Protect and Survive
Are software pirates above the law? What can be done to stop them? Stephen Cogan discovers what hackers and pirates get up to behind closed doors.
Piracy: It's no game any more. For every game you copy you are depriving programmers of their livelihood.
Hacking: there are two reasons for doing it, for fun and for profit. Those who do it for pleasure are called 'crackers' while 'pirates' earn a living from their criminal activities.
Crackers do what they do for enjoyment — to them it beats playing the games, its one mind against another; software protector versus cracker. For pirates it's no game — their income depends on them breaking into games and selling the hacked versions to the general public.
At the moment game copiers give high prices as their main motive. This is a vicious circle; the less software sold the less revenue companies receive so the higher prices need to be.
Some crackers hack games and then distribute them to their mates. Because of this most software houses don't make a distinction between crackers and pirates, but pirates definitely lose the software industry money; the case against crackers isn't proven.
Rampant piracy can kill the software industry. Take the Dragon for example; in the early days games sold in huge numbers — high, if not higher, than a good eight-bit game today. Widespread pirating decimated sales and many programmers in the Dragon market left to go 16-bit because pirates were reaping the rewards of their hard work.
Bob Hay of the antihacking organisation FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) views crackers as irresponsible since they are meddling with peoples' livelihoods: "If a programmer loses sales through piracy they may well think twice before starting on another game. This exodus of programmers from the leisure industry could get much worse unless peoples' attitudes towards copying games change."
Cracked games are freely distributed through a network of informal contacts, often via mail or computer clubs. One north western club must hold the record for the most simultaneous copies made in one place; over 70 Atari STs were linked together for copying. Having said that not all clubs are hotbeds of copying and cracking, but it's hard for club organizers to make sure that people are not breaking the law.
Some hackers could become gifted programmers. The skills of the elite game crackers are extraordinary, and often they are are idolised by their less talented brethren. If directed properly they could produce wonders for software companies. There is a story doing the rounds of a lad who hacked into Ocean's Operation Wolf, which in ST format comes on three disks, removed a bug on level five which causes the game to crash when a particular object is shot and compressed all the code to fit on one disk. Disks aren't cheap — Ocean would have been extremely happy to have left two disks out.
Some hackers are beginning to put their programming talents to better use. A couple of development houses recently announced that they are training ex-crackers in the art of games programming, and the West German cracking group TEX say they are working on a game.
Occasionally crackers get together to discuss new methods and new ideas. Some travel thousands of miles to join cracking parties. These hackers must be making a mint from what they do or have jobs that reward them with substantial incomes.
The Chaos computer club regularly holds events like these and was filmed by a BBC crew who were compiling a programme on the computer viruses. The footage showed crackers hunched over computer screens comparing ideas during their 'virus workshop'. Hackers from Chaos have broken the protection on games, written viruses and even broken into supposedly secure American defence computers and passed on information to the KGB!
Spreading it about
Certain crackers don't like the fruits of their labour to be spread around the country — but when a cracker gives a game to a friend and asks it not to be given to anyone else, the friend may give it to another friend with the same plea. In this way it is very easy for a game to disperse very quickly.
The indiscretions of programmers can allow pre-production copies of games to fall into the hands of hackers before the finished version gets into the shops. Software house Linel suffered unfinished versions of their adventure Ice and Fire being distributed through the networks many months before it was finished. This kind of exposure of a half-finished version of a game can be disastrous.
Another game being hawked around the networks months ago was Infogrames' spectacular Operation Neptune. Many programmers believe that the damage is not done by the crackers themselves, but by the extensive networks that spread the cracked games throughout the UK and the rest of Europe.
Cracking has been gong on for years. At first, when the protection was removed the person responsible would leave a message in a prominent position in the game. Gradually hackers started to use pseudonyms and then to acknowledge each other with scrolling messages in the title screen. After this came the hackers who would take sections of commercial games to produce music or graphic demonstrations. The most notable of these being the TEX group who are responsible for demos such as The BIG Demo and The Amiga Demo. On the Amiga the Northstar group are responsible for a collection of demos on one disk which is well worth seeing.
In order to crack programs most hackers must have a reasonable knowledge of assembly language, though with the aid of a certain 'utility' even readers of New Computer Express could crack most games! This utility is a DIY (Destroy It Yourself) tool for people who want to remove the protection from games or applications. There are certain types of protection that this utility can't handle, but since it is normal for a company to use someone who specialises in protection to treat their games, trends do develop.
One such software protection artist is Rob Northen who handles the cover disk for ST Amiga Format — the DIY utility mentions his protection as one type that can be cracked.
What can be done?
The software industry is in no doubt about the harm piracy does, but what can be done to counter it? Better software protection will help to deter casual hackers, but will only encourage the elite who live day and night with their disassembler. Public awareness of the damage piracy does could help, but there is as little sympathy for software houses as there is for record companies bleating about home taping. People simply do not regard copying games as being immoral, and see it as being only technically illegal. The provisions of the new Copyright Bill are ridiculously impractical — will the ban on copying equipment include a twin disc drive for instance? The managing director of a leading software company probably had it right when he said recently that the only cure for hacking is a twelve-bore shotgun.
Commercial forgery is a different matter, and must be tackled head on with stiff prison sentences. Teenagers getting an ego boost by proving themselves the master of a three-inch disk of brown plastic should not be confused with shady dealers in stolen software.
Sinking the Jolly Roger
Fighting piracy is an uphill struggle due to outdated laws — this should change with the introduction of the Copyright, Design and Patents Bill which is presently going through Parliament.
At the moment someone selling illegally copied software or selling without a license is liable for a fine of up to £2,000 or a prison sentence of two months. In some cases both can be applied. This will be stiffened to six months and £3,000 and in exceptional cases up to 10 years will be possible.
It will be illegal under the new law for anyone to either possess or use a device which can copy a program. The music industry enlisted FAST's help in lobbying Parliament to get this provision because with the advent of digital audio recording technology they are frightened of people being able to make perfect copies of albums.
But will the Copyright, Designs and Patents Bill deter pirates? Probably not. The case against the Glasgow pirates raided by Strathclyde CID last August has been dropped by the Office of the Scottish Procurator. And you know why? Because the case was deemed too complicated!
It's a complete farce. That sort of thing ensures that pirates will continue to thrive and need have no fear of the law.
There have been successful actions brought against pirates such as the time in 1984 when Microdeal obtained a court order that enabled them to enter premises and seize tapes and duplicating equipment. The copying operation was run through adverts in magazines and had a catalogue of over 50 games and utilities. But these sort of busts are too few and far between, and the powers that be need to be more efficient to catch the crooks.
It's a sad fact that many young computer users look in awe at pirates and crackers; they see them as heroes — above the law, better than the best programmers and they make games easy for everyone to get hold of. David Crothley is a typical 12-year old (owning both an ST and an Amiga) who adores the hacking fraternity.
How many games do you buy a month?
None! My Dad sometimes buys me some — but very rarely. He's tight. Mostly I get games from my mate Mic. Mic's fantastic — he knows a hacker. And this hacker gets all the latest games which he passes on to us. Some the games aren't even available in the shops. Mic reckons the guy knows people at software houses.
Why do you worship hackers when you know perfectly well what they do is wrong?
Well they are great, aren't they. I mean, look what they can do to games. Put messages in the title screen, add infinite lives and remove protection so everyone can have copies of games. They aren't doing anything wrong... everyone tapes from the radio and TV and that's supposed to be wrong. If everyone does it then it can't be wrong. Even me Dad tapes stuff from Radio 3 and he goes to church every Sunday. He's the one that does the worshipping.
But don't you realise software houses and programmers are losing money because of hackers' activities?
Naff off! Software houses have got loads of money, everyone knows that. Anyhow, most of the games that I get are such rubbish I wouldn't buy them even if I had as much money as the software companies. They're really boring.
So why do you continue to accept cracked games if you think they are rubbish?
Have you seen the scrolling messages and digitised music most hackers put in title screens? They are brilliant. Better than the games even. And what they say in them is excellent too.
Some of the stuff that they put in them is dead funny. They use words which would make Dad go mental if he saw them. Mind you, he probably wouldn't know what they meant even if he did.
Mafiasoft: The Italian Connection
Hacking has become an international industry with tendrils reaching all over Europe and the Americas.
One of the blackspots is Italy. Piracy is particularly prolific there because so few British and American companies bother to sell their software outside their traditional markets.
An idea of the widespread and semi-legitimate nature of Italian piracy was given by businessman Maverik Greissing at a recent trade show in London. Greissing displayed nationally-available disk magazines containing cracked copies of software from other countries. When questioned, the owners of such magazines retorted that individual people had sent in the programs claiming that they had written them.
Italian pirates duplicate the packaging and software and pass the forgeries on to distributors. Surprisingly, the software houses are often unwilling to take action — Greissing quoted the example of Emlyn Hughes International Soccer.
It seems that despite being shown the forgery and told where it had come from, the copyright holder Audiogenic's only reaction was to say that the Mediterranean dealers wouldn't sell the copy because the packaging wasn't as good as the genuine article. The pirates clearly don't have the same opinion.
Up until a few months ago a game that had been cracked would either have just been stuck on a straight formatted disk or on a disk with some kind of menu. This was very costly in terms of disks, so cracking groups have started compacting the games so that they take up loss room on disk. One particular group — see top left — manages to get five or six ST games on one double-sided disk. This same group had, at the latest count, brought out in excess of 100 of these disks.
Hackers are becoming more and more confident: they openly slag off other cracking crews and put their names and addresses into scrolling messages (middle left).
Other hackers put wonderful animation sequences and sampled sounds at the beginning of games (bottom left) that often look better than the games themselves.
Software is distributed around the piracy circuits long before it reaches the shops. An Oids clone (above) and Worldwide Hunting from US Action (right) and are two such examples.
This article was originally published in ST Amiga Format issue 13 from July 1989 on pages 25-28.
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