My dad used to have a series of computer disks he labeled "Sick Bird Software." There was "Sick Bird Software," then "Sick Bird Software 2," "Sick Bird Software 3," and so on. He filled all those disks with pirated software.
S H O C K ! ! !
My... dad... pirated... software!!??
This from a man so morally upright he once threw a foul baseball back onto the field because it didn't belong to him.
Okay, so I made that up. But he really is virtuous and self-righteous, so why was he doing something as illegal as pirating software?
Everybody does it. Except suckers.
Pirating software means you make a copy of software that you didn't buy, and you use that software, even though you didn't buy it. Another name for this is "warez," a deliberate misspelling of "wares," as in "show me your wares." Show me what warez you've got in the way of softwarez.
Why pay big bucks when you can borrow disks from another family? (Hey, I needed that word processor.) Or borrow the CD from the techie's office at work? (Word processor wasn't enough, I got greedy for more.) Or trade your games for a friend's games? (I had no intention of ever buying those games anyway, so the company wasn't losing anything.)
And even if the company did somehow, in some grand karmic scheme of things, lose out by my warez trading - should I care?
Software piracy is wrong, but it's not morally wrong. We don't care if we do it, except if there's some chance we'll be caught doing it. It just doesn't feel wrong. But it is. The software companies say it is, anyway. It is illegal. If you download warez off the Internet you will be doing something illegal. Even if you don't care that you are.
Lots of software pirates try to justify their piracy:
Warez trading exists because people are basically good at heart. Good and vindictive. Let's cover the vindictive part first. Let's say I buy a piece of software and it turns out to be worthless junk. I may want to distribute it to other users in order to get back at the company who sold it to me, to stifle their business, to show others how horrible it is, or as a way of getting my money's worth. (If I can't use it, maybe someone else can.) I've seen this attitude flourish lots of times on Internet newsgroups, where people post messages giving away the secret codes and serial numbers (serialz) for web sites (usually pornographic) and games. "I paid $25 bucks to get access to that web site, and it turned out to be a lot of old crap. If any of you want to get in, just go to www... and use my password, here it is...."
But not all the software and serialz out there are bad. In fact, much of it is top-notch. That's where the good comes in.
Good: People like helping each other out, they want to share what they've got with others, whether it's tools, knowledge, a cup of sugar, or software. And people do want to get full value for their money. If I plunk down a large sum of money for a worthless item, I'll be much happier if I can at least find someone else who can use it instead. Like the small compact disc rack I bought. I soon had too many CDs to fit in the rack, so I gave it to my sister who has a smaller collection, and got myself a new, larger rack. I don't feel I've wasted my money, because she's using the thing. It's a mental trick, but it works.
Take for example Henry, an acquaintance of mine, who often loans me his parking pass for football games. Henry purchased a $35 season parking pass. But he often misses games, or goes tailgating with a group of people, one of whom has a big truck, so he ends up riding along with them and doesn't need the parking pass. So he loans it to me. I get a freebie, and he gets the satisfaction of helping me out. But more than that, he gets a good feeling knowing that he hasn't wasted his $35. Instead of the parking pass sitting uselessly in a drawer, it's actively doing the work it was designed to do, letting a football fan gain admittance to the parking lot.
Now on the other hand, recently Henry needed a certain disk-utility software, which I happened to have (a $35 value), so I gave him my set of disks to install. Henry gets a freebie, and I get the satisfaction of returning his favor. But more than that, I get a good feeling knowing that I didn't waste my $35. Instead of the disks sitting uselessly in a drawer, they're actively doing the work they were designed to do, and I feel I'm getting more for my money because not only do I get to use the software that I bought, but Henry does too.
How can something that feels so right, be so wrong? I feel good about it, he feels good about it. I'm helping him, he's getting his work done. If I wanted to loan him my car, certainly that wouldn't violate my contract with the Route 17 Honda Dealership. But when Henry loans me his parking pass, the legality of that is... hazy at best; and when I loan him disks, the legality there is NOT LEGAL AT ALL. Well why the hell not? Because the license agreement says NO. Every piece of software comes with a license agreement that stipulates exactly how you are allowed to use the software and what you're not allowed to do with it. Look at some words I picked out from a typical license agreement. These are typical phrases that can be found in almost any license agreement, for any software, from any company:
Get that? You pay $35 or $355 or $3,555 or $whatever and you still don't own the software. You get a box, yeah, a manual, a few disks or a CD, and a warranty card, and assorted advertisements, and you do own all that, the plastic and paper ephemera, but you don't own the software itself.
S H O C K ! ! !
I... paid... money... and get... nothing!!??
That's right. Legally (according to the license agreement), you pay your money to buy something, and they take your money, but they don't sell you the software. The money you pay allows you to run the software (according to their rules) but that's all it entitles you to. You don't buy software, you buy the right to use it. That's why trading warez is illegal. Not because you're giving away your property but, according to the software companies, it was never your property to give away in the first place. Is this fair? Let's look at what a license is exactly. "License" means special permission granted from a body of authority to do something. What we have here is software companies seating themselves on a throne. They are so high and mighty, only they can give us special permission to use their software. This kind of practice can only lead to one thing: exclusions. What if Microsoft won't license Word to someone who writes pornography? What if Martha Stewart licensed her books only to those whose dinner parties she deemed hoity-toity enough?
If any legitimate excuse can be made for warez, I think it's got to come from this issue of licensing. The fact is that companies seem to be selling one thing (a game or business software, or a disk utility) when in reality they're selling something quite different (permission to follow a set of rules stipulated in hundreds of dense legal words in tiny type on little sheets of paper). Even if you did manage to plow through all that polysyllabic nonsense about "merchantability or fitness" and "limitations on decompilation, decryption, and disassembly," you probably had to plow through it after you drove home from the store, broke the seal, unwrapped the shrink wrap, and opened the box.
If you found a Mont Blanc pen in the street, you wouldn't be restricted from using it because you didn't purchase it. If you found a game CD somebody dropped, you would undoubtedly be accused of breaking some anti-piracy law. But if you find a game on the street, or buy one at a garage sale, or unknowingly purchase pirated software from an unscrupulous storefront that looks absolutely legitimate, should you be held liable for breaking a license agreement you were never shown and never saw? These questions are not far removed from what usually happens: Someone buys a piece of software at a legitimate store, they plug it in and start going immediately, never looking at the manual or any of the printed papers or documentation. Why should the average user be bound to a license agreement they don't even know exists?
Here's one more excerpt from the license agreement:
"I won't hold you responsible," I replied, thinking he was trying to cover his ass. "I'll make a backup before I mess around with anything, and I've fixed this sort of thing before. Why don't you help me out?"
"No, I mean I really can't. For legal reasons, I'm not allowed to assist anyone who might be attempting to do something like that. This is explained on the back pages of the manual."
I turned to those pages later and saw it was the license agreement! The tech support representative couldn't help me with my problem (his job) because I might learn something. The license prohibits learning. And I might fix my problem in the process too. One of the main deterrents software companies use to scare you away from pirating warez is their warning that pirated software doesn't come with technical support. Well, what good is licensed software if the software can't be used because of the license? And well, when has technical support ever been much help anyway?
(You can download programs off the Internet that break the encryption on databases. I did, and eventually fixed the damn thing without his help.)
All this still doesn't necessarily excuse pirating, but it makes me feel that software companies are not acting honorably. In order to get that sample license file, the first place I looked was the Windows 95 help file. Very often software companies put their license agreement in the help file, because they want you to find it and be aware of it. Before I located the license agreement, I found an incredible twenty questions and answers covering all sorts of arcane and silly topics that no one could possibly care about - except Microsoft and its lawyers. Reading these questions were like reading somebody else's dream journal, filled with silly concerns, egotistical and boring to everyone except the one who's dreaming these things up.
That's like saying if a college kid buys a little Honda Civic, then after graduation he marries, has a baby, and upgrades to a larger Accord, he's not allowed to sell the Civic even though he has absolutely no use for it and he personally shelled out all that dough he earned working the late shift at White Castle to pay for it. Okay, so maybe some lawyers are saying, no, it's not like that at all, it's completely different. But that's lawyers talking legal stuff. We don't live in law books. We live in the world, and in the world don't we have a right to sell our old things we no longer use for a fair price (or even an unfair price if someone's dumb enough to buy it) to recoup our initial investment? In the real world, if someone sells you a Civic are you forced to keep it forever?
Anyway, that's just one of the twenty questions Microsoft felt was important enough to include in the central help file for Windows 95. (They even provided a handy button to click on to easily print out all the license-related information.) Technical topics which a person might actually care about are treated minimally in comparison, and don't deserve the easy-print treatment. The whole concept of drivers (a very complicated and troublesome part of computing) only warrants nine questions and answers. I couldn't find any mention of General Protection Faults, Dynamic Link Libraries, or VBXs, all of which are important topics which any Windows-user should be familiar with. Maybe, I found myself musing, if they took the time to actually explain the inner-workings of Windows to the average user, the average user would not have so much trouble using the software. And maybe they wouldn't resent the company so much. If you make knowledge available to people, they can use it to help themselves. In that spirit, I want to point out another one of the twenty questions Microsoft feels is important for you to know:
It then goes on to list a dozen or so ways to tell if the software you're using is counterfeit (pirated warez). This is good stuff to know if you are going to be breaking license agreements, downloading warez, and possibly selling them. You'll want to know exactly what the software cops look for when they look for pirated software. For example, some of the warning signs they mention are that pirated software will not contain an end-user license agreement, registration card, certificate of authenticity, mail-in cards to obtain disks and manuals, nor holograms on these items.
It's sort of good that software companies have moved away from copy protecting their software, to protecting the paper slips and packaging included with the software. It's good because it makes the software easier to steal. While easier to steal, the companies are more vocal against and unforgiving of piracy. The large software companies recently put out ads encouraging disgruntled workers to rat on their employers who use pirated warez. Microsoft contracted with a Hong Kong record label to produce a pop song chanting how icky piracy is. (Software piracy is huge in Hong Kong where thousands of dollars worth of software can be bought on one CD for $8.) The corporation where I work does internal computer scans for warez - or at least threatens to, in e-mails, memos, and notices on their intranet site. Everyone wants to scare you into keeping a clean nose.
Partially this is because it's harder than ever to make money selling software. Users don't want to pay big bucks for software. It's like paying extra for wheels on your new car. You need wheels to drive. You expect a certain amount of software should be free. It should come pre-installed on the computer. The companies have led us into this way of thinking. Microsoft's overbloated operating systems swells and throbs with bonus software nonessential for running a computer. Microsoft and Netscape give away their web browsers and tons more on their Web sites. America Online and other services send you free disks and CDs and free connect time in the mail. The companies bundle ten different programs together into one package for the price of (or less than) what all those things would've used to cost separately. They give and they give, and I love that they give, and I love that they bonus, and bundle, and try to win market share this way, because we end up benefiting from their generosity. But it also makes us not want to pay when we find something we want that they won't give away.
For all these reasons, companies make less money selling software than anything else. That's why they're so scared of warez traders. I know one firm that sells its software for $495 or more (prices rise steeply according to their multi-user license scheme). But in addition to those prices, they charge an additional yearly "maintenance fee." The maintenance fee entitles subscribers to "unlimited free upgrades and manuals, as they become available, and free technical support." It's a small company, they have several thousand customers. And all those customers pay all that money every year to get all those "freebies." And the company never releases updates or manuals, because they have no need to. Their competition folded and the current product is profitable.
Other companies make money the same way, or other ways. They present seminars and classes on how to use their software. Some put out hint books or videos, or charge for on-site training or customizing, or installation, or all of the above. The sale itself is just a small part of the overall revenue to be made from selling - excuse me, licensing - software. Companies have had to find new ways to make money, because the warez traders won't let them make money the way they pretend to, by selling software. And with all this money to be made from technical support, maintenance agreements, tutorials, and videos, it's been said that some companies don't see pirating as a completely bad thing because it puts their software in the hands and minds of more users who may then go on to become loyal, paying customers of these peripheral products or future versions of the software. One magazine columnist reported that he'd heard of a software manufacturer that purposely allowed pirated software to flourish in certain Third World countries in order to gain the market share. No one there could afford the software anyway.
But you don't have to risk malaria, Montezuma's revenge, or even book passage to Hong Kong in order to find free, usable, quality warez. With the ubiquitousness of the Internet and World Wide Web, it is easier than ever to connect with other pirates to trade warez. Go to any web browser and search for the word "warez" or "zeraw" and see what turns up. Consider the case of the MinMax group which used freebies from America Online to trade warez with one other. They started with the free starter kits that AOL mails out to millions of homes around the country. They used these to sign on to the service for free. They provided phony names, addresses, and credit card information (programs are available on-line that generate phony credit card numbers that pass a cursory verification check). Once connected, the members compressed and encrypted their warez and e-mailed their warez from their home computers to their anonymous accounts, then forwarded the warez from one account to the other, downloading whatever warez caught their fancy. Because most of the e-mailing took place strictly on AOL's computer system, the warez could travel from one account to another very quickly. Quick and free and illegal, all waiting for the taking. The best part is that very often warez trading relies on that very greedy generosity that pervades software companies' business practices. MinMax was using the corporations' own freebie tools and resources to circumvent vendors' licensing schemes, high prices, and dishonorable business practices.
So finally, one last point. In case you were wondering about my dad's disks... Sick Bird Software? Well, a "Sick Bird" is an "Ill Eagle." (Illegal.) Thus "Sick Bird Software" = "Ill Eagle Software" = "Illegal Software." My dad knew exactly what he was doing when he labeled those disks with his Sick Bird code. He flaunted it right on the front, but he did it anyway. And so can you, for all those reasons I mentioned, and maybe some of your own. l