How I joined the Dark Side

No one law for the ox and the raven will be fair.

In fact, it will be tyranny.

Mike and I shared disks at first. It wasn’t much of a bother. But in a moment of clumsiness his brother spilled a Coke on the stack of game disks. Most survived but a game we were currently playing became a sticky mess and would no longer turn. In desperation Mike cut open the outside plastic and carefully unstuck the magnetic disk inside. He washed the now very floppy bit of plastic under the sink and hoped it wouldn’t effect its magnet fields. I sacrificed a blank disk by carefully opening its shell to make a new home for the cleaned floppy. It worked! We were elated!

There was no doubt left. We needed backup copies. I bought a box of blank disks and we set out to make copies of the games we didn’t want to lose. Most of the early games copied easily. Going through the disks, however, made us realize that some of the two year old floppies were already worn out. They simply wouldn’t boot anymore.

None of the newer games, including the rehabilitated disk were copyable. The publishers called them “protected” disks. We saw them as unprotected from wear or another “Pepsi Syndrome.” Every time a protected disk failed I felt the publishers stealing from me again. – Geek nostalgia for early 1980s “wild west” hacker-style computing

Why does software need to be protected? Because most people will steal it.

But not all thefts are alike.

For example, I owned Immortal’s “Pure Holocaust” on tape for over a year before I could purchase the album. During that time, I made… 50? 100? …maybe more copies of parts or all of it.

When the CD showed up at the local record shack, it was a joy to buy.

Same way with many CDs I’ve downloaded in MP3 form. “I can’t wait to get this in hard copy,” has been the refrain.

In the same way, I’ve bought a fair amount of software over the years. Luckily Uncle Sam makes that easy if you’re a business.

But spend $400 for Microsoft Office for the home? Not so certain.

Dish out $800 for Photoshop? Well, now this is getting insane.

The computer cost $900 in parts. Asking me to double that again is, well, stupid.

The $800 price is designed for businesses, and everyone else is going to steal the damn thing. Everyone knows that, including the software manufacturers. They in fact encourage it to a degree, since that’s how they get new users.

A power user — or an influential computer user, someone who knows what’s up before others, and so they emulate him or her — may “steal” the software, use it and talk it up and spread it around, and in so doing, convince another 50-100 people to use it, many of whom buy it.

It’s sort of like flowers and pollen. You put out all this tasty nectar so that bugs come to raid it, snag your pollen and spread your raging seed through the plant kingdom. (The human equivalent of nectar is cocaine, apparently.)

Not all thefts are equal, because some thefts are a gateway to more use.

And some legally-defined “thefts,” like making backups of your own software, should be rights. You bought the damn thing; you should be able to copy it.

Thankfully, we’re past the days of disk-based copy protection routines. Now we have software that “phones home” for authorization codes. Each time you boot it up, it checks in with the manufacturer to make sure you’re a paid owner. It’s the same principle: what if I’m transitioning machines, and need the software on two machines at once for a few months? Somehow, law has come to oppose normal usage.

The truth is that there’s a difference in users. Some people will steal anything they can, and never do anything constructive with it. They steal hubcaps, they steal taxes, they cut in line, they drive aggressively, they take advantage of drunk college women. These people are mild sociopaths, just entirely selfish. No society needs them. A sane society would exile or kill them. (Our society, in contrast, piles them up like bowling trophies.)

Other people “steal” as a means of making constructive use. This is how it was back in the 1980s: the hobbyists who tinkered wanted to explore all the software in the world. They had a good reason to — they were the vanguard of computer users, and if they found something good, they passed it around. Many software empires were built on this very principle.

In the chaos it took almost a half-hour to find the kid who invited us. True to his word he brought over his EDD disk. Then said, “You only brought one disk drive? It’s going to take a lot longer to copy stuff that way.” I mumbled a little thinking, crap the first drive was $600! But he was right. Everyone had at least two drives. Still in shock I asked him the 80?s equivalent of WTF! He said it was just a group he didn’t know who started it but they meet once a month anywhere someone will volunteer their house. This month was his turn to host.

I asked him how one went about trading software. He looked at me like total noob but he smiled anyway. “See those lists.” he said pointing to 8 foot tall listings of fan-folded paper hanging ceiling to floor behind most of the computers. “Just look down the list, find the disk number, go to the box and take the disk. Then copy it and put it back.”

That was when I noticed the boxes. Big plastic shoe boxes from Target. Not the little desktop floppy boxes I was used to. Each person seemed to have two or three of these shoe boxes each with a hundred fifty or more floppies. The blank disks alone were worth more than the computers. But none were blank. They contained literally everything ever published for the Apple II.

I heard a guy looking down a list ask, “What’s VersaForm? I don’t have that.” The lists owner responded, “It’s a business thing. Never bothered to boot it though. If you have any trouble let me know.” In polite response he said, “I’ll copy it and make sure it works. Who knows, someone might need it.” Then off he went with the disk.

It was an odd exchange to witness the first time. The second time I simply smiled at the deja vu. Hearing the theme for a third time I noticed myself thinking, “Maybe I should copy PIE Writer just-in-case Dad wants to make a chart.” – A Macintosh will NOT give you AIDS, scientists say

Technically, it’s stealing.

In reality, THESE people should be trusted — their results is good, even if their methods are bad. Their intent is constructive, and they follow through on it, by stealing software and applying it to new and interesting concepts — that’s hacker culture. Ends over means.

Other people should not be trusted, because they’re going to steal the software and use it for themselves, and do nothing else. Means over ends: people like this can ONLY be regulated by method, because their intent and results are always bad.

We need two different moralities in this society. One, for hackers, is that they can do whatever they want so long as they achieve good results; the other, for the people who cannot control their own selfishness, should regulate methods because their intent is always bad.

In the meantime, I’d like a “get out of copyright free” card please.

From A.N.U.S. blog. Re-printed by permission.

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