Friday, May 4, 2007

Can a number be illegal?

Lets pick a number at random. Lets say 13,256,278,887,989,457,651,018,865,901,401,704,642. It is a nice number, but other than being a very large number there is nothing significant about it. Had I chosen a slightly smaller number I would suddenly have to worry about being sued for using that number. Why is that the case? You see, a certain company is using the slightly smaller number as an encryption key to protect certain commercial products. When this number got released to the public, this company started sending out DMCA takedown notices to various sites and blogs that published this number. While I am not a lawyer, my understanding of the law is that it is not possible to copyright or trademark a number. It is not like that number is useful for anything anyway. While it is true that if someone knew what that number was for, and had software for decrypting the encoded files, they could plug in this number to do this. That said, the number by itself is just a number. What does this have to do with game development? Well, it leads right into something that has been pissing me off lately. Copy protection.

As a person who has created a lot of intellectual property, I understand the need to protect that property from theft. At the same time, I am also a consumer and as such I am aware of how annoying it is to find out that you can't use the item you just purchased the way you want to use it. Sadly, far too often copy protection does prevent legitimate user from using the software they way they want. As regular readers know, I just purchased an upgrade to CS3. While the upgrade price was significantly cheaper than the full price, it was still very expensive to me. This software has some copy protection built into it. You are required to go online to activate the software. Not all of my computers are connected to the internet, so having to connect my main work machine to the internet potentially exposing the computer to nasty stuff is annoying, though less annoying than having to phone in and enter a 50 digit activation code. Another problem I have with this is that it ties the software that I legally purchased to a single machine. Yes, you can deactivate the software and then install it on a different machine, but what happens if your hard drive crashes, or some other disaster befalls your computer? You, the person who legally purchased the software, have to jump through hoops to get the software you paid for to work on your replacement machine.

Meanwhile, the pirates have written a patch for CS3 so anybody who wants to steal this software can simply grab the patch and not have to worry about the copy protection at all. Other than finding a copy of the pirated version of the software, which if they are a dedicated pirate they didn't even have to look for, they have no hoops which they have to leap through. So what is effectively happening is that I, the legitimate customer, am treated like a criminal while the real criminals get the user experience that as a paying customer I should have! Sure, but how often is a hard drive going to crash? Actually, all hard drives that currently exist, especially the flash based ones, will eventually die so the odds are 100%. The worst part is that the copy protection on my development tools is fairly mild compared to DVDs and most downloadable music.

I use to buy a lot of DVDs, but now that I have less and less time to watch movies, this has dropped right off so now I only purchase a few movies a year. These are copy protected which is annoying as DVDs are very easy to damage. There is software that can remove this copy protection and allow me to make back up copies of the DVDs that I have legally purchased, but I am not sure how legal this software is in Canada (I know my American friends can't use this software). If backups were the only issue, it would be just a major frustration, but far too often the situation is much worse. You see, at the start of the DVDs is a copyright notice telling you not to steal this material. Strange thing to have considering I JUST LEGALLY PURCHASED THE DVD SO WHY WOULD I NEED TO STEAL IT? You can not skip over this warning. Next comes commercials for other movies and DVDs. If you are lucky, they will let you skip over these. This leads to a bunch of questions. Did I not just pay a lot of money for this DVD? Was the price more money than I would pay for a commercial free movie channel? Did I not pay more for this DVD than for other budget DVDs that have no commercials at all? What possible justification is there for forcing me to watch commercials? Guess what? The pirated versions don't have the commercials or the warnings, just the movie that I payed for. Again I as a legitimate customer get the shaft while the pirates get what I am suppose to be paying for.

Downloadable music of course has the DRM issues tied to it. This means that you can only play the music that you purchased on a few devices. Worse yet, not all devices work with the DRM format. As there is more than one format for DRM music (Fairplay, Plays for sure, and whatever the Zune format is called) with the mp3 players only supporting at most 1 of the formats. Thankfully, in a few weeks EMI music will be available DRM free from Apple's iTunes music store. Let us hope that this will be the beginning of the end for annoying copy protection. After all, copy protection does NOT stop pirates, it only harms the people who are actually paying for the content.

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