Piracy, Starforce, and Connections, Oh My!

A Balanced View of Digital Rights Management

by Frank “Dart” Giger



Few things can start a flame war on a simulation forum quite like a thread on Digital Rights Management (DRM), and top of the fuel choice for raising the fire has got to be Starforce (a DRM product from Protection Technologies). Heck, I’m one of the irrational Starforce haters, as I had a CD and a DVD burner converted into readers permanently by Starforce 3.X. So I did a lot of research on what type of DRM was used, how it worked, and why it wouldn’t trash my system before I purchased DCS: Black Shark. To make the long story short, the version of Starforce in DCS: Black Shark is their “Diskfree” version that loads no drivers and never, ever interfaces with my DVD burner. I’d like to thank the folks at Eagle Dynamics for being very patient with my seemingly endless questions and answering them with honest, emotionless candor.

Part of the problem is the language of the DRM debate, which has gotten muddied over time by convention and technology. Digital Rights Management contains copy protection, but can be more encompassing than the old way of simply requiring the CD or DVD in the tray in order to play a game or simulation. Often we wind up talking past each other on the matter, and then wind up in “camps” and “sides” of the issue, when really we all just want to play our simulations and games without any sort of hassle.

No place is this more evident than the words Online and Offline. It used to be pretty straight forward: one was either connected to the Internet and in multiplayer mode, or not connected to the Internet and in single player mode. Company of Heroes, for example, requires logging in to a server for single player if the DVD isn’t in the tray. Steam games can be started up in “offline” mode, but one has to sever any Internet connection in order to do so. Rise of Flight doesn’t have an option to play at all without full time online connectivity.

So one now has to delineate between single player and multiplayer in addition to the traditional online and offline.

DRM is an Affront to Man

This is the Unified Theory of Everything in the anti-DRM world, and honestly can’t be answered by itself. No genuinely held article of faith can ever successfully be reasoned against. Either one believes that companies have the right to try and hinder piracy by means of DRM or one doesn’t. The middle ground of demanding reasonable DRM measures falls into the former camp, as it stipulates that DRM is okay for use in the first place, and simply won’t be entertained as remotely logical.

The anti-DRM zealots that want to burn down the churches instead of reforming them invariably come to the defense of piracy, as the end result of removing DRM walks lock step with that of thieves whether they want it to or not. Demanding that the banks keep the vault unlocked and unsupervised so that they can withdraw money on the honor system at their leisure (and therefore not inconvenienced by bank hours or lines) is a position that would also be heartily endorsed by robbers.

The usual tenets of belief go something like this:

Intellectual property isn’t really property

It’s a riff off of the Open Source For All philosophy of the early web, and one that I could never understand. Maybe it’s because I sometimes produce what could be considered intellectual property and have seen what can happen to it by others.

A few years back I made a little music video for Tolwyn’s musical satire that I was pretty happy with. It’s released without any claim of royalty and is as close to being in the public domain as a thing can get. I recently saw where a couple of people had ripped the music from the video and made their own using the same simulation (IL-2). Had they done a better job than I did I’d probably be impressed; in truth they didn’t, and without any credits on front or end they might be mistaken for the one I made. I prefer my mediocre work be judged on its own merits and not be confused with other mediocre works.

The corollary point that comes from this and sometimes hops right over the first one is:

A pirated version of software does not equal a lost sale

One of my favorites! It is as elegant as it is simple when used as an argument on why piracy doesn’t matter (and therefore DRM shouldn’t be used by any company). The idea behind it is that people that illegally download software wouldn’t buy it in the first place and are only checking it out to see what the buzz is about. This follows quickly with the “most people uninstall it after a few hours” excuse.

In terms of physical property, this is the Joyriding theory in action. “Honest officer, we weren’t really stealing the car, we just wanted to drive it around for awhile without the owner’s permission. It’s not like we really want this car or are even going to keep it or try to sell it; we just were curious on how it handled. We planned on ditching it an hour from now in a parking lot down the street where the owner could find it later. Besides, they weren’t using it and so we didn’t inconvenience them!”

It’s a hollow argument in the same way that saying someone “borrowing” one’s car for a few hours in the middle of the night without permission is okay. If you want to drive the car (use the full software) for just a short time it’s going to cost some money to do so.

Oddly enough, the folks that spout this line rarely lobby for a demo of the software, which is the ultimate short test drive (versus a Joyride). We should be lobbying developers for demo versions by standing the whole “piracy as test drive” line on its head.

Similarly, the example of Tommy Terabyte that has a huge RAID array full of illegally downloaded software and movies that he never actually plays or watches is silly. That person is a stupid person doing a thing for absolutely no reason, and hardly a valid point of information to prop up the position.

The final litmus test of whether the whole “it’s not physical property so there is no comparison” line is valid or not is to ask whether or not the person postulating the theory will allow a bank transfer from their accounts into mine — and I’ll promise not to spend it. After all, it’s just ones and zeroes in a computer, right? It only represents a thing of value, after all, and has no real worth until it’s put into actual use. If you aren’t using your savings and if I’m a Tommy Terabyte and don’t spend it, there’s no crime, right?

Personally, I won’t buy a $50 USD simulation without either reviews from people I trust (read like the same things I do) or a demonstration version. And leaving aside the legal and moral reasons, I won’t take the risk of downloading a virus with a bit torrent version of software to “try it out for free.”

Simulations cost too much, and it’s the only way people can enjoy them

This is a real corker, one that never fails to make me laugh out loud, particularly when applied to simulations. The $50 USD simulation requires a two-thousand dollar system with another three to five hundred in peripherals to play them properly! Serious simulations have always been cutting edge in system requirements and always will be. It is no more “unfair” that the cost of simulation play is expensive than it is that the equipment required and greens fees at premier golf courses is far greater than at the local miniature golf park.

Activations Won’t Ensure Longevity

What if the company goes bust and I want to reinstall the simulation twenty years from now? Short answer: you’re SOL. It happens with physical property as well; ask any proud owner of a Yugo automobile or a Voodoo 3DFX video card. With rare exception, most sims (and almost all games) are replaced with something else in time.

The IL-2 Series was officially unprotected about five years after publication, and at eight years old is showing the length of its tooth. The fact that it was broken for mods probably gives it another five or six years of broad appeal (if not more). But the IL-2 series is a huge exception to the rule, which is why it’s rightfully called a landmark simulation.

The Techno Babble Argument

That’s a sentence fragment, I know, but this one takes so many forms, including the ring 0 scare, that it deserves a non-sentence. The line goes that many DRM features go pretty deep into a system’s permission land, right into the very heart of the operating system. It’s true! However, lots of programs that aren’t DRM do the same thing, and there hasn’t been a case of someone’s PC being taken over by hackers due to a DRM scheme yet. In fact, I’d be far more concerned about hacking tools being slipped into a bit torrent version of a simulation than from the one legitimately bought.

Indeed, this is silly on its very face, as it supposes that a version of software that has been altered by unknown third parties is actually safer to the security of a computer system than that which is directly from the manufacturer. No actual business is going to expose itself to the financial liability of stealing one’s credit card or using one’s machine as a spam generator; Tommy Terabyte has no such qualms.

I want to own the software; activations mean I don’t really own It

Yes, you do really want to own it; and no, you don’t. It’s a reality of the world that most PC entertainment software is licensed for use rather than sold. It was a subtle shift in the business model of software manufacturers that is pretty fine in distinction and almost invisible in practice that happened slowly over the last decade. Purchased movies have always been this way, if one wasn’t aware.

Connectivity requirements are Draconian and violate my rights

This is the latest bugaboo in the DRM battleground, and one I find perplexing. If a developer makes Internet connectivity a requirement for play it’s really no different than requiring a certain level of CPU or graphics card when it comes right down to it. If one doesn’t have a stable Internet connection, one doesn’t meet the needs of the simulation. It’s no different than complaining that ARMA doesn’t run on a 486 computer.

I know folks that either won’t be buying Rise of Flight (because it won’t run on their current system based on current hardware requirements) or will be upgrading their computers in order to play it. It’s a harsh thing, but I’m not going to come out of pocket to ensure they make the hardware grade. Yes, it’s bad for people on crappy dial-up; but to be honest, it’s not my lookout to worry about them any more than it is for me to defend the guy with the P90 and demand simulations be written for long obsolete systems.

Similarly, the argument that the developer of software would somehow be responsible for a wonky local ISP is as silly as holding a car company responsible for a gasoline shortage. Here in the Atlanta area we had a good two weeks where the gasoline distribution system shut down — and I didn’t hear one person hold the manufacturer of their vehicle responsible for the inability to drive their cars or trucks because of it. Ford didn’t breach their contract when I was unable to drive my truck for three days, and I don’t think they’d of bought a line of reasoning that because I wasn’t able to drive it they had somehow violated my rights as a customer.

This is the beginning of the end

I like to think of this as the “camel’s nose under the tent” argument that says that the latest DRM strategy is just one more step towards total control or a specific business model of pay-to-play that will become universal. Different companies will try different ways to enhance their revenue stream, but there are no guarantees any of them will work. The market itself will dictate whether pay-to-play and hourly fees for simulations will become the norm or not. We the consumers will decide if that is an acceptable business model, not the guys in the smoked filled room.

DRM doesn’t stop piracy

I saved this one for last, as it’s the final refuge of the anti-DRM True Believer. It’s true! DRM measures don’t stop piracy; DRM measures are meant to hinder piracy. The bulk of sales for any entertainment software are in the first few months of release, and that’s what developers are trying to protect. It doesn’t always work, but they’d be foolish not to try. Often the “day of release” cracks don’t offer all the features of a sim, unlock Easter eggs (like the bird with the message in ARMA) or are useless for online play.

Heck, I’ve got locks on my doors and windows and even burglar bars, but that didn’t stop my house from being broken intotwice last year. Perhaps it’s a vain gesture, but I put in an alarm system and still lock my doors when I’m not home. If the burglars really, really want to break in there’s nothing I can do to stop them; however, that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for them.

Legitimate Concerns

To be fair, there are some legitimate concerns about DRM, but they tend to get shouted down from all the red herrings I’ve listed above.
Here’s my list of demands when it comes to DRM and copy protection:

DRM must not harm my system’s stability or hardware

This was my beef with Starforce, and delayed one sale of Black Shark while I did exhaustive research. It wasn’t unreasonable to hold Eagle Dynamics’ feet to the fire on the issue, as it was their product and their responsibility to ensure the DRM sub-contracting was done right. Consumers have a right to know beforehand of what type of DRM is being implemented and what reasonable safeguards and testing has been made to ensure that it’s okay to install their software. Simulation people are both educated and reasonable, and a forthright discussion will be more positive than negative. The days of “read the EULA” and “it’s better to beg forgiveness than permission” are long gone; a company’s reputation is a very hard thing to rebuild.

Speaking of which, isn’t it about time the full EULA gets published online as part of the FAQ in a company’s web site? It’s a little late to be reviewing the darned thing after we’ve shelled out the fifty bucks. And while we’re at it, let’s not be lazy and just use some boilerplate EULA that includes things that simply don’t apply to this particular software, shall we?

DRM should provide options

I absolutely despise disk checking for one simple reason: I am hell on disks. I tend not to put them back in their cases immediately after use; subsequently they invariably wind up under the desk, monitor, computer, my feet, on the spare computer chair and sat on, etc. The reason I like Steam so much is there is never a CD or DVD that I will probably destroy required to play. I prefer online authentication, and will gladly play the “limited number of activations” mini-game in order to never, ever have to repurchase a game in order to get a playable disk. There are those that for whatever reason absolutely hate online verification or activations and would rather have physical media and a local check. Why they want that is immaterial — give us both options.

If there’s a connectivity requirement, give us the option to defer for a set amount of time, or allow us to complete our current mission. Internet stuff happens on both ends, so why not allow an hour or even day of play without connection?

DRM must not hinder installation or play after installation

Things have gotten better on this front, but far too many times we’ve seen troubleshooting guides on how to work around DRM in order to just get the thing on our systems. The most laughable (and frustrating) example was one of the LEGO Star Wars games that actually required a patch in order to install due to bungled DRM. A more pointed example is the IL-2 SeriesI mentioned earlier, where DRM was removed by Ubisoft due to operating system and other incompatibilities (and something that should be expected).

DRM that requires connectivity to the developer or distributor must not fail

If the company requires that I connect, they must be there to answer my computer’s call. Every single time. No excuses. Blizzard has this right with World of Warcraft now — they had early problems, though; but they have great incentive to never, ever go offline. If a company can’t meet up with their end of the connectivity bargain, than they should quickly, and without any additional expense to myself, come up with an option to play without connection. We all understand Acts of God and Nuclear Wars, but that doesn’t mean the company that placed the burden for connectivity on us isn’t held to the same standard. If there is any sort of outage — and it better be very short in duration — I expect begging and scraping by the developer.

The Dart Standard for outages is one hour in total duration for every three months before I holler; I’ll cut slack for the month of release. Wonk-it-up too much and I will do the worst thing I can — tell everyone I know not to buy the product or any future product from the company that involves a connectivity requirement.

DRM must only apply to the specific software to which it was intended

If I fire up Hello Kitty: Adventure Island, the DRM scheme should only be used for Hello Kitty: Adventure Island and shut down when I exit the game. It’s a reasonable request that all associated software to a given product only be active when it is being used. It shouldn’t run processes after I select Exit to Windows in the main menu, as that’s eating up resources I’d like to use on whatever I’m going to do next, and might provide a conflict that will cause system instability. DRM of one simulation shouldn’t be snooping about my hard drive to see what else is on there that is made by the same company, as that’s overstepping DRM’s core purpose of hindering piracy of a specific product.

Apart from the EULA thing (which, honestly, is a tangent), I’ll use the Diskfree implementation of DRM in DCS: Black Shark as an example of DRM that passed my four tests: it doesn’t threaten my hardware or system stability (it doesn’t even think of looking at my DVD writer); it provides options (the DVD version will, at an rate — the digital download version does the hardware look); it doesn’t hinder installation or play; and it applies only to DCS: Black Shark. Since it puts no drivers or processes into memory, there’s nothing to hang around on my system to begin with. So I bought Black Shark with open eyes and haven’t regretted it. Yes, it required me to remove my tinfoil hat, but to be honest I think the layer of gov’ment ray retardant guacamole was too thin to make it effective.

I’m keeping the tinfoil boxers on tight, though. After all, that’s where my wife claims my brains are really located.

Frank’s opinions are his alone and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of any other SimHQ staffer, and does not represent an official opinion and policy of SimHQ.


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More “sick” humor, great prop-sim training and homespun wisdom can be found here on “Dart’s” page.





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