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
* 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.