The Great Apathetic Revolution

Originally published 2007 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


As every nerd knows, copy protection - more accurately describable as "copy control" - works backwards.

And yet there seems to be more of the bloody stuff with each passing year.

The marketing people babble on about how Digital Rights Management "enhances" your "enjoyment" of a product. But what copy control really does is make ripped-off stuff better than the legal version.

The most obvious example of this is the difference between illegally-downloaded movies and commercial DVDs.

To view a downloaded movie, you double-click it. And then you're watching it.

Stick a recent commercial DVD into your player, though, and you'll probably have to sit through lengthy, un-skippable warnings about how dastardly is the piracy in which you did not just engage. And that's before you even get to the annoying menus, trailers, and other dross that stand between you and the movie for which you, one might start to think foolishly, paid.

(The modern versions of the anti-piracy warnings always seem to include a brief shot of a fictional "Movie Downloads" site which delivers a whole film to a pirate in about five seconds. You're not going to get anything like that from even the neatest of pseudo-commercial pirate sites. The warnings seem determined to make piracy look even better than it actually is.)

Legally-purchased copy-protected game discs are another great example. They can't be backed up - literally, not just legally. The copy-protection generally makes the game discs uncopyable by all but very expert users. But you can make copies of the cracked version of the same game you found on The Pirate Bay, to save you from having to download it again if something goes wrong, with no trouble at all.

And legitimate Windows users enjoy the "Genuine Advantage" of having to validate their OS online or over the phone. Meanwhile, Captain Hook just downloads the fully patched and polished Corporate Edition, which doesn't even need a CD key, for free.

Just using DVD Shrink to make yourself a backup copy of your paid-for DVD without the piracy warnings and the menus you never use is illegal in many countries. It's currently illegal in two different ways here in Australia (circumvention of a protection system, plus copying a DVD, whether it's protected or not).

Even do-no-evil Google got in on customer-abusing act, from January 2006 to August 2007, with the little-known commercial section of Google Video. When they gave up on that and shut it down, all of the videos people had paid for (OK, all six of them) became unplayable. Though Google did refund the customers' money.

(Later, Microsoft did something similar with their similarly-unpopular MSN Music online store. Later still, Yahoo likewise screwed customers of their even less popular Music Store. And if your Nokia phone dies, you have to buy all your N-Gage games again. More examples here.)

Anybody who defeated the DRM and made themselves a backup of their paid-for Google Video, of course, still can view it. But that'd definitely be illegal in the USA, and now in Australia too. When we "harmonised" our copyright law with the USA's at the beginning of 2007, we adopted a DMCA-style prohibition against circumventing any anti-copy technology, even if the copying would otherwise be legal. So if you back up something that's "protected" with SecuROM, SafeDisc, StarForce or any of the other MicroMacro DiscWrecker technologies, you're now breaking the law in Australia, just as you would be in the USA.

These copy-control systems usually require you to have the game disc in the drive in order to play the game, which can mean a lot of disc-swapping, which in turn maximises the chance that you'll scratch or lose a disc. Which you're not allowed to back up.

(Actually, the current Australian laws apparently make it illegal to back up a game disc under any circumstances, on account of the fact that there's stuff on a game disc, like images and music, that is copyrighted but is not program code. I write more about this weirdness here.)

SecuROM and its relatives are, by and large, forced on game producers by game publishers; only a few relatively minor companies seem to be able to release games without such a system. Most game companies do, however, now only stick with the copy control for the first few weeks the game is on sale. A downloadable patch then turns off the copy protection.

You still can't back up the game disc, though, because it's got v1.000 of the game on it, which is still copy-protected.

This situation is unique in the commercial world. Other things that make it harder for you to use a product usually do so as a side effect of some other, desirable, outcome.

Like cost cutting, for instance. Volume control buttons are harder to use than a knob, but they're also cheaper. When TVs started coming with volume buttons instead of a knob, they got cheaper. Fair enough.

And then there's hard-to-open "clamshell" blister packaging, to pick another familiar example. That stuff is at least partly meant to be hard to open. That makes it more difficult for people to shoplift. And clamshell packaging is also very tough, so it's less likely that the product will be damaged, or fall out of its packaging, during shipping. Again - not an optimal solution, but you can see why they did it.

Copy control, in contrast, just inconveniences honest users (the idea seems to be to just scare consumers into staying on the straight and narrow), while not affecting actual pirates at all.

Almost all copy control also does nothing whatsoever to increase sales of the product.

The only copy control system I can think of that actually does fight piracy is Internet-verified CD keys, which stop you from playing online games if you don't have a valid key.

So why do we keep seeing the lousy, counterproductive copy control systems? And why do companies keep coming up with new ones?!

I think it's because of a vicious circle.

Copy control encourages contempt for your customer. It's not as if you'd force this garbage on people you respected, after all. And contempt for your customer, in turn, encourages more copy control - because you can't trust those animals!

The big music and movie companies definitely hold their customers in absolute contempt. They view the general public as a collection of wet smelly holes out of which slime-encrusted money, suitable for conversion into nice sanitary 30-room houses and 150-foot yachts, continuously erupts.

If this is the way you think, then you don't really care how hard it is for your customers to "enjoy" your products.

(It's amazing how often media-company PR people use the word "enjoy". A thousand bonus points go to the flack who came up with the concept of media companies "enjoying their copyrights".)

Instead, all that matters is that the customers keep buying.

Which they will, because they're idiots.

Marketing will always lead them where the marketers want them to go.

But P2P transfers, almost all of them copyright-infringing, now account for at least a third of all Internet traffic. Plus almost 10% for good old newsgroups, almost all of whose traffic, by volume, also breaks the law. YouTube accounts for about another 10% of all Net traffic all by itself.

Un-DRMed access to music and computer games is not one of those Big Social Issues that result in real history-book revolutions, where the cows turn around and stomp the herdsman into the mud.

But the analogy holds up just fine if you think of the cows just... wandering off. All at once. To somewhere else.

Civil disobedience through apathy. The cows just don't care to be herded, any more. They've seen an easier way.

The herdsman can now chase them, and whack one or two with his stick, and probably get those ones back on the path... even if they weren't actually his cows in the first place. He can even go and get a gun and kill the lot of them, if he's really determined.

But the first option leaves him with 1% of his herd, and the second one leaves him with nothing.

This is what's happening, right now.

The media conglomerates have been suing their customers right and left for years, but their herd continues to wander away.


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