a program was used it would note the machine's number and thereafter would run only on the machine with that number. If your computer breaks and you get a loaner, too bad! This also guarantees that you will only use software on your machine, the terms under which most software is actually sold (read the fine print on your warranty card).
Programs on cartridges. Plug-in cartridges are a more expensive medium for distribution of software- much more expensive if the software is sizable. Also, some popular machines have no provision for using cartridges. But software published in a cartridge is far less readily copyable (and easier to load into the computer). IBM's design for its PCjr seems to contemplate this; it has two cartridge slots while IBM's previous personal computers didn't even have one.

Three Ways Pirates  Swashbuckle Harder 
As in love and war, for every defense there is yet another form of offense.
Supercopy programs. Whatever clever copy protection scheme a programmer can devise, there is another clever programmer who can figure out how to beat it. Several programs on the market are aimed at copying the uncopyable. Their methods range from finesse to brute force. One, for example, outfoxes the deliberate-manufacturing-glitch scheme described above simply by replacing the section on the original that checks for the glitch. The replacement will give an "all clear" even if the glitch is not actually found.
Hardware copiers. Copy protection schemes must be figured out before they can be defeated. A circuit board is a costlier approach to the problem than software-only copiers, skipping the need for cleverness by escalating to a higher level of brute force.. The circuit board holds a duplicate set of memory cells for your computer. When you press a switch, the circuit takes an electronic "snapshot" of whatever is in the regular cells-including a copy-protected program already loaded into the computer from an original disk. A wellprotected program will bar users from simply copying all regular memory cells out to a disk file, but the shadow memory isn't subject to such restraints. Its contents will survive a protected program's normal methods for wiping out memory before giving up control of the computer, so they can be copied after the protection is gone.
Bulletin boards. Electronic bulletin boards are one of the joys of personal computers. One small fraction of their use is as an aid to program piracy. Through this medium, someone can buy a new program one morning and have copies to their friends in six states that night. This is also a channel that allows one pirate who cracks a tough copy protection scheme to disseminate his discovery nationwide in hours.

One Question to Leave You Pondering 
What does discouraging piracy cost? This is the subtler side of throwing sand in the wheels. Suppose you think you might like the whiz-bang filing program a friend has bought. But you have uncertainties that only familiarity will resolve. The best way is to take it home and twiddle with it on your own computer with your own data. Your friend is already too dependent on it to let you borrow it, so that strategy is out unless the program is copyable.
    Fluid availability of software for people to try and experience can probably contribute significantly to the spread of personal computers, and to people's comfort and skill with them. Strong antipiracy measures may stifle this effect. Consider other possible costs as well. And consider how likely it is that most noncommercial pirates are really lost customers for the publishers. It just may be that the people who pirate a program were not real hot prospects to buy it.


They call us pirates and worse. They lock up their programs behind hardware and software schemes. They set the minions of the law upon us. And still we flourish by our wiles.
     Ahoy, ye microlubbers: to pirate a program is not to steal, but to liberate knowledge. We don't take money or goods from anyone; we merely free up information. Most of us don't profit from our buccaneering activities; instead, we share the wealth with our fellow computer users.
     The software moguls have only themselves to blame for our cracking open the bars to their programs. If they didn't charge a king's ransom for disks that cost a pittance to duplicate, there would be little incentive for us to practice our skills. There would be no need for them to protect their programs if software were no more expensive than what you and I can afford to pay.
     We are no longer in the Dark Ages of personal software, when so few people used computers that program development costs had to be defrayed by high unit prices. Now so many microcomputers are in use that a program should cost no more than a lightweight paperback novel. Instead, we are paying illuminated manuscript prices.
     Maybe someday the software publishers will understand how they're killing off the golden goose. But until that time, be warned: there will be many a pirate's flag on the software horizon.


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