Middle-Class Piracy in the Software Industry

Recently I discussed my own take on middle-class piracy. To recap, I’m talking about pirates who can easily turn into legitimate customers if the goods they steal are made more convenient to buy than to download illegally. They aren’t poor, so they can afford it – they just prefer whatever’s easiest. And everything I discuss here is from my friend’s perspective. My friend is a pirate. He’s really a good guy, but a pirate.

The software industry generally has some of the best and some of the worst anti-piracy measures available. It stands to reason, because software has been plagued by piracy pretty much since it began – anything that’s representing digitally can be copied with no loss, unlike things like cassette tapes or VHS movies. So the industry has been scrambling since I was a kid (waaaaaay back in the 80s) to stop piracy.

I only know what my friend (the pirate) can remember, so I will not cover every piracy-prevention method here. Mainly the ones that tended to be common on games.

Disk errors

Initially there were things like intentionally putting errors on floppy disks so a direct copy wouldn’t work, but of course the pirates got smart and came up with ways to copy the errors as well as the data. End result:

  • Legitimate users with flaky drives could lose out on a product they paid for.
  • Pirates didn’t have this problem.


Then there were the manual-based protections, or decoder-ring/wheel protections. These were designed to make the user look something up in a manual or move a decoder-ring or decoder-wheel to find a word. Presumably the pirates didn’t want to copy an entire manual. Of course pirates can reverse-engineer source code to force the game to skip the protection, or hack the random number generator so that the same word is always chosen. In extreme cases, they just hit the protection dozens of times and write down a matrix of the most common cases. End result:

  • Legitimate users who lose their manual are screwed. Even when they don’t, they have to dig it out every time they want to play the game.
  • Pirates every once in a while can’t answer the question, and sometimes have a cracked game that’s broken because the crack was applied incorrectly. Overall, they usually had a better experience than the legit users.


Dongles were a travesty, and are still used today…. The thing about these items is the user must have this hardware “key” plugged into their computer in order to use the product. This adds a point of failure for legitimate users – lose software CD, you’re screwed. Lose dongle, you’re screwed. The greatest thing about these is they’re almost always easy to crack. My friend, the pirate, says he went through a brief tutorial on some Sentinel thing and found that even though he was never better than an intermediate cracker, that particular hardware key was a breeze to get past. End result:

  • Legitimate users suffer greatly. Dongles are usually used only for high-end items, making the double failure points that much more concerning. Couple that with the annoyance of having to find a port (often on the back of one’s computer back when these things were really popular (parallel port)), and you have a big ass-raping of your customers.
  • Pirates love this shit. Usually easy to crack, often high-end software. Sometimes so easy to crack big pirate rings can manufacture and sell illegal dongles, possibly taking revenue away from the idiots who sought the dongle protection in the first place. Think about it – if the company didn’t waste money on the dongle protection, maybe their prices could be more reasonable.

Size of media

CDs were initially only protected by being big. When CD burners were totally infeasible ($1000 and more) and hard drives were small (say 500 MB), it was impossible to pirate CDs. This was the golden age of anti-piracy measures. Users knew they needed the CD in the drive because there really weren’t any other options given the size of data – we put up with it because we understood why we had to. Pirates just got pissy and bitched a lot. Which wasn’t really out of the ordinary anyway.

Even when CD burners became semi-feasible, the media was still unreliable and expensive. My friend, the pirate, recalls such a time:

I bought a burner for about $250, 2x write [that’s about an hour to burn a CD if you did a simulation, and back then he did that every time because media sucked so much], figured it would pay for itself after what, 5 games right [at $50 a game]? No such luck actually. It was $10 a cd to burn on, and at least 3 in ten was bad, so I think it was an overall loss even after ten games, heheh. And nobody wanted to go in on the game and the media and wait around for it all just to get a copy so like you just had to rely on borrowing shit.

End Result:

  • Annoying for legit users, but totally understandable necessity. When your game is 600MB and the average user has less than that much hard drive space, you don’t have the option of being consumer-friendly.
  • Annoying for pirates, but they knew they’d have the last laugh. Technology always gets better, so it was only a matter of time before they could get their stuff free again.

Serial codes / instant activation

Then we have instant activation products. Technically this stuff is older than CD media. Games for BBSes were my friend, the pirate’s first experience. He wrote key generators for many door games. He’s very proud of stealing from small companies apparently.

So you download it for evaluation, and if you pay for it (to remove the annoying nag screen for instance), you just enter a serial number, unlocking it instantly. Nice idea, and actually makes it more likely to keep all your customers happy. Some companies do this wrong, making it too easy to crack or too many “anti-crack” checks that cost them some users, but overall it’s a pretty decent system. End result:

  • Legitimate users have to worry a bit about losing their activation codes, but a good company will store purchase info or have account data so you can reactivate at any time in the future (Alcohol-soft and Stardock both do a great job of that).
  • Pirates are also happy, because the download contains the full product, so they just have to crack a serial and get a free piece of software without any obviously illegal network activity.

The beginnings of evil

Serial numbers and product activation codes could be copied, and CDs were eventually burnable. Internet connections could be used to check validity but nobody would put up with an internet check on every use of a product until recently (and if you look at steam’s forums you’ll see a good number of people still aren’t).

So the next logical step (for the paranoid idiots who (a) thought they could stop piracy, and (b) were so paranoid they thought it was costly enough to invest in trying to stop) was hard-core CD protection. This stuff was nasty early on. I personally remember the problems I had with Diablo 2 on an old CDROM drive. My friend, the pirate, says many games had similar issues. He often grabbed the crack for games he bought because of these problems.

Some companies that don’t suck, such as Firaxis, had so many problems with copy protections that they actually released their own fully legal cracks.

End result:

  • Consumers are screwed time and again by poorly-implement copy protections. Just like it’s a guarantee that all software will have bugs, all copy protections (being software) will also have bugs. This means some number of users will be FUCKED. When companies deliberately make the situation worse, they screw the consumer and themselves with a very splintery wooden sex toy of some kind.
  • Pirates get the shit cracked. Sometimes it isn’t perfect, but it’s usually no worse than risking a legitimate copy of a badly-protected game.

Stay tuned… again…

Sorry, looks like this is way longer than intended. Next time, I’ll go into more details about the software industry’s piracy practices today.

11 Replies to “Middle-Class Piracy in the Software Industry”

  1. My personal problem is that the word “piracy” implies something organized.

    I refuse to use that word, and I hope others have the same goal.

  2. I think what’s needed is a Steam for general software. I like steam because you can log into your account and download the stuff you’ve paid for to whatever computer as many times as you like.

    Once someone implements this and gets most commerical software onboard, they’re onto a winner.

  3. Well, dongle protections can range from extremely simple (one “hello are you there” check) to reasonably hard (challenge-response schemes which have to be emulated with dumped data) to really hard (an essential part of the program executing on the dongle).

  4. Kupo, you’re stealing my thunder :)

    Friday I’ll finish up about software, and Steam and Stardock Central are actually both great ways of dealing with the piracy situation. At least, for us middle-class folks who are just lazy pirates.

  5. Steam is not a solution at all… it’s easy to crack, and requires that you download your software over and over again. Which takes forever, now that games can require multiple DVDs. I saw people have to sit out of a LAN party because something went wrong and they had to spend the whole night waiting for the game to download again through Steam. I know lots of people who are on dial-up; some don’t even have higher-speed options available in their area — so they’re just not allowed to play now?

  6. Good point about Steam. Stardock Central is somewhat better here – usually they have an option on purchase to get sent a CD if you don’t want just the download. Now, the easily-cracked aspect is a separate issue I’ll get into Friday. For now, keep in mind that almost all systems for mass-market games are easily cracked, and those that aren’t tend to be … “iffy.”

  7. I have the same issues with music. I’ve stopped buying music from Itunes because too often I’ve been unable to listen to music that I’ve paid for. Several times I’ve downloaded torrents of albums I’ve purchased because the DRM files don’t work for one reason or another. I wish I could get all of my music on Amie Street. Nothing is DRM’d and once I’ve paid for something I can download it again as often as I like.

  8. I believe that IP/piracy is surrounded by loads of BS I won’t buy. If you want my money, then convince me. Is you sell crap and I, somehow, happen to need it, I will download it for free. If you sue your clients, don’t expect me among them, I will be a freeloader.

    That said, even TPM was broken in a month. If cracks/debuggers are forbidden in your country (hello, germany), you will get them anyway, so you find the jz and change it to be a nop, end of story. It’s a lost war since securom was broken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.