Promoting Illegality

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The informational article is here. Ars Technica is taking the lead on this, and running a poll, so you might want to pop over there (if you haven’t been there before, it’s a very good technically-oriented site).

The gist of all this is that if you buy a copy of Office 10 or Whistler, you are supposed to contact MS to get the program “activated.” Essentially, the Product ID Code will be an amalgamation of your OS copy’s serial number and identification of certain (unknown at the moment) pieces of your hardware.

The problem for overclockers is we change pieces of equipment rather often, and if we change a piece upon which the activation is based, the program/OS is supposed to not work anymore. You’re supposed to call or somehow contact MS to get a new activation.

As conceived by Microsoft, this would be a real pain in the ass to us.

I know full well a very sizable chunk of you will probably say, “I’ll just get a crack for it.” The rest of this article is meant to first explain why Microsoft is doing this, then explain to the rest of you what you mean.

Between A Rock and A Hard Place

Put aside any hatred you have for Microsoft, Bill Gates, and/or capitalism for a moment, and try to understand their perspective.

Let’s also put aside any little copying activity any individuals in the United States or Canada (don’t have numbers for Western Europe or Japan, but they’re probably in the same league) might do. Comparatively, these areas are extraordinarily honest and law-abiding and pay MS their money.

If that statement has you rolling on the floor in hysterics clutching your gut, it’s none the less true, compared to the rest of the world.

In the US and Canada, about 75% of the software used is legal. Most people and businesses actually go out and buy most of the software they use. Sure, you’ll probably find not-so-legal software on most machines, but it’s something “borrowed” from the office, or from a friend, and people normally feel a little embarrassed about having it. They feel the need to come up with an excuse. The norm is to buy the software. It’s a norm often violated, but it’s still the norm.

Think of it like traffic rules. You’ve all probably broken a few at some time or another, but you generally follow them, even at times when you don’t believe you’ll be caught breaking them.

If you look at the rest of the world, though, the percentage of legal software isn’t around 75%; it’s more like 5%. Most people and business do not go out and buy most of the software they use. In many countries, it’s considered to be absurd and ridiculous to do so, and people wonder about the general sanity of those who do.

From a software manufacturer’s perspective, this is like being a being the Ministry of Traffic in a country where nobody follows the traffic rules, nobody pays tickets, and even the traffic cops think this is great.

Now there are reasons and justifications, some pretty decent, for this, not going to get into that.

If you’re Microsoft, you know perfectly well that you’ve pretty much saturated the market for your product in the initial, relatively law-abiding, countries where the PC revolution began.

So where are your new emerging markets? Right in those places where it’s practically a cultural tradition not to pay you.

A Tale of Two Countries

Let’s compare two similiar situations, one in America, one in China.

In America, there is a medium-sized company I know which uses roughly 5,000 copies of Windows as an integral part of its business.

In China, there is an organization which also uses many copies of Windows.

In America, there are software organizations empowered to come into your business and conduct audits of your software installations to see if you have illegal stuff. Not in China.

In both cases, Microsoft found that practically all its software installed were illegal copies.

In America, the company didn’t even try to defend itself in court. What would be the point in getting slam-dunked by a judge? They settled.

In China, they went to court. The initial court found that, yes, that was illegal. So they appealed. The appeals court, no doubt more in tune with political and national interests, essentially said, “Well, maybe it’s not illegal. Why don’t you look at this again, (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) initial court?”

I think the legal climate for this sort of thing in most of the world is more like China than America. It boils down to “We shouldn’t let our citizens do what they have to do and keep their money in our country. Let’s pay a hundred times more money to some multibillionaire in America instead.”

Wasn’t Always That Way In America, Though

If you love your country, that’s a pretty hard argument to rebut. America said the same thing 150-200 years ago when they were pirating British designs.

Take Samuel Slater. Two centuries ago, he became America’s most successful warez pirate. Back then, automating cotton-spinning by a high-tech industry, and the English Arkwright cotton mill was the Microsoft of its time. Arkwright didn’t do open-source, either.

Slater worked at the company for a couple years, and memorized the design of the Arkwright equipment (imagine a warez guy memorizing all the code in Windows!). He then (illegally, people with his kind of knowledge were banned from emigrating from Britain) left for America (where people were waving money around), and built a version of it that could be reproduced in America.

The guy stole the design. Is he denounced for it in America, even today? No, he gets called things like “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.” Schools are named after him. Official governmental technology funds are named after him.

Novels? Literary works? American printers used to grab copies of British books right off the ships and have American editions out within days, sometimes even within twenty four hours. Royalties? What royalties? Who started this American piracy? Benjamin Franklin! Charles Dickens came over to America and flat-out called Americans pirates for their practices. That went over about as well as doing that today in a warez group.

It was only when America developed intellectual property worth stealing that it got interested in intellectual property laws.

History Repeats Itself

More recently, you’ve seen the same thing in some of the Asian dragons. You went to South Korea or Taiwan 35-40 years ago, you could buy pirated technical books left, right and sideways. What’s America’s going to do? Push us towards the Russians? Nuke us? We got nothing (back in 1960 or so) they can steal back.

Nowadays, of course, it’s an entirely different situation. South Korea and Taiwan have plenty of stuff worth stealing. Now they like intellectual property laws.

In the particular case of China, this is a place that threatened to just ban Windows 2000 in the country and use Linux instead. Of course, they immediately denied saying that. I think that’s how you threaten in China.

Taking the Law Into Your Own Hands

Since Microsoft cannot reasonably expect any reasonable enforcement of intellectual property laws in what it expects to be emerging markets, a very good way (if you can make it work) is to take the law out of the hands of those nationalist judges and politicians and into your own.

That is just what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

Will It Work?

There is a huge, usually fatal, flaw with this kind of software protection scheme. The software you have has to be able to figure out the puzzle, one way or the other.

For an activating mechanism to work or not, it has to have code to activate or not. It usually is part of the software itself. It’s conceivable MS might send a program to do the actual activation. Either way, the actions can be monitored and analyzed using easily available programmer tools.

If somebody wants to make a program work without MS’s permission, they can do one of two things. They can either mimic the activation process to generate valid responses, or disable the activation feature.

If you have a good programmer(s) hellbent on making doing either of these as difficult as possible, that can be done. We’ve had articles on this. One problem with elaborate protection schemes in the past, though, has been that they’ve made legitimate operation more than quirky. There are many extinct software companies that protected software so well that it didn’t even let people who bought it use it.

Another problem is that if you are hellbent on breaking it, and you put enough effort and resources into it, you’ll eventually figure it out.

You can’t make your house absolutely secure, either. It’s fairly easy to make it not worth the bother to rob, though. However, if the house you have to protect is Fort Knox, people are willing to do a lot more to get in than to get in your house. These MS programs aren’t your average shareware program; they’re more like Fort Knox, and there will be a lot of effort made to break it.

This brings us to the decisive question:

Will Microsoft Make It Work?

The past does not always predict the future, but Microsoft has a history of being extremely lax about protection.

I have a competitive upgrade copy of Office 97. I’m supposed to have some other product to make this work.

I’ve installed this program a lot of times. Sometimes, it looks for the other program. Sometimes, it doesn’t. When it feels like looking for it, it tells me to show proof it’s there. So I get the other program. Sometimes it finds it and goes on. Often, it doesn’t.

So I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, and it doesn’t work.

I’ll tell you one way that always works. I just tell the program to look at itself. It always likes that. Pretty stupid program that doesn’t work when I’m being legitimate but does when I’m not, wouldn’t you say?

Windows98 and 2000 have an registration system. Do you know what it does? It changes one Registry key. That’s it. You can go change it yourself in about ninety seconds (and eighty of that is waiting for Windows to find the key).

This is not exactly a tradition of awesome protection.

Microsoft says that this “feature” won’t be included in corporate versions. This tells me that this “feature” is an add-on, and unless MS really modifies the retail and OEM versions much more different than they have in the past, this should not be too big a deal to disable in one form or another.

Just Who Is This Meant To Stop?

Unless MS throws an extraordinary amount of effort entwining the protection scheme so deeply into the program that it can’t possibly be extracted (something they didn’t even do with IE, for God’s sakes), the odds are this will be a trivial speed bump that isn’t going to stop anybody who doesn’t mind the (in most cases theoretical) illegalities of it.

The only people it will stop or hassle are those who obey the rules, and if you have somebody with an absolutely legitimate copy who likes to upgrade his or her equipment frequently, that person is going to have to play Russian Roulette every time he upgrades. “Will I have to call Redmond, or not?”

This is a very powerful incentive for those otherwise law-abiding people to find that little program which makes all these hassles go away. And once they venture over to the Dark Side, who knows what else they might find. They might just stay there.

What do you call something that doesn’t stop the people who want to stop, but stops the people you don’t want to stop?


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