Why History Needs Software Piracy

How copy protection and app stores could deny future generations their cultural legacy. 

Amid the debate surrounding controversial anti-piracy legislation such as SOPA and PIPA, our public discourse on piracy tends to focus on the present or the near future. When jobs and revenues are potentially at stake, we become understandably concerned about who is (or isn’t) harmed by piracy today.

I’m here to offer a different perspective, at least when it comes to software piracy. While the unauthorized duplication of software no doubt causes some financial losses in the short term, the picture looks a bit different if you take a step back. When viewed in a historical context, the benefits of software piracy far outweigh its short-term costs. If you care about the history of technology, in fact, you should be thankful that people copy software without permission. 

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. 

Piracy’s preserving effect, while little known, is actually nothing new. Through the centuries, the tablets, scrolls, and books that people copied most often and distributed most widely survived to the present. Libraries everywhere would be devoid of Homer, Beowulf, and even The Bible without unauthorized duplication. 

The main difference between then and now is that software decays in a matter of years rather than a matter of centuries, turning preservation through duplication into an illegal act. And that’s a serious problem: thousands of pieces of culturally important digital works are vanishing into thin air as we speak. 

The Case of the Disappearing Software

The crux of the disappearing software problem, at present, lies with the stubborn impermanence of magnetic media. Floppy disks, which were once used as the medium du jour for personal computers, have a decidedly finite lifespan: estimates for the data retention abilities of a floppy range anywhere from one year to 30 years under optimal conditions. 

disappearing_floppy_smallA floppy stores data in the form of magnetic charges on a specially treated plastic disc. Over time, the charges representing data weaken to the point that floppy drives can’t read them anymore. At that point, the contents of the disk are effectively lost. 

This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late

To make matters worse, software publishers spent countless man-hours in the 1980s preventing us from archiving their work. To discourage piracy, they devised schemes to forever lock their software onto a single, authorized diskette. One popular copy protection method involved placing an intentionally corrupt block of data on a disk to choke up error-checking copy routines. It worked so well that it also prevented honest attempts to back-up legally purchased software. 

If these copy protection schemes had been foolproof, as intended, and copyright law had been obeyed, most of the programs published on those fading disks would now be gone forever. Many cultural touchstones of a generation would have become extinct due to greed over media control. 

It’s not just floppy disks that are under threat. Thousands of games published on ROM cartridges and as enormous arcade cabinets are now hard to find and can only run on electronic hardware that will not last forever. Publishers 
have re-released a handful of the most prominent games among them on newer platforms, but the large majority of legacy video games don’t get this treatment. Pirates liberate the data from these ROM chips and allow them to be played, through software emulation, on newer consoles and PCs. 

Pirating also makes foreign game libraries easily available for historians to study. Some games only appeared on writable cartridges in Japan via download methods like the Nintendo Power flash cart system and the BS-X Satellaview. Those would be entirely out of the reach of Western historians today without previous efforts to back them up illegally. 

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. 

underground_library_small23,000 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. 

For the past decade, collectors and archivists have been compiling vast collections of out-of-print software for vintage machines (think Apple II, Commodore 64, and the like) and trading them through file sharing services and on “abandonware” websites. Through this process, they’ve created an underground software library that, despite its relative newness, feels like the lost archives of an ancient digital civilization.

About Abandonware

Abandonware is a pseudolegal concept that posits the righteousness of distributing software that is no longer commercially sold or supported — that which seems “abandoned” by its owners. Despite this, if the software is copyrighted and permission to distribute software has not been expressly given by the owner, distributing it is still illegal. 

As a journalist and historian, I rely on these collections of pirated software to do my job. I’d rather it not be that way, but there is no legal alternative (more on that in a moment). 

The compilation of this underground library–a necessary resource for future historians–is a brave act of civil disobedience that needs to continue if we are to protect our digital heritage. As we’ll see, the greatest threats to software history lie not behind us, but directly ahead of us. 

Why Preserve Software? 

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and consider why we should preserve software in the first place. Software often seems inconsequential because of its ephemeral nature. It’s a dynamic expression of electrons on a computer screen, and that doesn’t mean much, instinctively, to brains that evolved to recognize value in physical objects. 

thresher_smallBut software is also a powerful tool whose mastery says something profound about our civilization. If we look back through a museum, we can get a good idea about a certain society’s potential by examining its tools. If a civilization could build threshing machines, for example, we know that they could harvest and process wheat much faster than people 100 years earlier. That, in turn, might explain a known population boom. 

Likewise, we can measure mankind’s recent potential by looking at his software tools. Future historians may ponder how people achieved a surreal vocal effect in music or created the CGI animated films of today.

They may wonder at what point a certain tool allowed fantastic, photorealistic image manipulations that now dominate advertising. Without knowledge of and experimental access to various versions of Auto-Tune, Pixar RenderMan, and Adobe Photoshop, they’ll have a difficult time finding accurate answers to those questions. 

Software is also entertainment. It is culture. Like books, music, and films before it, the art form expressed in software entertainment programs–usually games–has both reflected and influenced the cultural behavior of multiple generations around the globe. 

Is there an American alive between the ages of 15 and 35 that doesn’t know who Mario is? (I’m sure you can find someone who has not heard of Mario, but he was locked in a basement from 1980 to 1999.) 

hotel_mario_smallThanks to the work of preservationists that flout the law, future historians will be able to more fully consider Mario’s cultural impact and answer deeper, ancillary questions like “Why did people wear T-shirts with pixelated mushroom people on them?” and “What games, exactly, did Mario appear in and why?” 

It’s possible that Nintendo will be around 200 years from now, but it is unlikely to provide all the answers. The company will only convey the history that is in their best commercial interest to show you (i.e. Super Mario Bros. 3, over and over). Historians will show you everything without restraint — even Hotel Mario, Mario Roulette, and I Am A Teacher: Super Mario Sweater. None of those games will survive 200 years without piracy, because Nintendo would rather see those embarrassingly low-quality titles rot away in a tomb sealed by copyright law. 

We Have Everything To Lose
It would be nice if the problem of disappearing software was limited to the past, but there’s a disturbing parallel at work in the current software marketplace. App stores and other digital distribution methods–which often inextricably link purchased software to a unique licensee, sometimes on a unique machine–threaten to deprive us of even more software in the very near future. 

Thanks to widespread adoption of aggressive digital rights management (DRM) and a single-source model of distribution, most digitally distributed software will vanish from the historical record when those stores shut down. And believe me, they will shut down some day. If this doesn’t scare you, then you need an allegorical history lesson. Here it is: 

great_library_smallImagine if a publisher of 500,000 different printed book titles suddenly ceased operation and magically rendered all sold copies of its books unreadable. Poof. The information contained in them simply vanished. It would represent an cultural catastrophe on the order of the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C. In that fire, a majority of the Western world’s cultural history up to that point turned to ash. 

Now take a look at the iTunes App Store, a 500,000 app repository of digital culture. It’s controlled by a single company, and when it closes some day (or it stops supporting older apps, like Apple already did with the classic iPod), legal access to those apps will vanish. Purchased apps locked on iDevices will meet their doom when those gadgets stop working, as they are prone to do. Even before then, older apps will fade away as developers decline to pay the $100 a year required to keep their wares listed in the store. 

From a historical perspective, we can only hope that hackers and pirates have been quietly making archives of as much as they can grab from download services like the iTunes App Store, the PlayStation Store, the Wii Shop Channel, Xbox Live Arcade, and other online app stores. 

And what about cloud software? If all of our software tools become centralized and run over the Internet, it will be hard to pirate them, which also means they won’t get preserved. That’s bad for history. 

clovis_smallWhen paleoanthropologists wonder if a 13,000 year-old Clovis point can take down a Bison, they tie one to a spear and let it fly. If spear points had been automatically cloud updated over the course of their development, however, we would only know of the most recent iteration in the design process. Clovis points wouldn’t exist today, and we’d be wondering how ancient Native Americans managed to hunt game with uranium-tipped bullets. 

With that in mind, think about this: What did Gmail’s interface look like just one year ago? How did Google Maps work before it added Street View? Lacking experimental access to older versions of cloud-based software tools, future historians will have to depend on screenshots and personal testimony to work out exactly what the tools were capable of at any time, if they still exist. 

But if future historians retain access to old versions of non-cloud software, they will be able use the tools, as they would with a Clovis point, to experimentally duplicate the activities of people in the past. For example, they could run the AtariWriter word processing program on an Atari 800 emulator to reproduce a document from the 1980s in a way that would explain its format. 

A complete reliance on cloud gaming (think OnLive) is also a very bad idea. Looking to OnLive to preserve game software would be like expecting your local movie theater to preserve film history. It’ll only show what is commercially viable to show at the time, and they discard the rest. That is how cloud gaming will work as well. 

The new Great Library is already burning, and we are only just beginning to smell the smoke.
When Corporations Own History, They Change It 

The DRM found in digital app stores today poses a significant threat to our future understanding of history. Sure, the companies that create this software own the rights to these products now, but once a work becomes consumed and embedded into mass culture, it belongs to the ages. It assumes a role larger than that of a mere commercial product, and copies of the work should be protected and preserved as cultural treasures. 

star_willow_smallIt’s hard to protect and preserve that which is liable to change or disappear at any time. If VHS tapes worked like app stores, George Lucas could force all of us to upgrade our purchased Star Wars films to the Special Edition versions (to maintain compatibility with LucasOS, of course), overwriting the old ones in the process. Heck, one day he could decide he doesn’t like the movies at all and replace them with copies of Willow. It would be within his legal rights, but it would also be cultural robbery. 

It bugs me that iOS software today updates at a galloping pace that deletes previous versions unless you’ve taken pains to archive them. It is convenient and wonderful functionality in many ways, but the practice also rewrites history with every download. What if Photoshop had been updated that way throughout the 1990s? Would anyone have a copy of the first version that could work with layers? Such a historically important piece of software would be lost. Similarly, if we move to a completely controlled, single-source, automatic update scheme for all PC applications–it’s almost here with Windows 8, by the way–we will be destroying digital artifacts with a fervor heretofore unseen. 

By accepting restrictive DRM into our lives, we are giving not only software publishers, but all media publishers the power to erase, control, or manipulate digital cultural history if they choose. That is why DRM feels fundamentally wrong from a humanistic standpoint: it conspires, in conjunction with time, to deprive humanity of its rightfully earned cultural artifacts. 

To be sure, every creator of software should be rewarded appropriately with exclusive rights of reproduction for a certain period of time, as they are now, but only in a soft legal sense, not with a virtual lock and key that stymies the preservation of history. 

Let’s not repeat what happened 2000 years ago in Alexandria. The only scrolls that survived the burning of the Great Library were those that had been copied and distributed, likely without the permission of their authors. (Unfortunately, library officials strictly limited library access to prevent this, so very few texts escaped destruction.) If we don’t open the doors to the legal preservation of all software, civilizations thousands of years from now will only possess copies of programs that pirates illegally duplicated and distributed while the works were still officially available. 

The cultural impact of software easily equals that of any other creative work. It is time to legitimately preserve this digital art form in libraries alongside books and films. Setting up such a library, however, is a very difficult proposition. 

The Plight of the Digital Librarian
If you wanted to study the history of our culture up to the present, you’d probably turn to a library. There you can find comprehensive collections of analog data to study for free. If you want to study software in the same way, you’re out of luck: operating a practical, comprehensive software library is currently illegal in the United States. 

library_congress_smallDon’t get me wrong: it is possible to create a legal software library, but its implementation would make it nearly useless. The best a library can hope to do, within its legal limits, is to stock physical copies of officially duplicated software media on physical shelves. That means that all the problems with decaying and obsolete media come along with it. There’d be plenty of bulk and very little guarantee that you’d be able to access what is sitting in the stacks.

A more practical approach for a software library would be to liberate the data from fixed media and store it in arrays of redundant hard disks. Librarians could upgrade the arrays over time to avoid obsolescence, and the software could be painlessly transferred over a network to be run on emulators (which would simulate the original software platforms) for historical study. 

Unfortunately, the practical approach doesn’t work because it’s currently illegal under US copyright law to copy software — a necessary part of freeing it from its original media — and then share it with the public without the publisher’s permission. (The law provides for legal backup copies, but you can’t share them with other people.) Moreover, it’s illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to circumvent copy protection schemes to actually make those copies in the first place. 

Right now, there exist libraries that store floppy disks on their shelves as if they were books. These organizations make the mistake of assuming that, like books, the data on computer disks will last indefinitely if carefully shielded from the elements. But there is nothing they can do to ultimately stop the loss of data. The data needs to be copied onto a new medium. At some point, the law needs to be broken — or changed. 

Copyright’s Obsolete Legal Assumption

Current U.S. copyright laws have good intentions, but they ultimately jeopardize the survival of digital property because they do not take into account the rapid pace of digital media decay and obsolescence. 

copyright_smallOur body of copyright law makes a 19th-century-style legal assumption that the works in question will stay fixed in a medium safely until the works become public domain, when they can then be copied freely. Think of paper books, for example, which can retain data for thousands of years under optimal conditions. 

In the case of digital data, many programs will vanish from the face of the earth decades before the requisite protection period expires (the life of the author plus 70 years in the U.S.). Media decay and obsolescence will claim that software long before any libraries can make legal, useful backups. 

A potential solution would be to limit copyright terms on software to a more reasonable period of time — say, 20 years maximum. Then archivists would have a far greater chance of properly retrieving and storing the old software before it deteriorated into oblivion. 

It should also be permanently legal for librarians to circumvent copy protection schemes to archive software. Currently, limited exemptions to the DMCA provide temporary DRM-breaking provisions under very narrow circumstances, but that is not enough. 


As an alternative, a new law could require publishers that seek copyright protection to deposit DRM-free versions of software to the U.S. Library of Congress for media-independent archival. The software could later be digitally “checked out” on a limited basis by patrons doing research. If necessary, these digital library materials could become available only after a period of time, say five years, to further protect commercial interests 

Don’t Let Software Disappear

We live in a civilization dominated by commerce and those who benefit from it, so we instinctively want to protect those who fairly engage in business. There are those among us who, in pursuit of that goal, would like to assault piracy with heavy-handed legislation. But piracy, which is endemic to and inseparable from digital distribution, can never be fully controlled without depriving freedom. Legislation that attempts to do so will only drive the practice further underground while punishing those who don’t even engage in it by crippling the technology that allows software to exist in the first place.

The Four Forces of Software Decay

There are four main techno-cultural forces pushing software toward extinction.

Force 1: Physical Decay

No form of digital media holds data forever. Every computer data storage medium physically deteriorates over time, losing data in the process.

Force 2: Medium Obsolescence

As technical innovations continue, every storage format will become obsolete and rarely used at some point, making retrieving the data in the future difficult.

Force 3: Copy Deterrence

For economic reasons, software publishers have historically tried to deter users from copying the publisher’s software without permission. These methods prevent the legitimate archival of software.

Force 4: Economic Obsolescence

Every software product has a limited market lifespan, which is the result of rapid technological progress. This means that software will only be duplicated and distributed commercially for a short period of time. 

At the moment, you can obtain just about any entertainment work or software program for free if you try hard enough. Despite that, millions of people still pay real money to obtain legal copies of software, films, and music, in the process making those industries bigger and more profitable than ever

The fact that people still buy access to digital media in large numbers means that piracy is simply not the problem they think it is. In fact, piracy is itself the solution to another problem: the problem of over-protected intellectual property. It would be wonderful if those companies utilizing strict DRM and pushing for aggressive anti-piracy legislation saw the need to be a little less profiteering for the greater historical good, but since that is rarely the objective of the free market, don’t hold your breath. 

It is up to us, as a generation, to preserve our cultural history. We must also push for reforms in copyright law that allow software to take its rightful place in historical archives without the need to rely upon the work of pirates. 

If you love software, buy it, use it, and reward the people who make it. I do it all the time, and I support the industry’s right to make money from its products. But don’t be afraid to stand up for your cultural rights. If you see strict DRM and copy protection that threatens the preservation of history, fight it: copy the work, keep it safe, and eventually share it so it never disappears. 

Some people may think ill of your archival efforts now, but they’re on the wrong side of history: no one living 500 years from now will judge your infringing deeds harshly when they can load up an ancient program and see it for themselves.


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