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Pirate Problems

Piracy has always been a problem. But what, if anything, can be done to stop the perpetrators? Steve Keen talks to the men in the front line.

Money down the drain

It may surprise you to know that, for all the moaning software houses make about how much money they lose to piracy every year, no accurate survey into the problem has ever been conducted. However, in 1990 a thorough investigation was conducted as to the losses suffered on the business side with some incredible results. In England alone, business software manufacturers lost £300 million, with an incredible $4.6 billion lost just in Western Europe. With this in mind, we spoke to the men in the front line about what can be done to reverse the trend and curb the pirates' appetites.

Roger Bennett is the General Secretary of ELSPA (European Leisure Software Publishers Association), the body responsible for protecting the interests of more than 80% of the software companies in Britain. He said: "We are taking great strides towards ridding the industry of this menace. It's common knowledge now that we have invested £33,000 in FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) this year alone so that they can provide themselves with a full-time professional investigator who specialises in hunting down the pirates and taking action on our members' behalf."

ELSPA have long been associated with FAST and this latest action is nothing new. Most of us can remember the somewhat disturbing adverts in the computer press not long ago, depicting pupils turning In their pirating teachers to FAST and being rewarded with a £1000 cheque. But how successful have they been? Roger continues: "With the new-found steam that FAST and ELSPA have created we've succeeded in a number of raids and prosecutions. We've just this month paid out another £1000 pounds for a conviction in Ipswich which, considering the legal problems of such a case, only took two months from the initial phone call to its fruition. We are currently totally revamping our ad campaign. This time we're concentrating on educating the public so they realise the pitfalls and consequences of buying and using unauthorised software."

Money for nothing?

On the other side of the coin, FAST'S representative, Bob Hayes, never ceases to be amazed as to where the 500 or so phone calls they receive every year come from. "We get a lot from children/young teenagers, even businessmen, after a reward," he claims. "But an increasing amount of people who've recently been made redundant are turning in their former company for using pirated software. We're even getting calls from people still at work who are being forced to use copied software by their bosses and risking their jobs by refusing. So you can safely say that attitudes are changing and the message is finally getting through. We recently dealt with a case concerning the Mirror Buildings where over 80% of the software being used was copied and passed throughout the company. There can't be an office in the land that doesn't do that or thinks nothing of it. But, if you can imagine 2000 copies of MacWrite 2 at £200 a time, in one such building, it works out to be a very expensive loss for Apple."

Wheel of Fortune

On the software side, Electronic Arts have been one of the leaders in anti-piracy techniques and they were the first to introduce the dreaded code wheel. Simon Jeffries, PR Manager for the company, said: 'We were the company who came up with the idea for a coded wheel. However, they add to the cost of the product so we don't do them anymore. I don't think there's any way to protect your software completely so we've found a happy medium and gone for manual protection. Most of our games are so in-depth that to try and play them without a manual would be impossible, and to try and photocopy them wouldn't be worthwhile. There will always be people who'll come up with ever more elaborate code protection to prevent disks being copied, but our attitude is that if there's someone out there with the knowledge to produce such code then there's definitely someone out there with the knowledge to break it. And to some pirates that represents a challenge. We estimate that for every legal copy of a game there are six illegal versions. Having said that. FAST have done a great job as two years ago the problem was a hundred times worse.'

What can be done?

Ocean's Managing Director and man behind the now infamous 'Dongle' puts the numbers even higher. Says Gary Bracey: "It's impossible to estimate the size of the problem, but If I'm forced to I'd say that for every one of our games bought on the shelves 10-50 are being copied, depending on the title. Of course not everyone who pirates a game would have bought it, but we think that every software company's profits would, at the very least, double if piracy could be eradicated. This is one of the main attractions of the console market and the reason a lot of Amiga developers are abandoning the machine. As long as piracy continues to thrive the number of companies making the transition to console will rise. It must be stopped now and what we had with the 'Dongle' was a chance to do just that. Someone had to make a stand and although every other software house was interested in the device they would only come in when they knew that the thing had been tried and tested. So we put our money where our mouth was which was a pretty brave thing to do. We could have passed on the cost, between £1 and £4, to the consumer, but we didn't, which is something we're pretty proud of. So it didn't work, but contrary to popular belief the device was not cracked in hours, but weeks by a team of hardened professionals using Emulators (very expensive bits of kit which mimic the microprocessor chip allowing access to all aspects of the program's code). The version that appeared on the Bulletin boards was a pre-production copy which was sneaked out of our back door shortly after the game was finished and didn't have the 'Dongle' code in it. Interestingly enough, we had hundreds of letters after the gadget's release from people who claimed to have an alternative, definitive anti-piracy device, but nothing really stood out as being viable, but I'm sure there's one out there somewhere. It's up to someone else to take up the running now."

Enter Commodore

Ultimately, who better to cross swords with the pirates and take the wind out of their sails than the Amiga manufacturers themselves, Commodore. We asked Andy Ball, head of Commodore UK's marketing, if they had any tricks up their sleeves. "We aren't going to produce any hardware for existing machines, but with the 600 PCMCIA card slot now adorning the side of the A600 it should allow programmers to develop cards making it a lot more difficult to pirate. The same can be said for the CD, which is virtually impossible to copy. We don't suffer from software piracy directly simply because we don't produce any. However, we monitor bulletin boards and the like and, as was the case with Workbench 2.0 which appeared on the circuit, we stamp on any infringements very quickly. I think you'll find all the companies do. The only way piracy can be beaten in my opinion is by technology and the medium of data storage changing from floppy disk. It's a pity Ocean's 'Dongle' didn't work. Without piracy, manufacturers could put their disks out at £14.99 or even £9.99 and still easily increase the profits they make today." So the next time you meet a pirate and are offered dodgy disks for an amazingly low price, remember, he's not only taking money from corporate coffers, but he's practically stealing it out of your pocket as well — it doesn't seem quite so clever now, does it?

This article was originally published in CU Amiga (September 1992) on page 178.

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