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A Corporate Security Guide to Software Piracy

Aug 17, 2007
Almost from the first computer software commercially sold, software pirates have flourished. The international trade in pirated software mirrors criminal activities of other kinds such as drug trafficking - it has its own subculture, jargon, and connections.

It is important to distinguish between stolen software and free or open source software. In fact, the vast majority of software available even today is:

* open source - the source code is available and the software is released under public use for learning, modification, and even redistribution.
* freeware - written by students and hobbyists and given away for free without source code.
* free software - free as in "freedom", open source under the GNU public license.
* shareware - given away as a sample with the option to pay a small fee to get the full version.
* demoware - given away as a free sample of a commercial product.
* charityware - like freeware or shareware, but the user is urged to donate to a charity as "payment" if they feel motivated to.

"Pirated software", as opposed to the above categories, is software produced by a commercial company and sold to the public under a restrictive proprietary license, which has then had its copy-protection cracked and is now being illegally resold or traded.

Originally, there was no such thing as software piracy, because programs to run on computers were simply seen as a non-income commodity. All software was free and open, with computer labs, government contractors, and college students all freely writing and sharing software. then the idea that software could be sold for money took hold, as computers matured and showed up on the home market. Many in the computing community took offense to this notion, and so there is an undercurrent of resentment and justification felt even today, along with the pure profit motive.

The original software pirates were the "Warez Kids". These were hobbyist home computer owners who put up bulletin board systems, abbreviated to "BBS"s, for the purpose of posting free copies of cracked software titles online. The "free" part actually means that you have to upload some of your own cracked software before downloading the BBS-hosted supply, and thus this was termed a 'ratio' site, where typically you'd have to upload two programs for every one you downloaded.

The "Warez" name comes from a deliberate misspelling of "wares", for software, and the "cute" misspelling of words is a distinct marker of the culture. Thus, at the same site where you obtain "warez", you might also get "filez" (illicit copies of private documents, manuals, and such), "codez" (cheat codes for cracking software), "serialz" (serial numbers which unlock software for paid use), "numberz" (stolen credit card numbers on the side), "Pr0n" (for pornographic media) and so on. The creative typing gets much more elaborate, with permutations such as "DO0d" for dude, "1337" for elite, etc. Much of this slang is now tracked by online references such as the famous Jargon File. Note that not everybody who types like this online is a software pirate; general Internet users have quickly adopted warez terms as a humorous irony.

Today's permutation of the BBS culture is now the World Wide Web-hosted piracy websites, which have changed little but for the medium in which they are deployed. There is little distinction between pirated software and pirated media (such as ripped DVD movies, MP3 music files, and the like). The piracy market has moved out of basements of teenagers and become an international and mainstream business, quite possibly the world's largest profitable business. The various laws and tolerance of different countries have ensured that the faceless software pirates online can anonymously hop their servers from one site to another, with very little hampering by authorities. For every site which gets busted, another one pops up.

In many countries outside the United States, software and especially media piracy is seen as no big deal and possibly even encouraged by their government. The prices for software in some countries are so high relative to their economy that stealing it is the only way they'd ever have it! Not to single out one country in a global problem, but a recent conference in Romania revealed that 80% of their software was cracked copies - this at a table where none less than Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Incorporated, himself was attending! Along with Microsoft, Adobe systems media software is the other owner of the two most frequently cracked and redistributed software brands.

The drive to halt piracy is a continuing struggle. It is an arms race, in which the companies come up with increasingly more elaborate means of locking down their software and pirates come up with better and better electronic "lockpicks". The wide variety of "zero-day" exploits, in which software is cracked and posted online on the very same day it hits the market (accompanied by much bragging by the pirate) indicates the scope of the problem.

You can work to discourage this practice by:

* bringing these pirates to justice, using international cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Much of the Internet will thank you, even if it isn't their software that is stolen, because pirates also clog the Internet with spam and viruses.
* protect your network from linking to or visiting these sites. Amongst many, Google and other search engines remove these sites whenever they're discovered, and various agencies online blacklist these sites as well.
* encourage the use of free and open source software and copyright-free media such as work released under the creative commons license.
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