And in this corner: Copy protection versus usability

Peter Seebach ([ in this corner: Copy protection versus usability] Freelance writer 6 June 2003

Abstract: Peter gets cranky with software manufacturers that create copy-protection schemes (hard or soft) which affect users' abilities to actually use the software they've paid for. This article looks at the way in which copy-protection schemes have hurt users, as well as the trade-offs users face when developers choose between security and usability in software and Web pages in general.

For a while, a lot of games have come packaged on twin CDs. The first CD contains a host of game files and is installed on the user's hard drive. The second CD contains just a little bit of stuff -- and it must be in a drive for the game to run. Various tools are available to try to ensure that it's the original disc and not, say, a copy or a drive emulator or anything like that.

Please insert disc 2

As you might expect, this set-up causes all sorts of problems. The security gizmos used in these programs don't always work. Sometimes they work inconsistently. Sometimes they work only on one version of an OS or only with particular CD-ROM drives.

I am the proud (frustrated) owner of one of these affected systems. I recently bought a game -- yes, purchased, at the full price of $50 -- only to discover that it cannot easily be made to work on the machine I want to play it on (and yes, the package assured me that I could get hours of enjoyment on my machine).

I can't return the game to the store -- I bought it at CompUSA and they have a firm policy of not accepting returns on open software for ANY reason whatsoever. I can't return it to the software vendor; the company doesn't feel it owes me a game I can play.

A history of unusable programs

Copy protection, and programs to try to defeat it, have been with us since the days of the Commodore 64. Throughout time, users have always experienced problems with programs which would be usable except for their copy protection.

The litany goes on and on. When Electronic Arts released Populous for the Amiga, the copy protection scheme only worked on some Amigas.

According to sources, if you got a cracked copy of the game (for you grand-pa and -ma developers, that means the copy-protection scheme had been defeated), it would run fine on any Amiga -- it was the copy protection itself, not the game, which was incompatible. Tragically, I was never able to track down such a version. I ended up trading the game to a friend whose computer it would run on, for another game that wouldn't run on her computer.

Some schemes were external to the game; many programs use manual lookups of various sorts. I have a repackaged collection of games that I can't play because the manual lookup is based on page numbers in the original printing of the manual (and the manual that came with the repackaged collection was repaginated). Oops!

In 1987, one of the games I had on my Mac depended on a floppy being in a drive. When the floppy failed, you could either buy a new copy of the game or stop playing. Thoughtful!

This kind of nonsense has been going on forever. In 1997 or so, I discovered that I'd lost the CD key for a copy of Windows 95, without which I couldn't install it. In fact, these days, any time I go NEAR a Windows install, I write down the CD key because I know that sooner or later, the owner will call me and say, "how do I get a CD key for Windows, I lost mine," and I say, "if you're asking about your VirtualPC with Windows installation, I have that key right here."

It's a nightmare; and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

Hardware dongles

Another popular tool for copy protection is a hardware device which must be present to use a given program, called a dongle. I have a stack of these for old Amiga productivity programs -- which means I can never use those programs on an Amiga emulator. [I think UAE (Ubiquitous Amiga Emulator) is the canonical emulator. Basically, it emulates the whole Amiga, CPU, and custom hardware, but that won't let me plug a dongle into my non-existant 9-pin joystick port!]

Another few hundred dollars down the drain -- and one of them was a CAD package which I liked a lot.

Sometimes the hardware dongle is really the product and the software is just an add-on. NewTek's Lightwave 3D started out as something bundled with an expensive piece of hardware. Other times, the product really is just software and the dongle is being used to try to make it as hard as possible to bypass protection checks.

A representative for emagic, a music software company, once claimed that the company's music software would be unstable if you patched it to run without the dongle. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), or a truly devious piece of software magic?

Does CP work?

Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the effect that copy-protection schemes have on unauthorized copying. Why? Because no one knows for sure the answer to this question. Apocryphal stories and anecdotal evidence seem to suggest that games with copy protection sell better. This is a specious claim and a self-fullfilling prophecy since many of the chains making the claim refuse to carry games without copy protection.

However, a bit of noodling around on the Internet suggests that many software users aren't facing nearly as much inconvenience as I am. First off, they don't seem to have much trouble cracking the protection on most of these programs. Second, they're not out money when they have problems. I would guess that, over the time I've been buying programs and trying to get them to work, I'm out a couple thousand dollars on programs that are unusable solely because of copy protection -- whether it's a hardware dongle that failed or a CD protection scheme that doesn't work on my laptop's CD drive.

Responsibility to consumers

The real problem isn't that manufacturers try elaborate protection schemes. The problem is that they don't feel any responsibility to make things work when the schemes fail. They occasionally come up with such simple solutions as this charmer: We may need to prevent other programs in the background from interfering with our program. To do this, please go Start>Run and enter in MSCONFIG, then click on OK.

Once here, please choose Selective Startup. Below that there will be several check boxes, uncheck Load System Services and Load Startup Items. After this is done go to the Services tab and put a check mark in Plug and Play, and then click on Apply and OK.

To reverse this process, simply choose Normal Startup instead of Selective Startup.

Does this sound like a reasonable set of steps to have to go through in order to play a game? Not to me. So, what happens when I tell them?

Unfortunately, we cannot offer you a refund because you did not buy the game from us. I would recommend taking the game back to the store you purchased it from for a refund.

The store, of course, says it's the vendor's problem to give refunds on defective games; the store only exchange "defective media" and only for exactly the same game. Special thanks to Infogames for this beautiful example of contempt for customers. And, of course, special thanks to the people who developed SecuROM, the copy-protection scheme in question. If I may be so bold, perhaps they should put a big warning label on the box next time: "MAY NOT RUN ON YOUR COMPUTER. IF IT DOESN'T, WE KEEP YOUR MONEY ANYWAY." It would have saved me some trouble (and some bucks).

Fifty dollars. Well, actually, $70 plus sales tax -- I bought a strategy guide for the game at the same time. (Hmm. There's always the chance that I can return the book.) In practice though, I'm always out an average of $53.50: $50 for the software plus seven percent sales tax.

You may be breaking the law!

Of course, the really beautiful thing about this copy-protection mess is the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Under this law, it is a criminal act for me to try to get the game running because that would be attempting to circumvent a mechanism designed to protect copyrighted material.

In fact, strictly speaking, following the customer service representative's instructions might well be a violation; if I follow them, I may be able to run the program, even though the copy-protection mechanism currently prevents me from doing so.

The DMCA's careful reluctance to address the possibility that you might have the legal right to access information means that, even if you otherwise would have the right to access something, you don't if it would require you to bypass protections.

In conclusion

And these corporations have the gall to claim that they need MORE protections? What about some protection for the users who are spending money and getting nothing for it? What about some protection for the users who want to be able to use a program without following elaborate rituals, or who want to be able to run a game on a laptop without spinning up a CD-ROM?

Well, maybe at least you can take down the company for aiding and abetting you in a federal felony -- "Yes, your honor. I did get instructions on how to commit this felony from Susan, the TimeLife operator. And yes, she did encourage me to commit this crime -- anything to get me off the phone."

This week's action item: Use a color copier. Given that old games used to use colored sheets of paper with codes on them as a copy-protection mechanism, turn yourself in for violating the DMCA.


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach is thinking about printing some little round yellow stickers with the advisory "MAY NOT RUN ON YOUR COMPUTER. IF IT DOESN'T, WE KEEP YOUR MONEY ANYWAY" on them, then grabbing 15 15-year-old gameheads and have them go into the nearest retailers to see how many warnings they can slap onto the games before (if ever!) the clerks catch on. He can just hear the clerks: "Hey, man, er, we should stop ordering 'Poopies Revenge'; we haven't sold a single copy." You can reach him at []