Copy protection, and why we should thank pirates, not curse them.

December 16, 2009

Recently I decided to revisit Championship Manager 01/02. Been a fan since the original Amiga release oh so many years ago, and have bought more recent ones (it’s now known as Football Manager). Much to my delight you can LEGALLY download the game for free. Then you need updates, and there’s fan created addons to bring the game up to date, start in the right year etc….

I read the readme. Now bear in mind this was eight years ago and copy protection has become both ubiquitous and a thousand times more cancerous since then, I read the following.

—————-
Copy Protection
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Should you experience a problem when trying to run Championship Manager where the game asks for the CD
even though it’s already in your drive please try the following :

* Under ‘My Computer’ right click and select properties
* Click on the Device manager tab
* Right click and select the properties of the CD Rom drive in question
* Search for the option ‘DMA’

If this is enabled, disable it, if its disabled enable it. This has been known to solve the issue on drives where it hasn’t recognised the CD

Customer services have been aware of this problem which affects a small minority of users
Notice that. “Disable DMA”. DMA speeds up drive access, so essentially they’re saying “You will have to compromise your systems performance so we can protect our intellectual property.”

Can you imagine any other industry pulling this crap and getting away with it? Like the car industry. “We’re sorry. As you may be stealing this car we require you to kill 2 of the four cylinders before you can use it.”

Copy protection on games is not about protecting anything. A check of any torrent site shows that copy protection is about as much use a chocolate fireguard. As a former software pirate myself I can tell you that the argument that it prevents “casual piracy” is nonsense, as no pirate I’ve known since the mid 90’s copied physical media. They just downloaded it off the net instead. Even in the mid to late 90’s piracy thrived on BBS’s and on the Internet.

The early part of this decade saw the rise of harsher copy protection, like the brutally harsh Starforce. I had massive issues with this ridiculous protection. It actually cost me money as it corrupted something in my IDE chain which means disks I burned appeared corrupted. This is regular data disks. Pictures and the like. They’d fail to verify. I thought I had a batch of bad media and tossed 20-30 disks that were “corrupted”. I then discovered I had Starforce infesting my system. The great gift of Starforce meant that this cancerous malware was included in demos as well. Supposedly to prevent pirates from using demo files to crack the release versions. I personally believe it was just to get this garbage on peoples systems.

So, I realised I’d been infected by a demo. I had heard anecdotes about the aggravation Starforce can cause. Of course the common belief from idiots was that just because they hadn’t had problems it meant that everyone who had was lying. A specious argument. I’ve never seen a Russian. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe they exist.

So as a test, the next disk I burned, which again failed verification, I put it on another computer and checked it. Disk was just fine. I did this with every disk I burned. All failed verification on my Starforce infected system. All were in actuality just fine. I found the official Starforce removal utility and removed it, but still had the issue. It was only a couple of months later I discovered that Starforce causes so many issues that it can cause permanent changes to your IDE settings and the only way to fix it was to remove them in the device manager and reboot. So I tried this, and VOILA! My disk verification errors were all gone and things worked again.

Please note: I went through all this just from a freaking DEMO! I have NEVER bought a game with Starforce on it. In fact I actively boycott developers who used it. Ubisoft in particular would accuse anyone who complained on their forums of being a pirate. I refuse to give money to a company that treats its customers like thieves. Enough people became aware of the Starforce problems that it’s now bad PR to use it, but there are still some idiot companies out there that use it.

Companies claim they lose millions a year to piracy. In fact the head moron of Starforce made the ridiculous claim that for every pirated copy that means FIVE lost sales. Yes. ONE copy. FIVE lost sales. Good luck figuring the math out on that one. This is of course the same company that publicly linked to a torrent of Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations II (one of the best games ever made IMO) to prove how releasing games with no protection was foolish.

For the record, I love Stardock. The entire reason I bought Galactic Civilizations II in the first place (and its two subsequent expansions) is because I wanted to reward a company that treats its customers like customers and not thieves.

If piracy is really so rife and companies lose at least 1 sale for every copy, it stands to reason that a game that is impossible to pirate should, if the claims have any weight, sell HUGELY. I mean if every pirated copy is a lost sale, and so many are pirated, then sales figures should be through the roof! Only they’re not. Look at the sales figures of any Starforce protected title (and despite its failings, as protection, it worked) and you’ll see a MASSIVE SPIKE IN SAL… Oh, wait, no you won’t. Because the entire industry is largely run by liars. There is probably a minor bumps in sales, but the fact remains that most people pirate just because they can, and buy stuff that is actually worth money. Perhaps if we could return a game and get our money back by simply saying “This is crap” and handing it back, things would be better.

Companies have claimed for years they lose millions to piracy. The poor simpering defectives whining and crying to governments for legislation and introducing harsher and harsher copy protection. There are two areas the industry completely screws its customers in.

The first is retail. I’ve had this myself. You go and buy a game. You take it home to install it on your PC. You try to run it but can’t. Why? The copy protection. I had this with Neverwinter Nights. It wouldn’t work with my CD drive at the time. The copy protection just refused to see it as an original disk and flat out wouldn’t run. So I go to return it to the store.

“You can’t return this. It’s opened.”

“Why?”

“You may have copied it.”

So let’s clarify this. I bought a game. The COPY PROTECTION has stopped me from running it, but I can’t return it, because I may have copied it. Yes, that’s not a fundamental destruction of my consumer rights is it!

So clearly the industry is happy to screw you coming and going. They’ve got your money, and you can’t get it back because you may have done the very thing they have included protection against, the very thing which is stopping you from running the game in the first place.

The irony is of course that the easy fix for this is to become a pirate. Piracy offers a superior product with less restrictions and, in many cases, is the refuge many gamers have to turn too just so they can run the game they’ve paid for. (It’s ultimately what I had to do with Neverwinter Nights. Had to use the crack the pirates made purely so I could run the game I’d spent $50 on.)

Which brings us to the second and, I think, most important point about what’s really going on here.

Back in 2007 there was a big fuss about the game Spore. It came with a virulent form of protection known as Securom. Not only did it check to see if the disk was legitimate, it also had online activation. You had five activations. That’s it. You can get more, sure, but from what I read of others people experiences it was akin to turning lead into gold. Now once again, the morons out there were saying “Oh what’s the big deal”…

Well the big deal is that there is no way to claim back activations, or an easy way to get new ones. Shortly before Spore came out I lost three systems and had to reinstall as everything was unrecoverable. That would have been three activations gone. I know people who on release day burned through all five activations trying to get the game to work.

I have five computers. What did I do? I bought the game on release day, installed it on all four systems and then used the already released crack to run it on all of them without activations, disk requirements etc…

(Side note: As it was Spore was an overrated piece of garbage anyway which had been dumbed down to the point of stupidity to appeal to the mass market. Once again trust Electronic Arts to take a wonderful concept and then bludgeon it to death to make it appeal to the lowest common denominator.)

I once tore into the CEO of a games company in my previous life for the ridiculous claim he made that they had no way to make sure you had a legitimate copy of a game on each of your systems. The contention being that if you have three computers, you should buy three copies of the game. I asked how they can justify such ridiculous restrictions. The MPAA, noted evil overlords of the American movie industry, who cry about piracy while turning their biggest profit ever in 2009, even THEY don’t try to make it so you need a separate copy of a movie for each viewer. Even they don’t sink so low as that. But apparently there are no depths the software industry won’t sink too in their greed.

It came to me in a dream. Of course that’s what I could say to appear mystical. Most likely it came to me while in the bathroom or while cooking dinner. All this time we’ve been led to believe all this is about protecting imaginary… Sorry, intellectual property.

I am certain that is a lie.

This is about control.

Think about it. How great is it that you can program in obsolescence to your product? That’s what copy protection is.

Despite Spore’s failings, of which there are many, it is STILL an immensely popular game. However, once the product has ended its life and EA have sold you the 413 expansion packs, they have no use for you, or it.

So ten years from now, like many of us older gamers do now, you think “I’ll play Spore”. Only you can’t. Because once you’ve installed it the game tries to connect to a server to authenticate, only for that server to be long dead, leaving your copy of Spore as little more than an attractive coaster.

Think I’m exaggerating? Tell that to the people who bought DIVX movies. (Not to be confused with the Divx video codec.) A particularly nasty DVD variant where the disks cost very little, and you paid a “rental” fee. Except the service failed to take off (because it was fucking stupid) and the company went under, leaving those who bought their special DIVX players and their special DIVX movies with a rather large doorstop and some coasters.

More recently than that I’ve encountered the very issue I’m predicting above with the few movies from years ago that came with a copy of the movie for your computer. These were in Windows Media format, heavily encrypted and now, of course, the server it needed to contact to get the information to play them back is gone rendering these files completely unusable.

In recent years the landscape is littered with services that had some sort of protection where now the servers to authenticate are gone and you have nothing.

Which of course makes good business sense. What better way to make sure you can gouge customers again than to make it so they can’t access what they’ve paid for. Oh sure, you’ll lose a fraction of your market who will be annoyed, but you’ll make more money from the remaining idiots who’ll suck it up like sheep and buy the items again than you’ll have made by not doing it.

Which brings us to pirates. So called “Abandonware” is huge. This is software long since abandoned by its developer and no longer commercially available. Just look back through my blog for my stuff on Floor 13. That game is old and doesn’t exist in any accurately playable form now outside of emulation. In those days copy protection largely consisted of code sheets and “Is the disk there? Ace!”

Electronic Arts would much rather you went out and bought Spore 3 than continue to play the original, meaning this artificial control over what you can and can’t do with your game gives them the ultimate power. Want to make it so nobody can play Spore anymore? Stop the servers authenticating… Bingo, you’ve just deprived Spore addicts of their fix and made them more likely to buy whatever new game you have on the shelves.

Except the pirates stop that. Thanks to the good folks who crack software, if you want to play Spore in 2020 and relive your youth (working on the theory that you’re currently a youth), there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get an activation for the title, but thanks to the tireless efforts of pirates showing what an absolute joke copy protection actually is, you’ll be able to revisit this overrated disappointment of the game you bought all those years ago by tracking down the crack online and still being able to use what you paid for.

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