Piracy, Sailing the sea of reverse engineering
I am not advocating the use of pirated software, nor am I condoning it. That’s for you to do. As with every subject though we should understand the motives of the movement and maybe think about why we should have an understanding of it and ask what it means to us for our hard work to be copied and shared for the masses.
Let’s begin with a man called Richard Stallman.
The so called father of free software. His opening words on his website read “If you participate in the commercial ritual of end-of-the-year presents, please avoid the digital products that would mistreat the people you give them to.” Sounds like my kind of guy…..
After founding the “Free Software Movement” in 1983 Stallman went on to become a major player in the activist side of piracy, often being an advocate of the technology that makes the copying of software and media possible. He advocates these things with social freedom and makes some very good arguments for free software as a whole.
For those who use open source software, it is Stallman we owe this too, his vision helped created the open source software movement we see today.
A hacker that has brought so much too many.
But wait .. open source and piracy are two different beasts, in one hand we have developers who openly allow the code to be copied and viewed and also improved upon by a larger community then on the other we have stolen or paid-for closed source software that’s been reverse engineered by someone! Private entities and corporations spend billions making sure that the source code can’t be copied or viewed; imagine the whole world having access to the Apple OS x source code.
Open source is what makes Linux so special when compared with Windows and OS x. It is made by the many open source developers around the world who contribute and make thousands of changes to it everyday.
You would think there could be problems when there are so many different contributions. This doesn’t seem to hold linux back though, if anything it makes it more appealing, there is a Linux distribution for everyone!
In 1985 Stallman published the GNU manifesto calling on developers to help build a new ‘free for all’ Unix style operating system.
This GNU would be the mother of Linux, giving birth to it in 1991,
A developer named Linus Torvalds used the GNU source code and built an OS kernel that would become the backbone of web technology.
When I was a young kid I owned an Amiga 500+. This was my first decent computer, I had a spectrum zx previously that had used cassette tapes but my amiga could run floppy disks!
I remember my older cousin coming around to visit my house with an assortment of disks, one of them was a beautiful little utility called X-Copy. He then demonstrated to me how he could copy over his games onto the blank disks he had bought and give me copies. I was amazed. “What!! I don’t need to go out and buy games… No boy! but you better buy your own blanks cause I’m not paying for them!”
He had a lot of games, Zool, Lemmings, Cannon Fodder, The secret of monkey island, Sensible Soccer, James Pond, Prince of Persia… the list goes on. I spent 3 days copying his entire collection.
It felt good. Yes he had bought most of the games, but now all I had to do was buy the blanks.
Some of the games had not worked though and I wondered why. It was then I learnt about copy protection and began to find out that all this had a somewhat shady side to it. This is illegal he told me..!
But it feels so good, and I’m not harming anyone. I’m just a kid who wants to play games.
“In 2010, the Business Software Alliance estimated that generalized software piracy costs the world $51 billion annually and half a million jobs.”
However and here’s the key part… new research is showing that piracy is actually helping drive legal game consumption.
A European Union commissioned report released in 2017 makes the claim that for every “100 games that are downloaded illegally, players actually legally obtain 24 more games (including free games) than they would in a world in which piracy didn’t exist.”
This is great news for 8 year old me’s guilt trip!
I did go on to buy more games, I was hooked, I loved new games. I waited outside HMV to buy the Sony playstation when that came out and I spent a lot of money getting new games for it. You know what else. I got that beast mod chipped 4 years later and began using pirate games. By then I had already spent a small fortune buying original titles so when I found out I could put a chip in it that would allow me to play copied CD-R’s I was all over that shizzle.. Wouldn’t you of been?
Maybe you didn’t need to pirate games, you or your parents could afford to pay the high prices for new games. That’s the thing though, not all kids in the world are as privileged to have hot running water never mind the latest console from the mega corporation Sony.
There are a lot of people in the privileged world who see piracy as morally wrong and a form of theft. As a musician and lover of music who produces and releases music online I’m not one of them. I love it that people can get my music for free and can enjoy it. Of course I would like to get paid and with new Blockchain initiatives like Choon and Musicoin ownership of streaming rights and royalties is there for everyone. For me though I make most of my royalties money through traditional methods. In the UK the PRS collects royalties whenever my music is broadcast on the radio or streamed online. These old and outdated models still work but in a music world in which napster happened things have got to change.
Stallman also published a great article in 2010 on his views of music sharing.
So who is piracy harming? and who are the pirates?
In 2014 the notorious torrent indexing site Pirate Bay was shut down by authorities and the server equipment was seized, the story gained some public coverage and one of the members was arrested. This led to some public debate around the issue of piracy and whether or not indexing the information that could lead to piracy was actually illegal.
The pirate bay website itself did not host any illegal content, it just gave users information that could lead them on their jolly journey of piracy.
In many countries piracy websites such as pirate bay are actively blocked by ISP’s and in some cases users of torrent sites have received warnings from ISP’s claiming they may face legal action for continued use.
This all comes across little Orwellian but it is a real thing nonetheless.
A documentary had previously been made in 2013 about the pirate bay crew called TBP AFK, which is available from all good piracy websites ;) and Netflix of course.
Reverse engineering is nothing new, mankind has always tried to understand how things work and part of our curious nature is to break and rebuild.
Those that can do the reverse engineering are not interested in piracy as such. They tend to have interests in HAM radio’s and electrical engineering and principles of strange Mathematics.
An annual publication known as POC || GTFO (Proof of concept or get the fuck out) is a collection of various feats of reverse engineering genius. From hacking into communication satellites and sending encrypted messages to breaking the copyright on apple games.
The collection reads like a nerds dream, with advertisements from the early days of computer hobbyists to instructions on how to build your own bird feeder.
Somewhere along the line though those efforts end up on the black market, anyone who has ever been offered DVD’s with those terrible home printed covers and terrible pictures knows all about it. Piracy is vast. It is everywhere.
Software piracy is also a beautiful thing, for those that can’t afford to pay an ongoing subscription of $600 annually there is always some piracy group out there working hard to reverse engineer that copy of Adobe suite.
And that is kind of my point, piracy will always be around, as long as there are locked doors there will always be someone trying to pick the lock. Not because they care about what's behind the door, but just because the lock exists.
As consumers do we need to make our minds up on piracy? are you going to accept it and work with it or work against it.
Stallman knew that open source code creates a community of competent eyes that can look at code and understand how it works and how we can improve upon it. His whole philosophy is mixed in with social messages about co-operation and improvement as a whole.
Maybe ours should be too.