No Harm Done
What is the truth behind software theft? Peter Rivetts investigates.
Right now, this minute, there is someone dropping a disc in the post, or transferring a file by modem. Commonplace events among commonplace people. But these people are different. The disc contains illegally copied programs being sent to someone who has not paid for them. The files they are transferring are not theirs to upload.
They are the crackers.
Is their existence detrimental to the computer industry? Listen carefully as massed ranks of programmers leap as one to their feet and shout "Yes". They can sit down now. They have a vested interest. Listen again, and hear the crackers and the recipients of their copied software say "No". They too have an interest in this.
Let's step back and look at the issues. First, the two forms of piracy. Two forms you say? Yes. counterfeit and cracking. Counterfeit is rife in many industries, duplicating anything from perfume to plastic pearls. Ripping off packaging and designer labels to pass it off as the real thing. No one can condone this. It hurts everyone.
You buy Zappow2000, the fantastic new game. When you get home its packaging is not as good as it should be, but you play the game anyway. Your money has gone into the pockets of a criminal who made that fake. If you buy a word processing program and need support from the authors you'll be distressed to find that had you bought a fake the authors won't help.
So, counterfeit is wrong. But what of cracking? It doesn't do anyone much good. What crackers do is take programs and remove their protection so they are easily copied. Then programs are swapped between cracking groups, who compete to get the newest games out first.
Very little serious software circulates this way, mainly because the crackers tend to be kiddie shoot-'em-uppers who wouldn't know a good word processor if it leapt into their disc drive and typed the works of Shakespeare without the monkeys being in the room.
What do get around are beta test versions of games, mega-trained ones that have been modified to make them easier to play, or crunched versions of games on release. The crunched software tends to come with a number of other crunched games on one disc, all squeezed on so that the crackers can impress fellow groups with their cleverness.
And all these cracked discs carry the modern irritation of computing — the demo. In the good old days (1986), demos showed off what the machine could do. Joe Public was well impressed. But cracker demos tend to be all the same. Pretty coloured screen — look, he can use the copper — pretty scrolly picture — er... and the blitter — electropop music which goes on and on, and daft scrolling text, of the "Hi from Smegman of the Smegs and here is our latest disc so ya boo sucks to the noztrils of" type. Pretty for 30 seconds, useless thereafter. And usually as Amiga friendly as Jack Tramiel with a machine gun.
Crackers who write demos always go and beat metal with astounding regularity, with no care if it's upwards downwards or standing still compatible. They all seem to use two drive, one meg, A500s, and it's tough luck if you don't because these demos will break if you have anything else.
The demo reaches new levels of tedium with the mega-demo. Whole discs of demos, each one doing something more mind numbing than the one before. The crackers think you'll be impressed by 64,000 bobs on the screen. I'm not, and most people aren't. 64,000 bobs in a game would be a different matter, but your average cracker is too dumb to think of writing anything as complicated as a game.
As for the infantile groups themselves, they're like a cross between train spotters and D'n'D freaks, all trapped in their very silly world of swapping discs and writing demos. They seem to live in the postal version of cyberspace, oblivious of the world outside.
All pretty negative stuff. It's a pity really, because in that vast array of computer freaks there are occasional glimmers of goodness. Like Soundtracker.
Let me tell you the story of Soundtracker. Once upon a time, a German person wrote a rather average music editor called Soundtracker. It wasn't a masterpiece of code, but it was particularly liked by some German crackers who managed to get their hands on the source.
And they sat down and worked on it, tweaking and adding, changing and improving it. It's now the most popular Amiga program you can't buy.
Dozens of games out there have Soundtracker soundtracks. In its most recent incarnation it's a quite good music program, and almost all the demo writers use it.
Programming wise, it still is a mess. The cracker's code is leaping off into ROM, fiddling with structures and generally abusing the operating system. To crackers, that doesn't matter, but to the rest of the world, kicking your hard disc controller into space is at least an irritation.
Some crackers and the original author are getting together to release a new commercial version, properly finished and hopefully OS legal. But crackers are snobs, and don't like muddying their hands with commercial software writing.
Well, most don't, some have made the leap into commercial software and the programs (no names, no pack drill) are quite good. But the rest of the energy of other crackers just goes to waste in a macho fantasy.
The macho id breeds strange ideas into these folks. Like "C is for wimps, real men use 68000" and "Amiga operating system, yes that's the thing you kick out of memory first" and "Copperlists are for hacking and appending". All of which makes no real sense to anyone who spends five minutes with anything but the hardware reference manual and the odd Abacus book.
You aren't going to stop crackers, try as you might. You can help by not taking the software, or at least buying games you like when you see them on a cracker's disc. Telling the crackers their acts are illegal is a waste of breath. All you can really do is try and talk them into doing intelligent things with their Amigas.
Say to your local cracker: "So what? Any idiot can trash the machine and do pretty demos. Getting rid of protection is very clever but you aren't actually making anything". Are you listening crackers out there?
Real programming is a lot more fun. Writing programs that do things. It's why I and a whole lot of other people like the Amiga. Sit down and write a game, it's a whole lot more fun than writing a two-bit demo that will be in the "For formatting" pile at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, software developers, you might as well ignore these folks, because quite honestly no matter how clever a protection you put on your discs, crackers will get through it. It's not that they are smart, just persistent. No protection scheme can survive constant bombardment.
Programmers, get back to producing great software for the Amiga. Help organisations like FAST — the Federation Against Software theft — chase after the criminals. And please, stop putting those daft protection schemes on discs which just make life difficult for the legitimate user.
Nobody comes out well from this look at the world of piracy. The crackers are so disorganised and so macho motivated that you'll never stop any more than 10 per cent of them even if you try really, really hard.
And the crackers themselves have yet to realise that they are engaged in one of the most futile and dumb pursuits known to man, called achieving nothing.
This has been a journey into sound, Amiga-stereo sound
Soundtracker treats music as numbers, not blobs on a staff. It divides up music into four tracks — one for each Amiga voice — of 64 events. Each event can be either empty, or signal a change to the sound playing on that track. You can have as many patterns as required and change their tempo, repeat or loop them to form music.
Initially this appears to need a lot of effort, but after you have the hang of the basic controls, Soundtracker works like a smart sequencer.
The latest version is v2.4. It has the ability to play 32 samples, known as presets in Soundtrackerese, previously the limit was 16 samples. There is a preset-editor with which you can manage your library of presets. This can be used as a separate utility. There are print options and lots of little useful goodies like a filter switch and a bug fix to make it friendlier to hard discs.
Because it is no longer a commercial program, Soundtracker hasn't been properly tested. It's got a lot of bugs in all the new parts of code. Version 2.4 is a master of confusing its screens with multicoloured garbage and then crashing. It's not OS legal, so won't multi-task, and still has disc names for the preset library hardwired in. This is all very much in the style of the development of cracked Soundtracker, and it is a frequently voiced wish when Amigaphiles gather that the people who work on it should do a new commercial version.
But recently Soundtracker clones hove started appearing, like Linel-Tracker, Pro-Tracker, Sidmon and Seq, all looking superficially like Soundtracker but often with major improvements internally to the code, and externally to the user interface.
Hopefully someone will write the definitive clone, Real Soon Now and then everyone can get down to exploiting the Amiga sound system the way Soundtracker users can.
Commercial programmers would like to see each computer built with a unique serial number in the rom. Modern mass production techniques make this economically possible, although it does mean using more expensive chips. When you buy a program it could use this code to decrypt the disc in a way which meant that it would only run on your machine.
It is an idea which has been proposed for the Amiga 3000, but that is a 16Mhz, 68030 Unix workstation. There won't be many kiddies in the playground with one of those.
But many people buy a computer because they know they can pirate software from friends. So it is not in the hardware manufacturer's interest to produce a pirate-proof computer. Some crackers even argue that because piracy helps sell hardware there are more customers for software in the future. In the end it's all down to conscience.
This article was originally published in Amiga Computing issue 19 (December 1989) on pages 70-72.
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