Copyright Protection:


When desktop computers were first gaining wide popularity in 1980's, most software programs took up less than a megabyte of space, and could therefore fit on several 5 1/4" or 3 1/4" floppy disks. Copying a program was as easy as copying a disk onto another disk.

As the popularity of piracy grew, it became apparent to software makers that measures needed to be taken to prevent the stealing of their products. Games, especially, became a widely pirated commodity.

Software manufacturers are facing an ethical dilemma in having to choose between protecting their rights and in retaining loyal users. Many copyright protection methods, although effective in preventing piracy, have also decreased legitimate users' enjoyment of the product. The most obvious example of such a protection method is manual look-ups.

Manual look-ups

Several methods of copy protection became common in the latter half of the 1980s. Most games were protected by a manual-lookup challenge. Either before the game started, or very early on in the game, a question would be posed to the user that required the user to have a copy of the manual. Since copying whole manuals was more difficult than copying a diskette, this proved somewhat effective in deterring piracy.

The simplest form of such protection (as in the game "Crime Wave") involved asking the user a question of the form, "What is the fourth word on line 3 on page 18 of the user's manual?" The adverse effect to this form of copy protection was a decreased enjoyment of the program for the legitimate user. Many game players were dissatisfied with having to dig up a copy of the manual every time they wanted to play a game.

To address that concern, game makers tried to integrate the copy protection into the game. For example, in Sierra On-Line's "Leisure Suit Larry 5," the copy protection consisted of a series of ATM codes that the player needed to enter in order to buy an airline ticket in the game. The codes were thus part of the game-playing experience. Click here to view a sample manual look-up protection sheet.

Some software makers also allowed the users to play the game in some limited capacity even if they failed the copy protection challenge. Maxis's "SimCity," for example, allowed the user to continue building their fictional city, but would cause sim-earthquakes to happen every several seconds, thereby limiting the user's gameplay without directly intruding into the game environment.

This form of copyright protection, however, was very often defeated, or "cracked," by computer hackers, who would disassemble the program code and try to defeat the protection by either finding the secret challenge/answer file and publishing it, or by hacking the program code and somehow bypassing the challenge. With the growth of the Internet, hackers would post their "crackz" online, available to download. If caught, they would claim that they are not violating copyright laws, since they're only posting the crack to the program, not the program itself.

This, in turn, spurred software makers to try to make uncrackable code. Game makers would camouflage their code to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a hacker to disable the copy protection. In "Patton Strikes Back," for example, the challenge/password file is hidden inside a sound file of an explosion that's used in the game. If the user answers the challenge incorrectly, the game disables itself by subtly corrupting some vital information necessary later on, causing the program to crash.

Although effective in preventing piracy, methods such as this led to wasted man-hours spent coming up with complicated copy protection algorithms, and to unreadable code. More importantly, the frustration of legitimate users at having to dig through the manual every time they wanted to use the software proved detrimental to the success of this scheme.

CD Copy Protection Methods

With the coming of CDs, the manual look-up protection has waned as a means of preventing piracy. Instead, many software companies are trying to prevent users from being able to copy CDs containing the software. Some even go as far as preventing the game from being able to run unless the CD is in the CD drive.

The following are some of the means used to prevent CD copying:

Oversized CDs:some companies print CDs which contain slightly more data than regular CD-Rs can hold. Copying such a CD onto a regular CD-R is impossible. However, bigger- capacity CD-Rs are now available that can hold as much information as any mass-produced CD. In addition, many companies boost the size of the CD by blatantly including software that is unnecessary to the product being sold. For example, some game manufacturers have put Netscape Navigator onto their CDs. This gives pirates an easy opportunity to avoid copying the unnecessary files and thereby copy the oversized CD onto a regular CD. (Starcraft is an example of a game protected by oversized CD).

Fake TOC: an illegal table of contents is written to the CD, to make Windows think that the CD holds over 1 GB of data. There are commercial CD-recording programs available which can defeat this method of protection. (Tomb Raider 3 was protected with this scheme).

SecureROM: a CD contains a file which cannot be copied by a CD burner, as well as a duplicate copy of this file which can be copied. When the program starts up, it searches for the two files and compares them. If they're not identical, then the CD must have been copied, and the program quits. Cracks to defeat this protection are available online. (FIFA '99 used this copy protection method).

LaserLock: Uses a combination of a special CD-making process and software protection, including a special glass-mastering process and a state-of-the-art debug prevention software engineering embedded in the code. (Metro Police is an example of a game protected with LaserLock). To defeat this protection, a CD can be copied in its entirety onto the hard drive and burned onto a CD-R from the hard drive.

Other protection methods:
  • SafeDisc
  • CD-Cops
  • DiscGuard

  • All of the above methods can be defeated.


    A dongle is a piece of hardware that must be attached to a user's computer in order for the software to run. It is usually used in very expensive software packages to prevent piracy, on the correct assumption that duplicating hardware is harder than copying software. The dongle usually attaches to an open port in the back of a computer, and must be plugged in all the time while the software is being run.

    Internet protection

    Companies now use the Internet to protect their copyrights, espeically with games. When started up by a user, a networkable game first checks if a game with the same serial number is already being used on the Internet. If it is, then the game is not allowed to run. This scheme was first used in 1998 in Valve Software's best-selling "Half-Life." Some legitimate users felt their privacy was being violated, since the Internet server could keep track of when they were online, but most of the complaints came from people who were trying to pirate the game.

    Other security features

    With the fast spread of counterfeit software packages, manufacturers have turned to other ways of allowing consumers to recognize if a product is authentic or counterfeit. Microsoft has been a leader in implementing newer and more secure anti-piracy security measures in its software.

    Most of these protection schemes, however, rely not on somehow preventing a pirate from making an illegitimate copy of the software, but on allowing a consumer to spot counterfeit copies. Thus, the effectiveness of these methods rely both on their technical ingenuity as well as the cooperation of the public in refusing to buy pirated software.

    Some examples of copy protection found on Microsoft products include:

  • CD Hologram: An edge-to-edge 3D hologram on the CD bears the words "Genuine" and "Microsoft" when held up to light. Windows 2000 is protected with such a feature.

  • Certificate of Authenticity: The certificate of authenticity, bearing the product's serial number in written and bar-code form, is included with both retail and OEM versions of Microsoft products. The COA changes colors when it is rubbed, contains a tamper-proof label that tears if anyone attempts to remove it, and has holographic images of the text "Genuine" and "Microsoft." When held up to light, at certain angles the label changes color between gold and silver.

  • Serial Numbers: The practice of issuing serial numbers has been widely adopted by the software industry. When the software is installing, the consumer must enter a serial number that came with the package in order to complete the installation. Microsoft Office 2000 has drawn some complaints because it forces the user to register the software before it can be installed. Some consumers view this as an invasion of privacy and the violation of the free choice of the user whether to register a legitimate copy of software or not.