Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The evils of copy protection

Everybody who sells software seems to love copy protection. The more protection, the merrier. Software which does not protect itself seems to be few and far between these days. I mean, it sounds like a good idea. Every time a company decides to use it, the copy protection is described as easy to use and transparent to the user.

Most companies use CD protection, a key, internet authorization, or a combination of the three. A key is the little string of numbers and letters they send you with the CD or in an email. The idea is that you run the installer, type in the key, and it works. A few companies run it over the internet or a dial-up modem. Then, you have to allow it to connect to the company, and then it works. A lot of games use CD protection, where you have to have the CD in the computer when you start the program, or it won't work.

I've argued for a long time that none of these are as good as it seems. Invariably, something goes wrong. It takes far more time to develop than you thought, or the software fails to run until the user calls tech support (or not even then). Either way, you piss off your users, and you waste money. I don't know which one's worse.

Copy protection bothers me as a user of various software, but since I'm at work, I'm going to talk about the business side of it.

Just developing copy protection can take a while. If you just want something REALLY simple and easy to crack, it may only take a few days to add to your software. What I've seen over the past couple of years is that a real system, working on both Windows and MacOS, and contacting a company server, takes many months. It breaks, you fix it, spin, repeat. Let's be generous and say 6 man-months. You pay a developer maybe $100k (including benefits and stuff, given a low cost-of-living). You just spent 50 grand on copy protection, plus the cost of actually buying the copy protection software (no clue there).

Now, you also piss off users when the copy protection breaks, and the software refuses to run. They call tech support and someone has to talk to them on the phone for a while until they can get it to work. If not, they return the software, and may spread bad publicity about your company. It's harder for me to figure this amount out, but it must be considerable. I know just the tech support time can cost many thousands of dollars to a small company.

The whole point of copy protection is to make sure you aren't losing sales to "piracy." How much do you really lose to piracy? A lot of "piracy" is people who have bought 5 copies installing on 10 machines. Would they really spend the money to purchase the other 5 copies? If not, you didn't LOSE the money, they were just infringing on your copyright. What about people who download binaries and install it for free altogether. Would they really have purchased the software if they couldn't download it? Sometimes, but usually not, in my opinion. If not, you still haven't lost the money, you are just being infringed upon.

As much as companies hate to have their Intellectual Property (all bow and worship the great IP!!!) "stolen", it doesn't necessarily hurt them that much. Generally, the company who made it didn't pay to copy or distribute the "pirated" copies. Nothing was literally stolen, only potential (questionably) sales were lost.

Now balance these possible sales against the CERTAIN expenses listed above. You have to balance out at least $50,000 in expenses before you make anything on it, and probably that much again later in for tech support. Is it really worth it?

Plus, you piss off employees, like me. And I matter (really I do).

I know I'm preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone who reads this is a big fan of copy protection. Maybe I'll enlighten someone, though.


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