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0 comments | Monday, December 4, 2006

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This article does not advocate piracy in any way; it's just an objective look of the benefits of using pirated software vs. the benefits of official software you've bought and paid for. This is an argument I've been wanting to prove for a long time, and what better time to do it than right now, with the coming of Vista.
The argument mostly boils to one word - DRM. Digital Rights Management are what many software companies today use to protect intelectual rights of them and others from piracy, and the more they use it, the more they're degrading users' experience with their products. Name me one direct benefit users have from DRM. There are none. DRM is there to protect the creators, not the users, and although it can be relatively unobtrusive, it can also be very invasive, even dangerous for your computer.

Don't believe it? One word: Starforce. The supposedly unbreakable protection (it can be removed, but it takes time) that many game publishers have used was so disgustingly invasive that users protested en masse - so much that most publishers gave up on Starforce and today we see less and less games protected by it.

Although not nearly as annoying and dangerous as Starforce, the idea of product activation is also a major annoyance. Remember the days when you didn't have to activate Windows? Once the installation is done, it's done - no more nagging. Now, you have to do the extra steps the activation requires, and you must - among other things - be careful not to change your hardware configuration too much or Vista might just stop working.

It might not be too big a deal for most users, but I'm a tech kind of guy. I do lots of testing, fixing, installing and reinstalling. I have 3 computers working in this room right now. I do not want to think about activation - I bought the software and I want it to work.

And then there's the DRM again. Vista has several DRM features built in - Protected User Mode Audio (PUMA) which restricts the copying of copyrighted audio. Protected Video Path - Output Protection Management (PVP-OPM) and Protected Video Path - User-Accessible Bus (PVP-UAB) do the same thing for video. Lastly, we have Rights Management Services (RMS) support, which allows setting DRM restrictions to documents and email.

Now, I could go into a long elaboration of what these things do, but I'm going to keep it simple - they make my life harder. If I want to burn a CD from songs I bought on the iTunes store, I've got problems - although I paid for those songs. If I want to listen to the stuff from my friend's Zune, I only have three days to do it. They're making my life miserable, and they're making me spend money, and that's what it boils down, ladies and gentlemen - greed.

I know there's many a good argument in favor of DRM and similar measures to protect content. But let's simplify things. What are they protecting? Information. Think - if a company thinks it can capitalize on a song, or a part of a song, or the note of a song, or lyrics to that song written on a piece of paper, or a guitar tablature of the notes of the song published on a website, how far can they go? Can they also capitalize on small chunks of information, making you pay a small fee whenever you utter the words 'Apple' or 'Windows'? Hell, maybe you should pay a fee whenever you think those terms, or visualize them in your mind. How far, exactly, will they go?

In the days before the Internet, noone cared if you copied music from one cassette to another - although it was done daily by millions of people. The Internet brought a whole new ball game, but the big companies didn't react positively - they chose to restrict, to sue, to punish and to repress. It seemed they feared this new technology, and maybe they did at first, but then they saw an opportunity in it - an opportunity to protect more content that they could have ever done before, and to create even more content that couldn't have been protected before.

Think you can't do it with positive approach? I think you can - or, better said, it could have been done. It was ages ago when I last heard the argument that MP3 sound quality sucks compared to the CD, but it does. The difference is there if you're listening on anything better than sub-50$ computer speakers. It's a point for the big guys, which could have been and should have been marketed. They should have said: buy the CD - you'll get great artwork, better sound quality, we'll add extra stuff, like posters, stickers, coupons in it, it'll be great. Sure, take the MP3's off the net, and we'll sell them on the net also, but if you buy them at our site we'll send you a bunch of extra goodies. But they didn't do that. They simply chose to go down to the MP3 level and screw it up for the consumers. And where are the pirates in all that?

The pirates are doing us a favor. And by pirates I simplify things here - I mean the crackers, the hackers, the reverse engineers, the kids who follow the warez scene and the ones that hold the big sites and get money of it. Some of them are in it for the money, and some of them should probably be in jail. But they're still doing us a favor.

They're stripping software and content from the crap the owners put in to protect it. When Vista comes out, I'll buy my copy (well, I'll probably get it for free, but you get the point). But if some pirate group releases a good, DRM-free, activation-free version of it, I'll just install that. It might be a tough concept to grasp for the IT suits, but the pirated version is actually better than the original. I have a friend who buys lots of games, but he was also happy as hell as Reloaded (a well known pirate group) released a StarForce free version of the game X3: Reunion. There's no two way about it: the Reloaded version was a better product than the original bought in the store, because it didn't have StarForce. And it worked, it worked perfectly: contrary to what companies say, most pirated software works well.

Which brings me to my last point: big IT companies should learn from pirates. Pirates have a very effective network. They have very strict standards, which they follow. They have lots of social networking going on. Go to a site such as www.nforce.nl, which lists new warez releases (the site itself doesn't offer anything for download, so it's not illegal, although I'm sure if the authorities find any legal loophole to make it illegal they will use it). Every release has an .nfo file with data about the product. There's a system at work here. Releases can be internal, a proper, a clone, a repack. If any release fails to follow the strict standards of the warez community, it will be nuked. If you're unsure about something, you can find the answer on the forums.

The releases themselves are also packed and distributed using strict standards which I won't go into now - suffice to say that the manufacturers don't really adhere to any standards of the sort. You can officially download some games off Steam, and you can download some other games through some different service, and some games you can't officially download at all. But in the warez scene, you can get them all neatly packed in nice little .RAR packs. I'm telling you - this isn't some hellhole with zillions of ads where no sane person would search for anything, let alone software or content. It's Web 2.0 at its best.

The manufacturers have one major thing going for them - official support. It's a huge thing for businesses. But the average individual user should probably do better searching the solution to his problems on some forum than calling tech-support, because we all know how bad tech-support often is.

Should we all stop buying software and start downloading pirated stuff like mad? Of course no. The point of this post is that most manufacturers act like slow and clumsy dinosaurs and aren't actually losing money (and don't get me started on the numbers reported as 'money lost because of piracy' because they are ludicrous) because there are some evil pirates out there and even more evil people that buy stuff from those pirates, but because their approach sucks and hasn't changed for decades.

Big software and other IT execs, let me give you a wakeup call: the Internet is here. I don't want to wait till my game arrives in the mail, and I don't want it to be ridden with DRM because you're scared of losing money. You need to learn from the warez community, and see what they do, and try to be better; don't just try to be stronger.

One final example: learn from what Valve has done. How much is that Half-Life: Episode Two? $19.95? And I can just download it off the net the second it's out? From a really fast server (OK, Steam's servers have been known to die occasionally, but you get the idea)? Hey, where do I sign?

This is just one of the ways in which you can beat piracy - well, not completely beat it, but make sure you aren't losing money because your product sucks compared to the pirated version.

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