There is a conspiracy of silence behind the games business that could well threaten its entire future — while you pay the cost of software protection, some software houses are paying the pirates, as John Gilbert reports.
Software pirates, who duplicate or steal computer games or concepts, are regarded as a major annoyance by software houses. In the main, pirates have one aim: to make copies of professionally released titles, usually with the aim of passing on product for profit. These people are rogues; bent on making a quick buck out of our industry, they self cheaply to anyone. Software publishers, incorporating protection devices into their programs which are expensive in memory and monetary terms, want to catch all of these software thieves.
According to some well known software houses pirates are often encouraged to leak new games onto the market, games which haven't even been playtested. The games, usually supplied on disk, find their way out to individual programmers, software development teams or publishers, and members of the public.
The reason behind the risky business of deliberately feeding pirates is, as I'll show later, one of economics and marketing strategy. First, though, to understand the conflicting interests — sometimes within the same software houses — it's important to know what's been happening in this less than legal business and what the computer community is doing to prevent it thriving.
Piracy has always been a problem in the music industry and it is perpetuated in a never-ending cycle. People want the music, but not the exorbitant prices some record producers charge. On the flip-side record companies claim that they have to keep prices high to cover the losses in sales that organised piracy causes.
The same is true of the software industry, although its problems started only three years ago. As the standard of cassette games started to rise so did the understanding of would-be pirates who saw a new market and use for their tape-to-tape recording decks.
Record industry bosses see the easiest way around the problem as a large levy on blank audio tapes. The money raised would partly go to the government and partly to the sufferers of piracy. Producers could concentrate on their sounds and record prices could go down.
Soft and Hard Measures
Software houses, however, have tackled the problem from a technological angle, with hardware, software and hard/soft solutions. A hardware-based protection device is called a key or dongle. It contains a ROM memory chip — not easily copied — on which is stored one or more security numbers which the computer checks on loading to see that the ROM is inserted and that it contains the correct code — if not, the load is aborted. Alternatively, a chunk of the program could be stored on the ROM and if the computer can't find it you won't be able to play the game.
Other hardware solutions include the credit card reader, which reads a program from an uncopyable plastic card, and ROM cartridges similar to those used on the Sega games console. The latter, unfortunately, can be copied because the game code is loaded into the main computer RAM and is accessible to competent programmers.
All these hardware solutions are expensive for the production company and, ultimately, the customer. Retailers, such as WH Smith don't like them either because the games cannot be stored in slim cassette boxes.
The other alternative is software-orientated protection; easy on the pocket but hard on memory. A vast number of techniques exist, but The Limited Back-up Copier, Hidden Field, TurboLoad, Colour Code and Novella Protection have predominated.
TurboLoad was among the first techniques introduced to protect cassette-loaded software. Programs are stored on cassette as a series of audio impulses which are loaded into the micro at a standard rate. A control program held in the computers ROM — part of its operating system — determines both SAVEing and LOADing speeds. That speed is immutable because the operating system cannot normally be changed. It is, however, possible to produce an ammended version of the routine. called a Patch, which can be loaded into RAM to alter the SAVE/LOAD speed. The higher the LOADing speed, the less easy it is for the computer to understand it, and on a bad-to-medium-quality tape audio impulses become muffled. The result is often a tape loading error if you try to copy a program directly from one tape to another because the sound quality is degraded.
Unfortunately Turbo Load has been disastrous far some software companies. If tape standards used to make original recordings are low, whole batches of games can go out for sale without anyone realising the fault until tapes are returned. Problems also occur if a computer's tape head is out of alignment and not picking up a clear signal. When the Spectrum +2 was launched by Amstrad some games would not load because of tapehead misalignment on the machines. Some ware later recalled, but in the meantime software houses had to record two versions of a game on tape, one with and one without TurboLoad — defeating the object!
Limited Back-Up Copier and Hidden Field techniques can only be used with random access storage devices such as disk drives. Indeed, Limited Back-Up uses the Hidden Field technique to produce a disk of software which can be copied, but only a predetermined number of times. When the disk is booted a patch loading program enters the system and takes control. It stores a counter in a Hidden Field on the disk which cannot be accessed by an ordinary user or listed on the disk's directory. The counter keeps track of the number of times the disk is copied, and when the maximum allowed is reached, it either crashes the program or tells you that you can't make any more back-ups. And that's it: you won't be able to make any more because the copies the original program makes exclude the copier option. If all your copies fail, you have to go back to the manufacturer — who may give you a new disk, though not so compelled by law.
The Hidden Field method can also be used to store a code number on part of the disk which cannot be accessed by the player and will not normally be copied from one disk to another. The game occasionally looks for the code word and if it isn't there it crashes the computer.
Colour Code Protection, developed by Software Projects, and first used on the classic Jet Set Willy, takes us back to tape loading on the Spectrum and Commodore 64. A card emblazoned with a grid of colours was included in the package. The grid edges contained an alpha-numeric sequence to refer to the colour squares by row and column — for instance, A8 might refer to magenta on the Spectrum. Before game loading, five references were displayed on screen and you typed in their matching colours using the Spectrum's colour keys. If you failed to get the sequence right by the third try the game crashed.
Novella Protection, developed by Anita Sinclair of Magnetic Scrolls for use with Rainbird's adventure games, is similar to colour coding but uses words from a short novel within the package rather than a sometimes difficult-to-use grid. You are asked to look up a specified word in a particular line, paragraph, and page within the book. Again, you get three attempts to get it correct, otherwise the program crashes.
The technique is adequate but open to abuse. Telecomsoft, of which Rainbird is a part, admits that the novellas can be photocopied, because the book pages are white (instead of blue or red which cannot easily be photocopied), but the company is confident that it has cut down the number of pirated copies of Jewels Of Darkness and Knight Orc.
Telecomsoft was introduced to protection problems when it started using Lenslok on its Firebird range of cassette games.
Lenslok is a hardware and software combination. The hardware comprises a small stippled plastic distorting screen. Each time you load a game the protection part of the program produces a scrambled image of letters or numbers on the screen. The characters become unscrambled when viewed through the Lenslok screen, and if you type that letter into the program, the game loads.
Unfortunately the device is too clever. People with glasses find it difficult to decipher the coded images and those unused to it also have problems recognising the characters.
As if Firebird wasn't faced with problems enough, the company's launch of Elite on the Spectrum proved a spectacular disaster, and all because of a mistake with Lenslok. Paul Hibbard, the current publisher at Telecomsoft, says: "Lenslok was quite a good idea, but part of the problem with it was the name it got, which was worse than it deserved. Some people implemented it badly and, in our instance with Elite, we got the packaging wrong."
For Rainbird, the company which is most practically concerned about software piracy in Britain, Novella Protection grew out of the Lenslok controversy. Hibbard says: "It came about first on the Amiga. We were talking about forms of protection for the US market where most game instructions are written on slips of paper. Anita Sinclair of Magnetic Scrolls said that we we needed something more substantial which wouldn't be easily photocopied. Of course, we always have to keep an eye on the quality control with the novella products because one typographical mistake could cause problems."
While Rainbird and Firebird use these protections against piracy, both companies are constantly looking for more discreet ways of doing the same job. "We'd like to see the public become more aware of the problem so that they realise that piracy is not worthwhile. We're not happy having to put protection on. Until we can do without it there will be this slight bind for the user, although we'll always try to make the techniques as friendly as possible."
The other side
While Rainbird continues its fight against the commercial pirates, others are just as concerned about piracy through industrial espionage. Sales often depend on who's got the best 3-D vector graphics techniques, who produces the best digitised music or voice synthesis and sprite animation procedures. Problems can occur when several teams of contract programmers or designers are employed because it is impossible to keep all copies of a program under lock and key at the publisher's headquarters. If copies subsequently appear through pirate channels it is unlikely that the culprit will be found because of the number of suspects.
At least three major British software companies use fingerprinting methods to identify culprits when illegal copies of current secret projects turn up on the market. Each version of a game can be given a secret identity in a number of ways, either in the magnetic material of the disk or with an ultraviolet pen on its casing.
The simplest, and most widely used fingerprinting technique, uses a block of dead code which is placed anywhere within the program and visible only when the code is listed. The code could simply give the name of the programmer and the date but is more likely to consist of a block of random numbers which the original publisher can identify. Non-programmers may see the removal of the identifying code as the pirate's solution. Not so. Removing part of the code is like changing the line numbers of a BASIC program but not changing the GOTO statements within the program. The code loses its structure and will not work as a game unless substantially re-written — not an easy job if you don't understand the code's workings.
For and against
As I said at the start of this article, the biggest British software houses turn piracy to their advantage by unofficially endorsing it.
Such pirates are often members of development houses. Their fortunes are made by keeping up with the state of the programming art. They are just as adept at breaking other people's protection devices and studying the latest programs on the market as they are in creating their own games.
These, some would say unscrupulous, programmers can also obtain incomplete versions of games to keep their publisher bosses up to date with possible market trends — Star Trek, from Beyond, and Gauntlet, from US Gold are two good examples of games which did the rounds of some software houses months before they were released to the public.
The trend toward the so-called legitimate use of pirates is, becoming an accepted, though tittle known, part of the industry. Unfortunately, several of the companies that bemoan pirate activities are actually using their services to gain information about competitors.
It's a dangerous trend and could have bad consequences for the whole software industry if some of its inmates are caught in the act. The trend is, after all, industrial espionage and, as such, illegal.
This article was originally published in The Games Machine issue 7 from June 1988 on pages 96-97.
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