"As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?" That's Bill Gates, ranting about software piracy. He wasn't complaining about the proliferation of dodgy copies of Windows 7 flying about in the torrentsphere, however.
No, this is from an open letter written in 1976, back when Microsoft was still Micro-Soft, directed at anyone using a stolen copy of Altair BASIC. The fact that Altair BASIC came on a reel of analogue paper tape clearly illustrates that the entire history of commercial software can be seen as an ongoing technological war between those selling the code and those determined to take it for free.
Today it's Ubisoft in the firing line, its decision to force players to remain online at all times in order to validate their software attracting criticism and anger, especially when server problems have prevented gamers from even loading legitimately owned software.
Prior to that, it was EA getting gamers' knickers in a twist with its use of SecuROM, which placed strict limits on titles such as Spore, originally requiring online verification every 10 days and only allowing the game to be installed three times. Somewhat inevitably, the draconian restrictions had little impact on the pirate community. Spore was cracked and released online days before it went on sale, and became the most widely copied game of 2008. Once again, the only people inconvenienced by the DRM were the people who had paid for their game.
Things weren't so elaborate back in 1980, but even the earliest floppy discs for computers like the Apple II used software copy protection based on how disc sectors were written. This rudimentary system was immediately attacked by programs such as Locksmith, the first "nibble" copier, which chugged through data half a byte at a time.
For most gamers, certainly in the UK, copy protection first became noticeable in 1984 with the release of the Spectrum classic, Jet Set Willy. Like other early home computers, the ZX Spectrum was an open invitation to pirates thanks to its simplistic storage media - anyone with a double tape deck could insert a blank tape, hit play and record and run off a copy of a game for their mates.
With the sequential nature of the tapes precluding any sector-reading solutions to the problem, publishers had to innovate, coming up with obstacles that made copied versions of the game more hassle than they were worth.
For Jet Set Willy, this came in the form of a coloured grid on the inlay card. To load the game, players had to correctly enter the requested colour from a randomly generated grid reference. With domestic scanners still a fanciful pipedream, and colour photocopiers something of a rarity, unless you had time on your hands and a big stack of felt tip pens this simple coloured sheet created a daunting roadblock for anyone after a hooky copy of Miner Willy's second adventure.
1984 also saw the development of Speedlock, one of many bespoke loading schemes which allowed the computer to load data recorded at high speed. These turbo-loaders not only reduced the ponderous loading times associated with tape releases, but also made it difficult for domestic tape-to-tape stereos to accurately copy the contents. Unfortunately, cramming data down the wire at such a high speed could also make the Speccy's loading more temperamental than usual, even for those who had bought the game. Not for the last time, an answer to piracy had the potential to cause more problems than it solved.
It's fitting, therefore, that it was the Spectrum which played host to the first copy protection system to really anger and inconvenience gamers - the dreaded Lenslok. Making its debut in 1985, on the Spectrum version of Elite, Lenslok consisted of a plastic lens in a foldaway frame. Games using the system would display a garbled code on the screen, and only by viewing it through the lens could you find out what you had to type in to begin playing.
Even if it had worked, that was just enough hassle to be irritating. The fact that it often didn't work simply made it infuriating. Hopelessly compromised by the technology of the time, Lenslok had no way of retaining its settings and so had to be recalibrated each time to suit the size of the TV screen. The initial instructions made this process a baffling chore, and those with screens too large or too small for the software to handle had no way of getting past this crude digital barrier. Some lenses simply didn't work with the software they came with.
"So far I have been unable to get past the security screens," ranted one M. Briody in the pages of Sinclair User in March 1986, when his copy of Elite refused to let him in. "This is very annoying and frustrating, especially after having read all the rave reviews. I am sure there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated computer owners who will certainly think twice before buying a Lenslocked game again."
While problems with Lenslok were undoubtedly exaggerated, it was a cumbersome process even when it worked, and the bad reputation gained from its wonky implementation lingered. Needless to say, Lenslok died a swift and unmourned death, having been used on only 11 releases.
Meanwhile, publishers on disc-based home computer formats had been experimenting with the same concepts that Jet Set Willy had pioneered, requiring players to validate their game by using something only included in a commercially purchased package. Supplying a word or phrase found on a specified page of the manual was a common ploy, though one that posed little barrier to anyone with a stack of A4 and a photocopier.
LucasArts tried to find ways around this by printing code sheets on dark paper, as with Maniac Mansion, or in ink that could only be seen through a special red filter. The Secret of Monkey Island came with a code wheel, made up of two interlocking circles that combined to form different pirate faces. This meant that anyone with a home copied version would at least have to invest in some scissors and a split pin to enjoy their dodgy copy. Increasingly for PC, Amiga and ST owners in the 1990s, evading copy protection meant using more craft materials than Blue Peter.
This was a time when computer games came in enormous shelf-hogging cardboard boxes, large enough to house a family of otters, and with only a few floppy discs and a manual rattling around inside, some publishers used the available space for collectible trinkets that doubled as anti-piracy measures.
Quite apart from the allure of owning pretend books, crystals and maps from the latest adventure game, these items could be used to catch pirated players out. Zork Zero, for example, boasted a calendar, blueprint and parchment. Information contained within was essential to completing a pivotal puzzle, with the game directing players to their game packaging for the solution. Those who were unable to comply were greeted with the pirate-baiting message, "Good luck, Blackbeard."
Such metatextual measures were less intrusive than the crude manual shuffling of other titles, but they were still easily beaten by a resourceful and determined copy-monkey, and also required a lot of fussing about for legitimate players. Finding non-software ways to defeat the pirates without hassling the player led Ocean, a company that had pioneered the use of speedloaders in the Spectrum era, to experiment with a famously unusual solution in 1992.
Released for the Amiga and Atari ST, Robocop 3 was already an oddball game, its early 3D polygon design marking a distinct change from the sprite-based side-scrollers that the licence-hungry Ocean specialised in. Making it even more notable was the addition of a plastic dongle, which sat in the primary joystick port. If the dongle wasn't present, the game refused to load.
In theory, it was a great idea and Ocean made a lot of pre-release noise about its effectiveness. Naturally, the pirates took the challenge and had a cracked dongle-free version available before the official street date. To make matters worse, the game came out shortly before Commodore released the Amiga 600, which shuffled the design of the Amiga 500 around so that the joystick ports were next to the floppy drive. The innuendo-laden result: Robocop's dongle didn't fit.
Posting on The Ocean Experience message boards in 2005, Ocean head honcho Gary Bracey explained that the aim wasn't to eradicate professional piracy, but to stem the tide of amateur pirates in those vital early weeks on sale.
"The largest sales of any title (back then) occurred within the first week of release", he posted. "Not everyone who had an Amiga had programming skills and we were attempting to deter casual copying at this level. Our hope was to delay the proliferation of copied disks for a short amount of time in order to maximise sales. The measure certainly prevented the casual, non-programmer copier from just duplicating disc-to-disc, but I agree it didn't take long for the 'professional' pirates to copy and distribute the game."
In that regard, at least, the dongle was a success - though few remember it that way, and its reputation as a grand anti-piracy folly endures to this day. "The extent to which it worked is debatable," Bracey continued. "But at least we tried. In the history of my career at Ocean, Robocop 3 and the dongle were a pretty minor issue and it puzzles me why people seem to attach so much significance to it. It really wasn't that important."
Even with the hackers and crackers, this was still mostly the sort of domestic piracy that only required a disc burner and some programming knowledge to pull off. Most Amiga games could still be copied by a home user with widely available public domain programs like XCopy, and at worst they'd come up against something like Rob Northen's Copylock, which used a disparity in the read/write capabilities of the floppy drives to create data that could be easily read, but difficult to write to a new disc. Since this was the golden age of the demoscene, there was always some willing hacking crew prepared to break the code and insert their own boastful scrolling message at the start of the game.
Where cheap media such as discs and tapes were concerned, piracy was theoretically within the means of most domestic users. For consoles, piracy was a very different kettle of peg-legged fish. Reproducing knock-off cartridges required, at the very least, rudimentary manufacturing facilities and a steady supply of blank microchips and other components.
Even so, from the NES onwards the Far East was awash in counterfeit carts, often on sale in mainstream shops. Companies such as Spica even produced clones of the NES hardware, and in 1991 Nintendo asked for US assistance in stemming the tide of illegal cartridges pouting out of Taiwan, with many of the components supplied by United Microelectronics Corporation, which was formed and co-owned by the Taiwanese government.
With such rampant piracy, it was strange that Nintendo so doggedly stuck with the expensive and cumbersome cartridge format for the Nintendo 64. Instead it was Sony and SEGA that took the plunge with disc-based consoles, and the associated piracy issues that come with easily writable media. Whereas early computers had to rely on software solutions for their anti-piracy, the unified design of a games console meant that such measures could be built into the hardware.
Legitimate PlayStation CDs, for example, wrote to disc sectors that domestic CD-R burners couldn't access. The fledgling trade in modchips gave gamers a way around the problem, at the cost of their console warranty, while some games could be made to work by propping open the console's lid and loading the first authenticated track of a legitimate disc before swapping to the pirate disc.
It was the SEGA Dreamcast that arguably suffered the most. Already on the ropes after the failure of its predecessor, the Saturn, and the announcement of the PlayStation 2 taking the wind out of its sales headstart, the fact that its proprietary GD-ROM media was easily beaten meant that the entire Dreamcast library was open to anyone with some blank CDs, a copied boot disc and reactions fast enough to swap them around at the right moment.
SEGA's own technology even helped the pirates, with 2001's official Dreamcast Broadband Adapter allowing people to hook the console up to a PC as an external drive and simply drag the data off the disc, ready for burning.
As internet use became the norm, the online world offered another front for the anti-piracy battle. The idea of using product key codes to authenticate a disc was nothing new, but previously it had to rely on algorithms and codes already present in the software - easy pickings for hackers. The arrival of widespread internet access made digital authorisation possible, and companies like Blizzard were quick to take advantage.
Diablo 2 and StarCraft both required online authentication, and as more and more PC gamers were choosing to play online as well, the threat of avoiding online access for the sake of a copy became less attractive. Even then, the system was easily snipped out by hackers, leaving legitimate players to worry about losing product keys. That's if you were lucky. PC copies of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow were famously shipped to Australia without any product keys, rendering the discs useless.
Which brings us to today, and the always-online digital wonderland where games can be downloaded in hours, whether legitimate or not, and companies try to cajole us into paying for our gaming, whether with the dangling carrot of online community and downloadable extras for legit players, or the bludgeoning stick of constant authentication.
Looking back, it's rather depressing to see how little has changed in the relationship between publishers and pirates. Games keep coming up with different technological barriers to copying, and the pirates keep slipping around them with apparent ease. Stuck in the middle, as always, are the honest consumers jumping through hoops just to prove they've paid their dues.
It seems unlikely that Ubisoft's current system will fare differently, or that it will be the final salvo in a battle that will rage for as long as gaming exists. Still, look on the bright side - at least we don't have to squint through broken plastic lenses just to start the game these days.
On the other hand, maybe we shouldn't give them ideas.