Software piracy is vital to preservation

A PC World editorial by Benj Edwards recounts the history of "copy protection*" for software, and discusses how the cracks-scene, which busted open these software locks, is the only reason the legacy of old software is available today. There's a trite story about the persistence of paper and the ephemerality of bits, which goes something like this: "We can still read ancient manuscripts, but we can't read Letraset Ready, Set, Go! files from the 1980s." This is only true in a very limited sense: if you can crack the copy-protection on R,S,G! you can run it perfectly well in a little Mac emulator on a modern computer, with lots of headroom to spare (the laptop I'm typing this on being approximately ten bazillion times more powerful than the last machine I used R,S,G! on). The business of software preservation and data longevity is a lot simpler than the story would have you believe** (assuming you don't care about breaking the law to bust open copy protection and to get old copies of Mac System 6.x to run things on).

It may seem counterintuitive, but piracy has actually saved more software than it has destroyed. Already, pirates have spared tens of thousands of programs from extinction, proving themselves the unintentional stewards of our digital culture.

Software pirates promote data survival through ubiquity and media independence. Like an ant that works as part of a larger system it doesn’t understand, the selfish action of each digital pirate, when taken in aggregate, has created a vast web of redundant data that ensures many digital works will live on...

For a sample slice of what’s at stake when it comes to vanishing software, let’s take a look at the video game industry. The Web’s largest computer and video game database, MobyGames, holds records of about 60,000 games at present. Roughly 23,000 of those titles were originally released on computer systems that used floppy disks or cassette tapes as their primary storage or distribution medium.

23,000 games! If game publishers and copyright law had their way, almost all of those games would be wiped from the face of the earth by media decay over the next 10 years. Many would already be lost.

The article is long and thoughtful, and covers a lot of ground. I highly recommend it.

Why History Needs Software Piracy (Thanks, Rainman!)

* The term "copy-protection" is pretty misleading. Speaking as a former systems administrator, the way I "protect" my stuff was by making copies -- that is, backups. True, these are encrypted, but they're encrypted to a key that I posses.

** There's a separate question about media preservation, because old floppies and Zip carts and such are basically shit. But that's OK, since a modern hard drive can store pretty much all the floppies you ever handled without breaking a sweat. If you have (or had) the presence of mind to move all your data from floppies to your HDD, and if you keep your HDD backed up, you are pretty well-preserved. Much better-preserved than your hardcopy book library, which can't be backed up offsite without a photocopier, an army of interns and a lot of time, bother, and shipping containers.


  1. This somewhat soothes my major concerns over the preservation of digital archaeological data.  Nothing like seeing data from a 1977 dig in a database from 1985 running on a Windows ’95 machine with a hard drive from 1992.  The hard drive is still a ticking time bomb, but virtualization may save the day.

  2. And not just software — anything that’s no longer being published.

    In terms of comics, there are series like Jack Kirby’s 2001 and Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and Rick Veitch’s 1963, that are still under copyright will never be reprinted.

  3. I’m glad you like my piece, Cory.  I’d like to add that the original version can be found on, and it is much better formatted (some of the sidebars got a little mangled in the translation to PC World):

    Also, the true point of my piece isn’t about the difficulty or ease of actually liberating software from obsolete media, as you have focused on; the point is that doing so is illegal, and if we all did what we were told by obeying copyright and DRM, we’d be flushing history down the toilet every day.  (And, by the way, if  DRM becomes more restrictive in the future, it may not be as easy to make cracked back-up copies as it is now.)

    1. it might be relevant to note that flushing history down the toilet every day is precisely what we’ve done with other media for centuries, and is likely a very critical part of  maintaining our culture.

      1. That’s a good point, as I have read pieces about how forgetting can be as important as remembering, in a historical sense.   The unique problem with software is that 100% of it is under threat of being flushed just from media decay and neglect alone, and on top of that you have companies purposely preventing the duplication of the material (i.e. DRM) in a way never seen in any non-digital medium.

        1. Similar to old films, and not just the nitrates from the silent era, as many lesser old color films are aging badly too.

      2. A long time ago (ie. the 90’s) I did some artwork for an Amiga CD32 game. Not only do I not have a copy of the game or its assets, I wouldn’t even know how to go about finding them (I’m not even sure they exist). But you know what? There’s a video of someone playing that game (on the actual console, with a video grabber, no less) on YouTube.

        My forgettable, obsolete work was important enough to someone to preserve and communicate to others – this person is their own historian and curator of niche culture. I suspect this has always happened, the only difference is that with the internet we are all connected and we all get to see it. Think of the most obscure interest possible and I guarantee you that there’ll be someone on the internet in the business of preserving it for posterity.

        Whether ‘grand’ culture is maintaining itself by purging is one thing, but ‘micro’ culture and the culture of the niche is clearly interested in doing something else entirely.

    2. I agree; it’s not really all that simple if you’re an institution that’s tasked with preserving these materials. While it may currently be technologically feasible for many things (although the further back you go, the more difficult it becomes), breaking the law in that manner can have some major effects on your safe harbors as an institution. For example, if you’re in the US and attempting to take advantage of the libraries & archives copyright exemption in order to preserve works, you can’t circumvent DRM. The exemption isn’t that great for digital materials even without taking that into account, but it’s just plain impossible for items with DRM without the permission of the copyright holders (whom are all but impossible to find a great deal of the time).

      Re: PaulDavisTheFirst, that’s a matter of discussion among many groups, including archivists. Making those decisions- what gets flushed down the toilet, whether intentionally or unintentionally can have some significant bearing on what  “maintaining our culture” means.

  4. “There’s a separate question about media preservation, because old floppies and Zip carts and such are basically shit.”

    It’s about time that someone put that out there.

    I think if I got 5 good uses out of a floppy before encountering a bad sector or read error I was doing good.  And zip drives weren’t all bad, but copying data via the parallel port was ass slow. I even had the good fortune to use a Syquest drive from time to time….

    For some reason I keep holding on to an unopened box of Verbatim 5.25’s  (I have an Epson combo 3.5/5.25 drive, but realize I have no computer that now accepts 5.25 as a valid option…)

  5. A great article and very well meaning, but it doesn’t take into account that the people implementing DRM and preventing easy copying of software really couldn’t give a damn about future generations and events past their own lifetimes. Shareholders and profit, that’s all that matters.
    And I think that’s what gets missed in a lot of these articles about copyright and intellectual property. The people in control are not concerned with the well-being of other human beings. And they’ll do anything possible to protect their revenue streams.
    I think you’ve mentioned it before Cory, and good ol’ Charlie Stross exhibited Gibsonesque levels of near-future precognition regarding this in his book Rule 34, but these people are probably clinically psychopathic.

    1. I think the piece implies that quite well, especially in the section about corporations changing history, and the fact that I mentioned a hypothetical future Nintendo will only relay the history that is in their best commercial interest to relay.

      1. Sorry benj, a bit of pessimistic disconnect on my behalf there.
        I found myself considering that your article as a whole was trying to propose that we should find a way to stop such people from doing such things, while I miserably thought to myself that these people will always find a way to ensure their triumph, and screw humanity as a whole. After all, psychopaths aren’t bound by those troubling things, morals.
        Just a dark moment resulting in a little misinterpretation.

        I’m always relating business plans to those of the nuclear power industry. See, I used to work on a decommissioned nuclear site as an AV Technician. Nothing remotely related to the science that got done on site, but it exposed me to some interesting concepts.

        One was that the PR department of a nuclear site have to understand that the general public will consider ANY accident that occurs on a nuclear site a nuclear accident. Yes, that extends to normal every-day accidents such as dropping boxes on feet.

        Another is that needs dictate that the people running a nuclear power station have to have a significantly longer view of the future than pretty much any other business out there.

        My site, Berkeley, was the first UK commercial nuclear reactor commissioned, and also the first to be decommissioned. It operated for 33 years before having to be shut down, yet the site will continue to operate a skeleton care staff until radioactive decay allows for full demolition between 2070 and 2080. Indeed, one of my friends who still works there claims the site has never been busier.

        Being the guy who was in charge of setting up radio mics, video conferences and LCD projectors, I got to sit in on some mind-expanding meetings as these suits (who’d risen up through the scientific ranks in most cases) discussed things suits in other fields would find terrifying.

        When I finally left that job I was aghast at exactly how short-sighted every other business I worked for was when considering the long term.

        Say what you like about the nuclear power industry, but they know about trying to make sure the future’s covered, even if they don’t always succeed.

        Hell, sorry for the rambling.
        I just hope it goes some way towards explaining my pessimism.

        1.  It’s ok, Matt.  That’s a great story.  The original draft of my piece actually did have a section specifically devoted to the fact that companies typically only have short-term commercial goals in mind, but I had to cut something out because it was too long. :)

    2. Or even care about their own place in history. If “it” (“it” being a play, book, record, software etc.) disappears, you are mostly forgotten, maybe a mention somewhere, that’s it.

  6. Piracy of software has been around since… software has been around.  I remember in the late 70s and early 80s, there would be parties where everybody would bring a bunch of floppy disks and trade “cracked” copies of all the latest games for the Apple II.  There was no internet, so I have to assume these just spread from person to person via these get-togethers..  They also had “nibble” copiers that would let you copy disks in chunks smaller than bytes, because it was the only way to beat the copy protection!

    For Congress to think they can stop this with some legislation about shutting down websites is really stupid.

  7. Another item: Live music, either bootlegged or legally allowed.  One of the best shows I have ever been too was Tool in Houston.  One of only two times that they did “Ticks and Leeches”live.  It is one of my best memories from that period of my life.  Without a dedicated bootlegger that snuck in high quality recording equipment I wouldn’t have my favorite Tool album and wouldn’t have that record of that time.  

    Yes, the band did not want those recordings.  But it is a part of my culture and life.  As another example there are some bootlegs of Pink Floyd from the Animals and Wall tour that are fantastic.  There is no way that I will ever be able to experience my favorite album live (Animals) without one of those dedicated bootleggers. Then the vibrant music community around it that is dedicated to keeping these tracks in lossless, archival quality files and sharing them.  

    A little tangential but I think this is to the core of the copyright fight.  It is our culture and life experiences that we all share.  Due to the dedicated MAME folks saving the culture of early coin op games I can share some of my favorite video games with my daughter.  Due to dedicated bootleggers I can share some of my favorite shows and music with her as well.  This is how culture works.  Sharing with friends, family and community.  

  8. I dimly remember that a version of MSFT Word for Mac (v4.0?) in the mid 80s was the first without copy protection or the need for any kind of key disk and it became the de facto standard almost instantly. I don’t know if that was by design or an unintended consequence but it sure locked a lot of people in. 

    It’s a tough question, how to make something that has enough value to attract buyers yet still sell at a price low enough to discourage unauthorized copying. As with SOPA/PIPA, it’s a business model problem, not a legal one, and requires a bit more imagination that we have seen so far. 

  9. In the end, any company that is dealing in copyrighted or patented “goods” are their own biggest competitor. This because their product are easily duplicated, unlike physical goods of equal complexity.

  10. If you could let at least a year or two before cracking stuff, maybe you would end up still getting new interresting software from small companies struggling to survive

  11. First of all, thanks for posting that BYTE image – I used to love those cover paintings!
    Second, any copy protection scheme that doesn’t provide for the fact that copyrights are time restricted, and that time restriction is subject to revision under law, is in fact just a lock on assets which will rightfully belong to the commons. As such, I think one might have a case that breaking an illegal scheme is not particularly illegal.
    And thirdly, the fact that so many data formats – physical and not  – are obsolete, any activity toward preserving old work should be encouraged, and maybe even subsidized. I’ve always been of the opinion that previous releases should be available for cheap or free, even if their source code is not.

    1. The purpose of digital lock provisions in copyright laws (like the DMCA) is that it is illegal to break them whether or not you are doing so for an otherwise illegal purpose, and even if the lock is around a public domain work.

      I.e. in your second point, you seem to be confusing “illegal” with “immoral.” It ought to be legal, but isn’t.

  12. Interesting article, but isn’t it already out of date? The systems of today and tomorrow are web based systems, not things that fit on a floppy. How are they going to get pirated/copied/preserved? If your favourite cloud company goes under, you may still have whatever was scraped by Google and the Wayback machine, but all the functionality will be gone forever.

    1. The article does deal with challenges from current and future DRM, including cloud software.  Unfortunately, the piece is confusingly split into multiple pages and a little jumbled from its original publication at Technologizer.  You just have to dig into it a bit more to get to that part.

    1. I agree with you David.  That is a good point to bring up.  Also note that even if disks are backed up and go bad, they should still be saved as historical artifacts themselves.

  13. I sometimes imagine that in the future because of DRM the only way to access old software is through old pirate back ups, because the legal industry destroyed or allowed to rot the masters out of apathy or malice; making most software unusable without a crack. The preservers of today’s digital information are going to have to be pirates, because the copyright industries are callous to the future.

    1. ‘Callous’ is a weak term there.  The copyright industries are actively hostile to the back catalogues: particularly to the back catalogues of defunct entities.  The real competition in their market is now for attention share. The back catalogue competes for our attention with the current blockbuster. For that reason alone, it has to be shut down.

      It will get worse before it gets better.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the Public Domain relabeled to be Government Property. Exclusive rights to reappropriate Public Domain works will be for sale to the highest bidder.

      Interestingly enough, there is a parallel between that and the debates over the Occupy movement. Just as the Occupy movement has opened a debate about public space (does the public park belong to all of us, to none of us, or to the government exclusively?), so will reappropriation of public-domain material open a similar debate.

      Wherever there is a commons, there will be a movement to enclose it.

      They hang the man, and flog the woman
      Who steal the goose from off the common,
      But let the greater villain loose
      Who steals the common from the goose!

  14. I love Abandonware – the concept and the games themselves! I particularly love having to run a program that slows my computer down enough to make the game playable.
    Lots of times the game you download out of nostalgia is terrible, but it’s still cool that you can do it.

  15. When East and West Germany merged they found lots and lots of old data tapes in the east german administration. The soviet computers that created them are extinct and noone can read the information. They are however kept in case someone can crack the code.

  16.  The last sentence of the first paragraph should read instead: “The business of software preservation and data longevity is a lot simpler than the story would have you believe** (assuming you don’t care about breaking the law to bust open copy protection and to get old copies of Mac System 6.x to run things on or any issues of what the original object was actually like, since emulators often aren’t faithful to the original and every migration to a new medium also changes a digital object).” 
    Short story – digital preservation, not actually all that easy. 

  17. We actually have had this debate before, in the mid 1800’s, when public libraries began to proliforate. The protests against libraries were that they would compete with private enterprise, result in reduced book sales, and give people access to information they shouldn’t otherwise have. 

    These complaints did not keep the US from establishing a library whose purpose is to collect one of every work published on paper. 

    I frankly see the work of MobyGames, The Pirate Bay and other storehouse of digital content as placeholders for when the Library of Congress wakes up and realizes their mandate should include copies of everything published digitally as well. 

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