Jul 20, 2017

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foobar's thoughts on Copy Protection

Abstract

Well, aren't there enough sites out there which handle that topic? Maybe, maybe not. I just want to give my own perspective on that topic. If you don't want to read it, feel free to surf to someplace else.

I concentrate on games because I'm not that much into music or films that it would concern me. But if you think that what I write has some sense it will probably not loose it when you transfer it onto other content.

Why is Copy Protection (CP) needed?

Yes, why indeed? That is the question I have to ask myself. As a gamer, I choose to buy my games. Yes, really. In a store. For money. I don't want to hold a speech that all digital content should be free and stuff like that. And I don't want to pledge against it, either. That is a political and philosophical issue and here, today, I have no interest to go that far. Let us - for the sake of the discussion - just accept the fact that there is such a thing as copyright and that everyone who creates content also has the right to sell it for hard currency.

For me, it's ok to pay for a game. Why? Well, first I think if someone creates a game that gives me 50 hours of fun (or even more) then 40-50 bucks are a reasonable price. Secondly, I buy because I'm an egocentrical asshole. If I like a game I want the developer to make more of it. An addon or a second part or another game just as great. That won't work if they go out of business because no one bought the game.

Copy Protection is a hindrance for legitimate owners

That is a fact. You cannot really argue against it, can you? In some way or another, every copy protection requires the user to do things that are not really necessary for playing the game. You need to insert the DVD into the drive even if the game is already installed (try not to loose it, btw). Or you need to have the manual at hand and answer some questions from the game (like "What is the fifth word in the second paragraph of page 11?"). You need to enter a serial or you need to connect to a server to get approval from the publisher (online activation is a problem of its own but that is addressed in Myths about DRM). So, we - as gamers - are more or less bothered by copy protection.

Copy Protection = Piracy Protection?

If CP is a problem for the buyer it must be allowed to ask why it is forced upon us by the publisher. Maybe he has a good reason, maybe not. But the question itself must be allowed. The answer we usually get is: "We need the copy protection to protect against pirates!"

Ok. Well, that is no real answer. The games are not protected against butterflies. But they are protected (or supposed to be protected) against pirates. So there must be a specific problem with pirates. Let's ask back. What is so bad about pirates? And why is this my concern?

The answer is: "Pirates copy games for free they would otherwise have bought. We loose money because of that. When we loose money, we can't afford new games. That will be bad for you as well because you don't get any new games from that developer whose work you liked."

Ok, now let's hold it for a second and give that answer a little thought. This statement would make sense if it was true. But is it true? The publisher can claim anything, he has his own interests. We shouldn't just take his word for granted. But he could be right, couldn't he?

My logic module tells me that a copy for itself can not do any damage because nothing has been taken away and nothing is lost. A copy can only cost the publisher some earnings if the one who copied it would have otherwise bought the game. I see no way at all how those who would not have bought anyway and just take the games because they are "for free" could hurt the publisher. On the other hand, I heard reports of some people who downloaded a game and then were so fascinated by it that they chose to buy it nonetheless. These are sales gained because of the piracy so we have to subtract them from the number of people who would have purchased but instead pirated the game.

But how many people are there in the group that remains? None? A few? A lot? Are they enough to cause significant financial damage? I do not know. Since your guess is as good as mine it is not logical to make any assumptions at all about this group. Including the damage they might cause.

Well, this is the first interesting result. There is no definite proof that piracy harms the publisher's business. Neither is there a proof to that it does not harm the business. Yes, I know. You have heard about this game that has been pirated a zillion times and then the developer went broke. Or that game that has been sold 200.000 times and was pirated twice as much - and how much money that poor company lost.

But correlation does not imply causality. If there are many firefighters the damage is bigger, if there are few firefighters the damage is lesser. So, your conclusion would be that more firefighters cause more damage and it would be best not to call them at all anymore, right? Furthermore, proof by example won't work in general.

And lastly, always ask where the numbers come from when you hear things like "300.000 times pirated" or "Pirates cause a damage of twenty fantasticatillion dollars a year". It's not that easy to find out how many times a software has been copied illegaly because no one would admit it. Take the Business Software Alliance (BSA) for example. Whenever you hear in your daily TV news show that software piracy did this and that much damage the number has most likely been taken from the study that the BSA performs each year for every country. Now, I know that investigation is not a modern journalist's kind of work but let us just point out one of the flaws in that study. First, they try to estimate what software is usually needed for an avarage PC. So they commisioned a survey and the result was something like "On 100 PCs, you statistically have 75 office suites, 68 imaging softwares, 43 desktop publishing tools and 21 video editing programs." You might wonder how meaningful such results are in general - I know I do - but let us just assume they are somewhat accurate. Then they multiply these numbers with the amount of PCs sold and reason that the difference between that estimated number of purchases and the number of actual purchases must be the number of illegal copies. What that means is this: If you throw your old PC in the dumpster, buy a new one and install the old software on it (because it does everything you need) then you're a pirate. If you use free alternatives that are not sold either (like Linux, OpenOffice, Gimp, and so on) then you're a pirate. Even if it is perfectly legal - using any software which was not bought in the year of the PC's purchase makes you a pirate! This strange logic stops confusing you when you take into consideration that the BSA is an alliance of software companies. They live from the fact that they continuously sell software. Of course they feel threatened by people who use free alternatives or are satisfied with some old software they bought years ago. Those are people who don't create revenue for the software industry. There are more things wrong with that study but I do not want to go into details that much. Just keep in mind that you always have to question the source of the information. Lobbyist organisations like the BSA are by definition not neutral.

And yes, that also means that you shall doubt me. I just want you to ask questions, share my own thoughts and maybe raise a doubt or two. Never believe I know the ultimate truth.

You might want to look at a study about the effect of piracy on record sales from the Havard Business School which concludes that at least in their sample they could not find any noticeable effects. Try to find flaws and ask yourself if their result might be transferred onto games.

Even if the numbers were exact, what does it matter if a game has been pirated a million times? What is really important is how many pirates would have bought it! Publishers always look at those pirating numbers, multiply them with the sales price and start to drool when they see how much money that is. But would they ever had the chance to get that money anyway? Or is it more like the gross national product of the United States - an interestingly high number but nothing you could ever have in your pocket anyway? Not everyone who lines up at a free beer stand is really thirsty and would have went to the beverages store otherwise.

For all I know, there is no proof that software pirates really are endangering the software business. But the publishers are the ones who claim to state facts. Therefore, the burden of proof should be on them. They must prove that the premise under which they argue that CP is necessary is really correct. From a false premise you can conclude anything no matter if it is true or false. But they failed to give us any real evidence. Hence, every conclusion drawn from that premise has no value whatsoever.

Could it even work?

Ok, well, they have no proof and by that alone their whole arguing is worthless, right? Formally, yes. But let us give them a freebie. Let's say we just accept the fact that pirates really are the source of all problems in the games industry and we must do something against them.

Then we still need to ask if copy protection can really protect against piracy. If it does not work anyway then there will be no reason to implement it, right?

How many games are available for download right at official release (or even before)? Many! The bigger the game the more likely it will be cracked and offered for download within a few days or right after the release. I did some research on that before I wrote this but unfortunately, I cannot directly share my results with you. I cannot give you a link to a site where you can download cracks for games because that is illegal where I live. Therefore, it would make no sense to write something like "96% of all games released this year got cracked within a week" because I am not allowed to give you the proof for it. Try to find your own data. It is not that difficult. Even I managed to find a lot of cracks for recent games just with a well-known search engine.

Always keep in mind however that most crackers do not crack software to use it but because they long for the challenge! During my research, I came across a group of crackers that even named themselves like that: "Challenge Of Reverse Engineering" (or CORE in short). So the harder a copy protection is the more interesting must be the challenge and therefore more crackers are attracted to that software. Sounds like a pyrrhic victory to me.

So basically, we have a lot copyprotected games out there and almost every one of them gets cracked within a short period of time. It does not seem like the copyprotection is good for anything at all. Pirates either get the cracks right with their illegal copy of the game (bundled together by the original cracker group) or they will find the cracks on their own in the web.

Usually, when you argue with people from games companies or publishers about this fact they respond with: "We know that cracks exist. But it takes a few days to crack the copy protection and these are the days where the most copies are sold. That is why we must protect them." Ok, now let us analyse that statement. One of the reasons why initial sales are high is because if a game is highly anticipated by the community then they pre-order it or run to the local store at 8 o'clock if the morning on the release day to buy it. But those are the guys that would never have pirated it anyway! They bought the game immediately and did not even give the crackers a chance to remove the copy protection. They purchased it because they wanted to. Why would you need to protect your software from them?

Every illegal copy in the net must have been uploaded through one single upstream at least once (the upstream of the original uploader). That alone takes its time. In my case (ADSL, fast downstream, not so fast upstream), it would take more than 3 days to upload a 4 GB ISO image under best circumstances. And downloads via filesharing usually do not utilize the full capacity of a DSL connection as well. That usually takes a day (in good cases), up to a week (in bad cases) or even longer. I've checked it with some Linux distributions. And they only had the size of a CD (700 MB), not the 4 - 8 GB of modern computer games.

So the argument that you need to protect the very first days after release totally ignores the technical reality. Those who purchase on release day wouldn't have copied anyway. Because whoever wants to download the game has to wait for at least a few days anyway. You do not need the crack before you got the game. If you start looking for the crack when the download is complete (after some days) you'll probably find one. The first days are over by then anyway.

From another perspective: If I were a pirate I would have no problem with waiting for a crack. Why not wait a week or two and then get the game for free? Are there really that many pirates out there who all cannot show at least a little patience? Some maybe, yes. But enough to make CP worthwhile? I doubt that. Someone who does not care if his actions harm the makers of this game (remember that we currently assume that there is a damage otherwise there would be no need for CP) will also not care about this game that much. If his heart was into this kind of game he would have given the creator the money to make more of it. Hence, a pirate should have no problem with waiting for a crack.

Another argument pro CP is: "The copy protection is primarely just against casual pirates. Kids sharing their games on the schoolyard and things like that."

Erm... how is that supposed to work? Kids don't have that much money. They cannot afford to buy every game. If you had any way of preventing them from copying then you would not earn any more money because there simply is none to earn. Perhaps there would be a few lucky winners who get their allowance for the month. But the large rest would get nothing. Financially measured, that market is just too small to be worth bothering about.

And then, how can you isolate casual pirates from hardcore pirates? You only need one smart kid per schoolyard with a flatrate at home and he or she will download the games and the cracks and distribute them among the others. What better way to popularise yourself is there for a kid than to give your comrades what they want?

The very same argument goes to any other "casual pirate". All we need is one "expert" who downloads the crack and burns it on a DVD with the game. All the other just need to copy the copy and copy those copies and so on. It just is not logical to think that there would be no contact between those groups.

Protection against casual pirates is impractiable as long as there are hardcore pirates. And if you had a way to remove the hardcore pirates your real problem would be solved and there would be no need to trouble yourself with the casual pirates.

Yet another argument I got from a publisher was: "The copy protection is cheap. It only costs a few cents per unit. If it manages to give us a few more sales then it was worth it." Okay. That is not really a satisfying explanation. Why do tens of thausands of customers have to suffer under CP so that the publisher can sell a few hundred games more? But at least it is the first statement that does not seem like total nonsense - at first.

What about side effects?

Ok, now let's be generous again and assume - just for fun - that copy protection can really work. That it somehow magically prevents all pirates from copying the game.

Is it still advisible to use it? Many copy protections cause problems for the gamer. The lucky ones just have to remember where they put the original DVD. Others have stability problems with the system drivers that are installed and may even loose data. Or their CP does not recognize the DVD as original and refuses to start. Even worse: There are game developers out there who had the crazy idea to build traps into their games for that. If you do not pass the CP check then you get stuck in the game. The game Drakensang for example had this. If the game thinks you're a pirate then story-relevant NPCs will not show up or you will not be able to leave certain game zones. Now try to imagine this: You bought your game for some hours of fun and instead you end up looking for a NPC who will never show up. I can tell you, each publisher wastes my precious leisure time like that only once.

Some copy protections want to tell you what software you are allowed to use (ever used the ProcessMonitor from Microsoft and launched a SecuROM protected game afterwards?) or to have installed.

Do publishers really think that this tightens the bond to their customers? That everyone just shrugs and does what the CP tells him to do? I realise that many people out there do not care about CP. But many of those who have had trouble before won't make the mistake of buying a protected software again. They do not have the time and the nerve to fix problems caused by something as unimportant as a game. A hardcore gamer will have no problem with reinstalling Windows just for a game or spending half a day looking for some broken CP driver - someone who uses his PC for work will.

When it's about content the "casual gamers" seem to be the Holy Grail of the industry. Don't make the ruleset too complex, don't make the game too difficult, don't make a story or a world that requires immersion (which takes time that casual gamers supposedly don't have). But when it comes to CP then the casual gamers are supposed to invest the time which they saved on the game itself into the copy protection. Register here, install DRM client there, get a Games-for-Windows account, insert the disc, ignore the system drivers that make your system slower and unstable, deinstall this "evil" software and reboot if you started that other "evil" software before... and so on, and so on. What "casual gamer" would really do all this just for a game?

So, if only a few more sales are enough to make CP worthwhile (see above) then a few sales lost because of it should cancel out any possible positive effect CP might have, right?

So what about all the potential customers the publishers scare away with their copy protection? Those are lost sales as well. What's worse: Even under best circumstances you loose trusted customers who were willing to pay and gain a few pirates who pay only because they have found no way around it - so far. Am I the only one who fails to see reason in that?

Conclusion

If we believe the unproven and doubtful statement that pirates are indeed a danger to the software business and if we believe the unproven and in my opinion implausible the idea that copy protection can somehow protect against pirates and if we agree that all legitimate customers have to suffer because of that... well, yes. Then copy protection is needed.

I don't know how you think about this but in my opinion, there are far too many ifs in that sentence above.

In reality, it comes down to this: The buyers are to ones who have to jump through every burning loop the publishers hold up. The pirates just crack the game and play it free of any restriction and they don't even have to pay for it.

So copy protection is no way to protect against pirates. It is a way to protect against customers because even if you pay for your game you'll never be able to use it as freely as the pirate right next to you.

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