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Warez All that Pirated Software Coming From?

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In this world of casual piracy, many people have forgotten or just never realized where many software releases originate. Seth Fogie looks at the past, present, and future of the warez industry; and illustrates the simple fact that "free" software is here to stay.
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NOTE

The purpose of this article is to provide an educational overview of warez. The author is not taking a stance on the legality, morality, or any other *.ality on the issues surrounding the subject of warez and pirated software. In addition, no software was pirated, cracked, or otherwise illegally obtained during the writing of this article.

Software piracy is one of the hottest subjects in today's computerized culture. With the upheaval of Napster and the subsequent spread of peer-to-peer programs, the casual sharing of software has become a world-wide pastime. All it takes is a few minutes on a DSL connection, and KazaA (or KazaA-Lite for those people who don't want adware) and any 10-year-old kid can have the latest pop song hit in their possession. As if deeply offending the music industry isn't enough, the same avenues taken to obtain cheap music also holds a vast number of software games and applications—some worth over $10,000.

While it may be common knowledge that these items are available online, what isn't commonly known is the complexity of the process that many of these "releases" go through before they hit the file-sharing mainstream. For example, on September 15, 2002, Unreal Tournament 2003 was available to download online. What makes this surprising is that the game was not even available in stores, and wouldn't be for at least 10 more days. However, if you looked in the right places, you could find a fully functional version of Unreal Tournament in 65 x 15MB files ready to be downloaded and installed. And if you were worried about serial numbers or time limits, this was no problem! Another quick download of the Unreal 2003 patch and the newly found game would be semi-fully registered.

At this point, several questions might be on your mind. One, how and why was this game available for free before it was officially released? Second, where did a patch come from that makes any protection obsolete? And third, why are there 65 files!? This article will touch on each of these questions and more as we take a walk through the software-piracy process.

Warez Overview

Casual piracy has been around since before most of the readers of this article were even out of high school. It all started many years ago, when the purchase of a PC became a reality for homeowners. In those days, software was passed around like a good joke. One person would buy it, and they would subsequently make copies of it on their 5-1/4-inch floppy drive. They would then pass this copy on to their friends and family members. Obviously, we aren't talking about some highly technical routine or process. However, the ease of software duplication made it equally as obvious to software developers that they should incorporate some form of protection into their software.

Thus, the concept of the install-counter and serial number was applied to software development. Most everyone is familiar with serial numbers, which are used as digital keys to unlock software. Install-counters, which many are not aware of, keep track of how many times a product is installed and restricts any installations over a set number (allowing for reinstalls). In theory, this should stop the spread of the files by ensuring that a program is restricted to its local area. However, it didn't take long after protection was introduced that a cracking subculture was formed to handle this obstacle to free software. While the initial cracks were nothing more than finding ways around software protection, such as making copies of software before installation or just copying installed files straight from a computer, this attempt at curbing the free distribution of software lead to advanced protection techniques, and eventually encouraged the creation of advanced cracking groups. It was about this time that pirated software picked up a nickname: warez. Obviously related to the word "softwares", warez became a slang word used to describe all software obtained for free through the digital underground.

As technology changed, the floppy disk size changed from 5-1/4-inch to 3-1/2-inch. It was during this time that the dialup Internet started to become more popular—and with it the Bulletin Board System (BBS). Using a modem and phone connection, something many of the kids today will never have to experience, a computer user could connect to another computer and upload, download, or just look through someone else's files. At this point, piracy began to pick up speed as more and more people were turned on to the online experience.

Now, instead of relying on a friend at school to hook you up with the latest copy of whatever hot game was out, you could dial up a BBS and download the warez'd game. Unfortunately, this often required the use of a long-distance line, which was quite costly. However, in the same way that copy protection created a need for crackers, the need for free phone service created a need for phone hackers, also known as phreakers.

While this is beyond the scope of this article, phreaking is the "art" of obtaining phone service for free. If a person could achieve this, they could essentially dial up any BBS in the world and download whatever files existed at that site without worrying about long-distance phone service. I am quite sure that many an unsuspecting victim complained to their phone company about huge phone bills as a result of their phone line being hijacked for BBS purposes.

The BBS eventually evolved into the Internet we know today. However, this development brought with it a whole new wave of threats for the software makers. No longer did users have to connect to a remote BBS to download software; instead, they could simply use an Internet connection through Prodigy or another Internet Service Provider (ISP) to connect to a remote computer, thus avoiding long-distance calls. However, this freedom was short-lived because the introduction of the CD-ROM threw a small wrench into the piracy industry...at least, it first appeared that way.

The biggest problem software developers had, prior to CDs, was size limitation on their software. For example, Windows 95 came on roughly 30 floppies, which was expensive to ship and produce. Although other programs didn't typically take as many floppies, more money was wasted on getting the program to the consumer with each additional floppy. However, this increase in size also helped to reduce the ease at which a program could be freely passed out to others. Therefore, once the CD hit the market, developers quickly bloated their software with large files, making it very annoying for software pirates to spread the software around. For example, can you imagine how long it would take to download Windows 95 on a blazingly fast 14.4K modem (or if you were lucky, a 28.8K modem)? The need for a solution once again caused another evolution of the software underground, however, from which the art of packing 600MB into 50MB became a viable skill.

Currently, software piracy has taken on a new life, and there seems to be no end in sight. Thanks to connections that can deliver a program in a few hours using high-speed Internet connections and the creation of simple peer-to-peer programs that make sharing software as easy as pointing and clicking, anyone can find the latest copy of Photoshop 7 or Dreamweaver MX to add to their personal collection of software. This technological advance has also impacted the piracy underground, in which it is possible to pass full CD images from one computer to another, thus eliminating the need for repacking. Although the packing of software is no longer as serious an issue, protection is becoming more advanced with phone-home registrations processes—as used by Microsoft's Windows XP. Again, software-cracking is beyond the scope of this article, but it will be touched on briefly in the next few pages.

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