The Northern Spy — Copy Protection — Fame Old Futility

Back in the late seventies, I often received software in copy-protected format. The idea behind all these schemes was to prevent a second useable copy of the original disk being made. It was a bad idea. Those five inch floppies didn’t last long before they wore out, so savvy users made copies, filed the original in a safe place, and only put a copy in their drive after that. Any disk whose data could be read into the computer could have its copy protection scheme defeated, and I often amused myself by sending un-copy-protected versions of old favourites like Visicalc and ScreenWriter back to the manufacturer with a sweet note explaining they were wasting time and resources. But no matter. The futile race between the encrypters and protectors on the one hand and the crackers on the other continues to this day.

Fast forward a few decades. We now have draconian copyright laws that criminalize anyone who makes a copy of software for their own use, that allow manufacturers shrink-wrapped licenses that rent annual versions to customers. They can reach into customer machines and turn the software off if they don’t pay for an upgrade every year (or for any other reason they choose.) A complaint that someone is illegally distributing copyrighted material on their website forces the web host to turn off the site, whether there is any evidence for the complaint, and indeed, even if the complaint known to be false. A Russian software engineer who pointed out the holes in Adobe’s encryption algorithms and shows how to decrypt their eBooks, is arrested and charged with offences that could lead to a long prison term. (Thankfully, saner heads prevailed.) The situation with music is as bad or worse.

It shouldn’t be this way, folks. On the one hand, people should pay for what they use. On the other, vendors if manufacturers hire inferior talent who deliver poor encryption, they oughta thank the people who break it and thereby point out their poor security and sloppy design. More, the information age is all about universal availability, and encryption is, in the medium run, self-defeating. In the long run, quantum computers will render it worthless.

Hey, I suffer from the openness of information, too. My shareware books at are used by hundreds of people every month, and only once in a while does anyone pay the shareware fee of $10. Would I or my readers be better off if I encrypted the material and only allowed those who paid to read it? Not likely. And, yes, I know that big name authors like King have put their foot in the waters of electronic books and been burned by pirates.

But for now at least, I’m trusting my instincts, going for market share, and not worrying about encryption, or any other kind of copy protection. Someday, we’ll have the perfect and unbreakable accounting system–one that’ll charge everyone reading this article, say, a half cent, or a buck for one of my novels, and do so automatically. Get a billion readers, and I’ll be rich. (If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) On principle, and to show they can do it, hackers will of course defeat the system (perfection is an illusion), but at those prices, perhaps few people will care, and will allow their systems to pony up.

The problem with encryption, as with any proprietary system, is that we all end up with mounds of old data on disks our current systems cannot read. If I buy an eBook in a private format today, I know I won’t be able to read it in ten years’ time. If I buy it in HTML, PDF (open) or text, I can have reasonable confidence I will still have access to it on my next computer. I think customers can and should go to the more open systems, the accessible information–not by becoming pirates, but by refusing to buy encrypted materials or proprietary reading devices–no matter who the vendor is.

The premise of the information age is that anyone who wants to know about anything, anytime, will be able to find out. All the copyright laws and protection schemes in the world won’t change that. They’re contrary to the paradigm of the times, and are ultimately unenforceable, anyway. I vote for openness, transparency. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.