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Challenge Everything! 

or... It's Still A Free Country, Except for Software  March 2, 2003

Dr. John

Challenge Everything! That is what Electronic Arts implores us to do at the start of each of their new games.  So I take them at their word, and  challenge everything about software copy protection.

I've been getting hammered with all sorts of onerous copy protection schemes in software I have purchased recently, and along with the arrests of kids caught in the clutches of "Operation Buccaneer", it's got me thinking about the role and appropriateness of software copy protection, and where it's going over the next few years.

I'll start by naming the companies that I feel abuse their customers with Draconian copy protection methods. Currently the two companies that have me the most irritated are Microsoft, and Electronic Arts.  Microsoft for their Windows Product Activation, and the built-in spyware in their latest software updates, and Electronic Arts for putting so much copy protection into new games that you can't play online unless everyone on the LAN brings their own game CD, and installs the game from a different CD onto each machine on the LAN. Let's take a closer look.

So what's so bad about Windows Product Activation and built-in spyware?  I've heard stories of folks on the way to business meetings having their laptop stop working because of Windows Product Activation. That could put a crimp in your presentation.  I can give you one example of how it makes the job of computer repair techs harder. A customer sent his computer here for work, which had Windows XP installed.  The system was acting very strangely, and after awhile I decided to do a Windows repair.  This required a Windows XP disk, which the customer had not sent along with his system.  Rather than waiting days for him to send his XP CD along, we just opened up a fresh OEM copy of XP Pro, and used that for the repair process.  As soon as it was done, Windows Product Activation kicked in, and said we could not proceed until the copy was activated.  There was absolutely no way around it. Because the system wasn't on the internet, that meant we had to call Microsoft, and enter a 56 digit number into the automated phone system. Then we had to wait for awhile, and then the system came back with a 47 digit number we had to plug into the activation screen.  Finally, we were in, and were able to finish setting up Windows.  Sure, 15 minutes isn't unbearable, but it was very annoying. 

And what about Windows spyware?  There are articles popping up all over the Internet about it.  Check out this link here for one example.  The basic deal is this.  If you use Windows' automatic update feature, which is lots easier than finding and installing the patches manually, Microsoft will install a utility on your system that sends information to Microsoft about the software and hardware installed on your system.  That includes sending them information about non-Microsoft software as well.  Even more, the latest update to MS Media Player logs what CDs you are playing, and that info can be sent to Microsoft as well.  It really is a software version of Orwell's 1984, with Big Brother always watching you.

Now I'll move on to Electronic Arts (EA), the King of game copy protection. Electronic Arts deserves some kudos for putting out some very good games recently, including Battlefield 1942 and Medal of Honor.  Some might also suggest that EA get the "bug of the year award" for putting out Battlefield 1942 with so many bugs that it won't even play on many machines. But that is a topic for another article. The games that my friends and I have purchased recently from EA include BF1942 and the expansion pack, Road to Rome, Medal of Honor and its expansion pack, Spearhead, and Command and Conquer Generals.  All of them are heavily copy protected.  At this point, the disks are quite scratched from having to put them into and pull them out of the drives over and over again every time the game is played. This is especially true if you are trying to play a game on a LAN (local area network).  

I'll use the examples of BF1942 and C & C Generals to make my points.  In the case of BF1942, my friends and I each bought our own copy of the game, just like EA games would have wanted us to.  But that apparently doesn't cut it with EA, and anyway, I'm sure there is something in the EULA (end user license agreement) that prohibits us from installing the games on more than one PC. Nonetheless, my friends installed the game at their homes on their PCs, and then brought the CDs here to install on the LAN.  Why? because 2 people can't log onto the same internet server if the installed game came from the same CD.  That means that we had to install a unique copy of BF1942 onto each of the LAN machines, which we did.  Still, after all that, we still need to pass around the disks in order to start the game on each machine, which gets very frustrating.  But in the end, because we were willing to spend $160 on 4 copies of the game, it works, but not without significant inconvenience and expense.

C & C Generals is a newer game, and has beefed up copy protection even when compared with BF1942.  So far, even with 2 copies of the game, at a cost of nearly $100, we have been unable to play together online, and can only play head to head on the LAN.  There does not seem to be any incentive to buy more copies, because we can't play online from our LAN with more than one person. The part that bothers me the most about such high-handed tactics is that C&C got it's start by being one of the first games you could play on a home network head-to-head. And you didn't need to buy multiple copies of the same game.  This made the game very popular, and put Westwood Studios on the map.  Now, Westwood has been bought by EA, and the game has been turned into Fort Knox.  

Many people I have spoken to in the software industry seem to think that software IP (intellectual property) is special, much more so than movie DVDs, music CDs, books or magazines. And this has me thinking about how various situations with those copyrighted materials would unfold if software-type copy protection was implemented. Imagine this.

Imagine you just went out and bought your favorite new movie on DVD.  You paid $20, and you bring it home and put it in the player.  Immediately it pops up a EULA that you need to agree to before you can start the DVD.  Then you call your friends up to come over and watch, but when you try to play the movie for them, the DVD player says it detects 3 additional people in the room, and you'll need to purchase 3 more site licenses before the DVD will play.  As we all know, even though the DVD contains copyrighted material, as many people can watch it at your house as can fit in the living room, without paying a cent.  So why are computer games so different?

You can apply the same logic to music CDs.  Would you put up with it if you had to buy a copy for each person who came to your house to listen to the music?  And how about books?  Can you imagine a book that self destructs if you try to lend it to a friend?  Maybe we could extend this to restaurants too. You go to a restaurant with your spouse, and you each order a meal.  You decide to reach across the table for a sample of your spouse's Bombay Shrimp. Immediately the waiter slaps your hand and says... "ah ah ah!, You'll need an additional fork license for that!"

The fact of the matter is, DVDs, CDs, and books involve just as much, if not more human effort to produce than a computer game, but they are not saddled with onerous copy protection schemes.  Why? Because it isn't technically feasible.  The only reason software is different is because it is technically feasible to go hog wild with copy protection. In my opinion, this has got to stop.  I love playing computer games, but it is becoming a much more difficult hobby, primarily because of poor coding, leading to endless patches, and copy protection, leading to endless disk jockeying in order to play. The end result is that your expensive master game disks get all scratched up, and there is no way to make an honest backup copy, despite fair-use laws that allow it. 

These tactics end up driving many gamers to web sites that post "no CD cracks" that bypass the copy protection schemes employed.  The companies only have themselves to blame for this.  You may ask, "How are companies supposed to stop kids from making illegal copies?"  Easy.  The way that many games have avoided the problems with protection in the past; it's called "network installation".  This is a simple technique where two different types of installation are possible.  One computer on a LAN can have the full game installed for full access, while all the remaining computers on the LAN get a "network installation".  The game can not be played on the network machines except to log onto the server for a multiplayer game. No CD is needed to log onto the server on the LAN. This method has been used many times in the past, and alleviates most of the irritating and frustrating aspects of copy protection. But companies like EA have decided that they may be able to force more people to buy more copies by putting in extremely strict copy protection. In the end, I suspect they will drive more people to download cracks to bypass the protection, thus defeating the software maker's goal.  

I may even get to the point where I start boycotting games that have severe copy protection without the option of a network install.  We have a LAN here which we use for playing games head-to-head, and online. If EA expects us to pay $160 to $200 for each and every game we want to play (as well as the expansion packs), they have another thing coming. I'll take up fishing again.

Dr. John