Knaves and thieves
Amiga Computing explains why "pirates" is too good a word for them.
Only if you follow the writings of the German philosopher Leibnitz, who believed God had created "the best of all possible worlds", could you summon enough optimism to assume that the thieves of this world would allow a profitable opportunity to pass them by. Most of us see things through slightly less rose-tinted spectacles.
In the early 80s, however, and for reasons best known to themselves, the computer press decided to slap the label of "piracy" on the type of theft peculiar to microcomputers — software theft. The label was a throw-back to the days of "pirate" radio stations, such as Radio Caroline, so called because they were based on ships out at sea, and in a short space of time it became accepted by all.
It is a complete misnomer. Software thieves aren't to be found climbing the rigging with swords in their teeth, or dashing their way through brave and romantic adventures — thus thoroughly deserving their rich booty for having entertained us all so well in the movies. They are simply thieves.
Have you ever, at school or in work, had a real brainwave and found it impossible not to share it with a friend or colleague, only to find out the next day they've presented it to your teacher or boss and passed it off as their own idea? You have? Then you too have been a victim of intellectual theft.
Imagine for a moment that your living depends on such original ideas and you find yourself in the position of a software author. Imagine again that your mortgage repayments depend on the development and packaging of the fruits of that idea, and you can then put yourself in the position of almost everyone else in the leisure software industry.
Not a nice feeling, is it? I mean, if you caught someone with his or her hand in your wallet, would you call that person a pirate, or would your exclamation be rather less romantic?
Flip a coin
If we may put on another hat, what about the punters: those whose expenditure on leisure software constitutes the software companies' profits? From their point of view, the piracy issue is less clearly defined.
Bombarded from all sides by peer pressures, extremely well considered and cunningly pitched advertising, the reviews and recommendations of dozens of computer magazines, and the soaring price of games software, many of our readers may be thinking to themselves "what about us?"
Since the release of Kick Off 2 in 1989, the consumer has watched the average price of a top game soar from £20 to £30 and nudge upwards towards the £35 mark. In that time we are led to believe that piracy has, if anything, dropped off as the industry fights back through the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) and the European Leisure Software Publishers' association (ELSPA). Why the discrepancy?
Pay your way
"We live," we were told by ELSPA's Roger Bennet, "in a capitalist society, and a product has to pay for itself." In other words, the software companies have increased the prices of their products to keep up with inflation and the rising costs of developing and marketing a successful game. The market economy argument, however, could be couched in another way. If the industry is responding to the push and pull of a supply and demand system, then the very success of professional piracy operations is a clear indication of a ground-swell of demand for cheaper games. Why shouldn't software houses reduce their prices, thereby reducing the demand for illegal software?
If only life were so simple! There is no doubt an irrefutable aspect to this argument, but in the main it can be combated with another piece of simple capitalist deduction.
No matter how cheap a piece of software becomes, it will always be possible for someone to rip it off and sell it cheaper, because the thief has no overheads and no development costs.
You can still argue, of course, that low-priced professional products will win out over dodgy prate versions, but in the software industry a disk is a disk is a disk. Unlike in the video industry where many pirate tapes are of a dubious quality, when you pirate a game it is every bit as playable as the original.
Faced with thieves who can often produce copies not only of the disks, but credible duplications of the manuals and even the packaging, software companies are in a position where they cannot compete with pirates. In any case, the opinion of many industry pundits is that to try to compete would be self-defeating, lending an air of legitimacy to the pirates and smacking, therefore, of moral submission.
Where does this leave the end user, who might spend up to £100 per month on leisure software? The Amiga owner with a wallet like a Tardis will be able to continue matching the software companies' rising prices, but for the rest of us there comes a time when the temptations of illegal but more affordable software can be too much to resist.
At this point, in a perfect world, the Amiga owner will tighten his or her entertainment belt and settle for fewer games. In the real world, however, this is a difficult exercise.
What of the parent with an Amiga-crazy child who brings home an obviously pirated game, or clamours for some of the dodgy looking but cheap software on offer at some market stalls? The only suggestion we can offer to people in this position is to report the software thief either to ELSPA or to FAST. Cold comfort, perhaps, but the only comfort we can give.
In the end, it is only through action on the part of the responsible Amiga-owning community that piracy will be tamed in our section of the market. Assuming that there will always be a demand for cheaper software, the only realistic way to break the vicious circle of spiralling prices is to cut out the illegal supply side of the market equation.
As more and more pirates are put out of business, the software industry will have to listen to the demands of its consumers and cut prices. Once companies know they can compete again in a market virtually free of illegal and totally unfair competitors, they will have no excuse for continually hiking their prices — and that's when we'll see whether they really mean what they say about piracy.
Is it a threat to free competition or a convenient excuse? The only people in a position to force the issue are you, our readers, so get on those phones and shop the thieves to FAST or ELSPA. If you don't, you've only yourselves and the pirates to blame.
ELSPA 0386 830642
FAST 0628 660377
Though not a problem on the scaled the professional duplicator running full scale piracy operations, the activities of "crackers" have come to worry software houses a great deal. Working in groups, and sometimes liaising with others on bulletin boards in Europe and overseas, crackers are often experts in software protection routines and how to break into, or "crack" them.
They compete with each other as to who can crack a game the fastest, the current record belonging to whoever uploaded Psygnosis' Lemmings to a popular bulletin board before it was released to the public.
This sort of competition, though very much of the "mine's bigger than yours" school, spells trouble for the game in question because it is only a matter of time before a version of it appears which has absolutely no protection whatsoever.
When this happens, all the man-years of coding and development time which went into the game is wasted, and the company in question starts to lose sales.
We spoke to an anonymous member of the pirate community — he baulked a little at the term "thief", but then the truth hurts, doesn't it? This man is a self-confessed "cracker" of over 200 commercial games.
We asked him how, if at all possible, he justified his activities, and his answers go some way towards explaining the mentality of the people who plague the leisure software industry.
We'll call him Cutpurse, because he was a little shy when asked his real name, and, well, he sounded like he should be called Cutpurse:
When did you "crack" your first game, and what made you attempt it?
"I was about 14 (Cutpurse is now 19) and right into machine code. I liked to mess about with Pokes and stuff to find out the cheats, so I got into changing the game code after a while."
And was this on an Amiga?
"No, I used to have a 64, but I bought an Amiga 500 three years ago. The early games were deed easy."
How d'you mean, "dead easy"?
"They were hardly protected at all."
And have they become not so "dead easy" over the last three years?
"Yeah, some are a real **** to crack, but that's what makes it so much fun."
But did you realise you were breaking the law? (At this point Cutpurse became a little animated and his replies have had to be edited.)
"Yeah, but I only ever gave copies to my mates. We had a sort of competition to see who could crack a new game the fastest. We never sold them."
Did you circulate these copies?
"You mean, like, pass them around? Yeah. Like I said, we just cracked them, put our handles in them, and sent them to piss off other cracking crews who hadn't busted the game yet."
What do you think became of the cracked copies?
"Dunno. I never play a game once it's been cracked."
What if you found out a professional piracy outfit was using a game, cracked by you, and selling hundreds of them for profit?
"I'd say 'where's my commission?'" Cutpurse laughed heartily at his bon mot, then continued. "Seriously, though, I know there's a few of my cracked games around on bulletin boards and what have you, but what other people do with them is their business."
What if we said you could be prosecuted as a thief? (Cutpurse's reply consisted mostly of unprintable comments.)
A myth exploded
It is illegal to make any copy of any piece of commercial software without having first obtained the written permission of the party or parties holding the copyright to that software. Not a particularly ambiguous position, when you get right down to it.
You can't make a copy for another member of the family, or one to loan to a friend, or to give away for nothing. You can't even make a backup copy for your own use, despite the belief held by many people that to do so is OK.
For a good few years now there have existed cartridge-based copying systems designed to break through just about any disk-based copy protection and "backup" the protected software to another disk. Although not sold as aids to piracy they have, inevitably, been used for the wrong purposes by some owners.
FAST's Bob Hay told us he's seen many cases of disks copied by people who would not have had the expertise to crack the protection routines had they not been making illegal use of backup cartridges.
For this reason, and after rumblings in the industry, many computer magazines including Amiga Computing have dropped all advertisements for such devices.
This is yet another example of how the actions of a minority of thieves can affect a great many more people, from the manufacturer's lost sales, through the magazine's lost advertising revenue, to the innocent users of backup devices. It is a perfect illustration of how software theft hits all of us, not just the developers.
The FAST answer
The Federation Against Software Theft (FAST), in existence since 1984, is the computer software industry's answer to the threat of piracy. We spoke to FAST'S chief executive, Bob Hay, and asked him to summarise the state of play on today's software high seas.
What, we asked, is the most alarming aspect about piracy today?
There's an international aspect to piracy in this country," Bob told us, "in that many so-called cracking crews are in contact with groups in Europe and the USA on a network of dozens or even hundreds of pirate bulletin boards."
And is this your biggest headache?
"Not just that. Distribution is an extremely difficult problem. Swapping and passing programs around is one thing, but unless money changes hands we can find it difficult to bring action."
You mean the sort of swapping carried out by schoolboys?
"Yes, but youngsters who swap illegal software are more of an educational awareness problem. We're not in the business of busting kids. It's not an answer to criminalise them."
Who, then, are FAST's main targets?
"My target is the professional pirate who is in it for a profit — but FAST isn't just about prosecutions. Our three aims have always been to prosecute where necessary, but also to launch education and awareness initiatives, and to push for legal initiatives."
FAST came into being initially through the impending amendment to the 1986 Copyright Act. While the software industry had been pushing for the sealing of loopholes in copyright law and the provision of full protection for magnetic media-based original material, the Home Office was reluctant to act if it meant placing more of a burden on existing law enforcement resources.
When the Home Office insisted the software industry make some attempt to self-regulate, FAST was conceived as the body to fill the gap. A year after its formation in 1984, the Copyright (Computer Software) Amendment 1985 received its royal assent and computer piracy officially became a crime.
With legal backing, FAST went into action. Prosecutions were slow in coming in the early days, as the judicial system adjusted its thinking to take computer crime on board, but the number of busts has risen considerably since then, and Bob told us he now sees at least one successful prosecution a month. Do FAST always get their man?
"We've only lost one case that went to court. However, many cases are settled out of court."
FAST is in a position where it can negotiate on behalf of a member company to secure compensation from companies or organisations in an out-of-court settlement.
This is often the most satisfactory way to deal with cases where there was no malice or profiteering intended, such as in a large company whose single wordprocessor package finds its way on to dozens of machines.
The recent much publicised case of The Yorkshire Evening Press, whose offices were raided on 12th July this year, shows how FAST will settle out of court when its members' interests can best be served in that way.
After a settlement Bob Hay described as "amicable", the software companies whose copyright had been infringed received suitable compensation.
However, the first leisure software pirate sent to jail after a FAST prosecution, Andrew Jayes of Nottingham, will have plenty of time to reflect on the error of his ways during his three month stretch behind bars.
The prosecution follows a year in which FAST seized £2 million of illegal software and made 12 successful prosecutions.
The message to prospective pirates could hardly be written in clearer terms.
The budget debate
When challenged, a great many computer users will use the high price of leisure software to justify their Jolly Roger software collection. The argument goes that if software publishers want to wipe out piracy, they should remove the stimulus which leads most ordinary users to copy games.
Bringing down the price of new games to £10 or less would, they claim, lead to many more people buying the original games.
While this argument has at first a certain amount of persuasive force, it takes only a little more examination to show just how implausible it is as an explanation for piracy. As Andrew Wright from Virgin Mastertronic told us, "the only way you'll stop games from being pirated is to sell them for less than the price of a disk".
If Virgin Mastertronic, one of the biggest budget software producers, falls prey to a high level of piracy, the argument about piracy being related to high prices loses much of its credibility. "Our re-released titles suffer most", Andrew explained, "especially relatively unprotected stuff like the Infocom games. I've often seen these for offer on bulletin boards".
While it is accurate, then, to say that more people would buy a particular game if it was cheaper, it is clearly not the case that fewer people would pirate it. Professional pirates are in business to rip off the software industry. Lower official prices would simply mean the pirates making slightly less money from their operations.
There's no denying the fact that some software is more expensive than it should be, and that sometimes it seems the copy protection routines receive more development time than the game itself, but high prices are no justification for theft.
The industry speaks
Though FAST, after a series of spectacular successes, have received more attention in recent months, it was ELSPA who first lit the fire that was to become the blazing piracy debate. Their advertisements in the computer press, inviting computer users to "shop" friends or colleagues involved in software theft and offering a reward of £1,000 for information leading to a conviction, brought new life to a tired old argument.
Stirring up controversy, the advertisements were shamelessly provocative, and did as much as anything else to bring piracy to the fore. Some readers found the ads a bit too much but only one, showing a teacher being shopped by his pupils, was withdrawn because it was thought to be too sweeping a brush with which to tar the nation's teachers.
ELSPA "aims at the top half of the [piracy] iceberg," as Roger Bennet, ELSPA's chief executive told us. So does ELSPA have no time for small time pirates?
"We receive over 100 calls a week, and they're all stored on answer-phone. We will respond to all instances where the caller has hard evidence and leaves a name and address. This information is obviously totally confidential."
"Yes. We don't have the resources to follow up what could be a wild goose chase. If we're sent a piece of pirated software with a receipt from the shop or trader who sold it, we can act immediately."
We asked Roger if the level of piracy has decreased over the past year.
"There has been a drop in piracy — there's no doubt our campaign has had a substantial impact. This time last year a number one hit would be selling to no more than 10 per cent of the user base instead of the 50 per cent or so you might expect. Piracy was to blame for much of the lost sales, but the situation has improved."
So why have game prices continued to soar? We asked him if there was any risk of the software market becoming a sort of "cartel" where games houses set their prices at the level everyone else was settling on. Surely this is as much a factor in the pricing of games as piracy?
"I've often criticised the software industry for being sheep-like," he explained, "and following each other's lead, but I'd refute any cartel view of the industry. It's a competitive market, and if a game is duff it won't sell. Magazines have a responsibility to point out the duff ones."
Do you think there could be a general drop in prices with your and FAST's successes?
"I see a drop in prices as a probability rather than a possibility, but the residual effects of last years high levels of piracy are still being felt. It will take time for price cuts to filter through once games start selling to a larger proportion of the user base."
Finally, what of the present situation?
"There are definite signs of improvement, but piracy is still endemic."
This article was originally published in Amiga Computing issue 42 on pages 22-26.
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