Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 04, 2005
Battle of the Spywares

Blizzard's World of Warcraft has a small spyware-like program running in the background, named "Warden", which checks whether you are running cheating programs. If you play a Sony BMG music CD with their digital rights management (DRM) system, the CD secretly installs a "rootkit", a type of trojan which hides the digital rights management software, so it can't easily be circumvented. In a hilarious piece of news it was revealed that Sony's trojan beats Blizzard's spyware: You just need to play a Sony music CD on your computer first, then add the prefix $sys$ to the filename of your cheating software, and Blizzard's Warden can't detect it any more.

I fully support the right of Blizzard to prevent cheating, and the right of Sony to prevent pirating. But interactions like these make it obvious that their technical solutions are dubious, relying pretty much on the same techniques that hackers would use against your computer. And even worse than that, their software doesn't work against people with a minimum of technical knowledge. For example the DRM software on all sorts of music CDs can famously be turned off with a black permanent marker pen by simply painting a line over the outer track containing the software, which doesn't affect the inner tracks containing the music.

If you legally buy CDs and games from different companies, and play all of them on your computer, you end up with a dozen different programs secretly installed on it. When you remove the CD or uninstall the game, the hidden software often remains. Sooner or later there is some sort of bad interaction. That is funny if one software prevents the other software from spying on you, but a lot less funny if you find that you can't play certain CDs or certain games on your computer any more without reinstalling Windows, or if the whole system slows down or crashes due to all of that software secretly installed.

I don't pirate music or games, but it is kind of sad that I have to go to sites like GameCopyWorld to find a NoCD crack solution which allows me to play a legally bought game on my computer without having to search for the CD every time. I have a 250 GB hard disk, but if I don't use these cracks from hackers, I need to run every game from its CD, which is pretty much how I played games on my Amiga 20 years ago. And while I as legally paying customer suffer from the copy protection system, any teenage hacker knows how to bypass it and make copies for all his friends.

Companies have to come up with something better to fight cheaters and pirates, something that doesn't force their paying customers to jump through all sorts of technical hoops, and that doesn't infect their computers with some hidden software. I can live with programs like Warden, which only send hash codes and thus respect my privacy, and which only run when World of Warcraft is running. But most copy protection software is unacceptable, because it does a lot of nasty things, and fails to do what it is supposed to do: protect the copyright.
Why companies think copy protected media works baffles me.

Pirates have the knowhow and skill to overcome such measures, your big business Pirate won't be stopped in this way. Instead the consumer gets hammered by more and more elaborate ways to stop him burning his new CD onto his iPod for his own consumption.
The simple thought of making music cheap enough to not need to bother with copying doesn't seem to have occured to the production companies.

While I never bother with pirating music myself, I can get a copied cd for £5 (sometimes cheaper) and I would happily pay anything up to £10 for an authentic copy.

When I see brand new CD's on store shelves for £15-£20 though I think balls to it and just buy the copy.
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