Copy protection has been around since the dawn of time in various guises from software based monitors that make sure something is the original (by making it impossible to copy the physical version perfectly) to hardware based where the software needs to detect something on the system to know that the product has been purchased (dongles, chips in game cartridges, etc.).
For the most part, these techniques have been passive detections which have stopped you copying the media in the first place but as a technology matures, the abilities of consumer-owned technology comes to surpass the limits of what a copy protection schema was originally intended for. A prime example of this is the various copy protection methods circa. 1998-2003 that wouldn’t allow you to copy a CD track by track (aka TAO — track at once) and very few CD burners supported the burning method disk at once (DAO). It was therefore impossible to make a perfect copy of the disc and the software could pick up that there had been some changes and alert the user as such. That is until all new CD writing drives began to adopt the DAO technologies and it was suddenly possible to make perfect copies.
Workarounds can be released in days
With technology first aiding then cheating upon its masters, like this, you really have to wonder why they bother. As technology is becoming so fluid and copy protection is moving further and further into the realms of pure-software implementations, workarounds for protections can be designed and released to the masses within days instead of the years it took for cheaper hardware to be available.
Current “protection” problems
Lately, copy protection schemes are trying to stay on top of its user base by detecting what is running on the computer as to detect anything that they might see as a threat to the sanctity of the protection. Numerous digital rights management applications have been released and are being used in today’s games and applications.
If you run an CD/DVD drive emulator on your computer (which, I’ll add, is completely legal) and you go out and buy a newish game from the last few months, if you try and play it, it will not work. It will instead either spit out a massive and undecipherable error code or, more honestly, tell you that it wont play while you’ve got your emulator installed.
If you run certain bittorrent (or other file sharing) clients and you buy a new CD from Sony, it will not only not work but will go about removing any peer-to-peer file sharing applications that it can find. Sony were pretty heavily blown up over this.
Firstly, it is completely unsanctioned for an application to snoop around your computer without first letting you know. That’s on par with trojan and viral activity. Secondly, I bought this game/CD/application! Why am I being treated like I’m a criminal?
If you install Windows XP and you later decide to change something in your PC like adding a hard disk, you’re forced to ring up and get your product key reactivated. Its not major but its still forcing the user to do something that they shouldn’t have to do.
The only people that "protection" is affecting is the people who want to legitimately use it but have things that software makers don’t like. Doesn’t this sound an awfully big anti-trust case waiting to happen? When something will cease functioning, forcing the user to remove something else to use it, that application be it an emulator or whatever has just lost a user.
As soon as a company forces a user, they show that user they dont have to pay for software.
If the user doesn’t want to have to remove the emulator but they still want to be able to play the bought (and now non-refundable game), they are forced into the underground back-alley of the Internet which lives on "cracks" and "keygens". As soon as a company forces a user to enter this zone of the Internet, they’re effectively showing that user that they don’t have to pay for software any more. Before they might have been naive to this fact.
Its the great white shark theory — once someone has done it once, and it tasted good, they’re going to know exactly where to go to do it again. They wont even bother going to the shop next time (especially as games are sometimes available weeks in advance of their legal sales launch).
The same works for music CDs and on-line sales that are packed with DRM and limit the user so much. As soon as you force your customer base to use cracks or workarounds to let them use their computer as they wish, you’ve probably just kissed goodbye to future custom from that user. You have criminalised them.
Its funny when the same industry that is making criminals out of people then complains about the growth of piracy. They are making software, music and films that are easier to use how you want to use them if you acquire them illegally.
Its only going to get worse
With the future of protection always being speculated and examined, its clear to see that things are really going to start getting silly when we’ve each got a uniquely identifiable chip in each of our computers and when this is used to stop piracy — “Trusted Computing”.
When this is going to be rolled out completely is anyone’s guess but wait… There’s more. With the up and coming HDCP (that’s high-bandwidth digital-content protection to you and me) technology that’s going to be rolled into graphics cards, television tuners, monitors and any other display device that you might be able to put some form of high quality content onto, media providers are going to stop people accessing the true quality of the content unless they sign into all this expensive hardware. Latest reports on what BluRay media will allow you to see is roughly ¼ of the actual quality.
If I don’t want to spend £1000, I’m forced to illegally download
So if I don’t want to spend £1000 on a new graphics card, a “trusted” motherboard, CPU, BluRay media drive and oh yeah, 2 new LCD screens to replace my current ones, guess where I’m left… On the Internet illegally downloading the film that I can watch at full-quality because all the protection has been removed.
To sum all this up, copy protection only hinders people that want to honestly use the product under legal constraints. It just doesn’t stop people that want to break the law and it never will. If companies want to stop people from copying things illegally, they should make their products more tempting to buy.
Bibliography and Resources
"More Bad Copy Protection" - December 2005 - Ross Rader
"The Copy Protection Dialemma" - September 2004 - Brian Hook
"`Trusted Computing’ Frequently Asked Questions" - August 2003 - Ross Anderson
"Hollywood vs. Your PC" - November 2002 - Dylan Tweney
I’m not admitting to or encouraging any acts of piracy here. I’m merely saying that media providers are forcing people to take things into their own hands as releases become more and more limiting. What you do is your choice.
About Oli: I’m a Django and Python programmer, occasional designer, Ubuntu member, Ask Ubuntu moderator and technical blogger. I occasionally like to rant about subjects I should probably learn more about but I usually mean well.