Why History Needs Software Piracy

Why History Needs Software Piracy
Amid the debate surrounding controversial anti-piracy legislation such as SOPA and PIPA, our public discourse on piracy tends to focus on the present or the near future. When jobs and revenues are potentially at stake, we become understandably concerned about who is (or isn’t) harmed by piracy today.

I’m here to offer a different perspective, at least when it comes to software piracy. While the unauthorized duplication of software no doubt causes some financial losses in the short term, the picture looks a bit different if you take a step back. When viewed in a historical context, the benefits of software piracy far outweigh its short-term costs. If you care about the history of technology, in fact, you should be thankful that people copy software without permission.

It may seem counterintuitive, but piracy has actually saved more software than it has destroyed. Already, pirates have spared tens of thousands of programs from extinction, proving themselves the unintentional stewards of our digital culture.

Software pirates promote data survival through ubiquity and media independence. Like an ant that works as part of a larger system it doesn’t understand, the selfish action of each digital pirate, when taken in aggregate, has created a vast web of redundant data that ensures many digital works will live on.

Piracy’s preserving effect, while little known, is actually nothing new. Through the centuries, the tablets, scrolls, and books that people copied most often and distributed most widely survived to the present. Libraries everywhere would be devoid of Homer, Beowulf, and even The Bible without unauthorized duplication.

The main difference between then and now is that software decays in a matter of years rather than a matter of centuries, turning preservation through duplication into an illegal act. And that’s a serious problem: thousands of pieces of culturally important digital works are vanishing into thin air as we speak.

The Case of the Disappearing Software

The crux of the disappearing software problem, at present, lies with the stubborn impermanence of magnetic media. Floppy disks, which were once used as the medium du jour for personal computers, have a decidedly finite lifespan: estimates for the data retention abilities of a floppy range anywhere from one year to 30 years under optimal conditions.

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A floppy stores data in the form of magnetic charges on a specially treated plastic disc. Over time, the charges representing data weaken to the point that floppy drives can’t read them anymore. At that point, the contents of the disk are effectively lost.

This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late.

To make matters worse, software publishers spent countless man-hours in the 1980s preventing us from archiving their work. To discourage piracy, they devised schemes to forever lock their software onto a single, authorized diskette. One popular copy protection method involved placing an intentionally corrupt block of data on a disk to choke up error-checking copy routines. It worked so well that it also prevented honest attempts to back-up legally purchased software.

If these copy protection schemes had been foolproof, as intended, and copyright law had been obeyed, most of the programs published on those fading disks would now be gone forever. Many cultural touchstones of a generation would have become extinct due to greed over media control.

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It’s not just floppy disks that are under threat. Thousands of games published on ROM cartridges and as enormous arcade cabinets are now hard to find and can only run on electronic hardware that will not last forever. Publishers have re-released a handful of the most prominent games among them on newer platforms, but the large majority of legacy video games don’t get this treatment. Pirates liberate the data from these ROM chips and allow them to be played, through software emulation, on newer consoles and PCs.

Pirating also makes foreign game libraries easily available for historians to study. Some games only appeared on writable cartridges in Japan via download methods like the Nintendo Power flash cart system and the BS-X Satellaview. Those would be entirely out of the reach of Western historians today without previous efforts to back them up illegally.

For a sample slice of what’s at stake when it comes to vanishing software, let’s take a look at the video game industry. The Web’s largest computer and video game database, MobyGames, holds records of about 60,000 games at present. Roughly 23,000 of those titles were originally released on computer systems that used floppy disks or cassette tapes as their primary storage or distribution medium.

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23,000 games! If game publishers and copyright law had their way, almost all of those games would be wiped from the face of the earth by media decay over the next 10 years. Many would already be lost.

For the past decade, collectors and archivists have been compiling vast collections of out-of-print software for vintage machines (think Apple II, Commodore 64, and the like) and trading them through file sharing services and on “abandonware” websites. Through this process, they’ve created an underground software library that, despite its relative newness, feels like the lost archives of an ancient digital civilization.

As a journalist and historian, I rely on these collections of pirated software to do my job. I’d rather it not be that way, but there is no legal alternative (more on that in a moment).

The compilation of this underground library–a necessary resource for future historians–is a brave act of civil disobedience that needs to continue if we are to protect our digital heritage. As we’ll see, the greatest threats to software history lie not behind us, but directly ahead of us.

Why Preserve Software?

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and consider why we should preserve software in the first place. Software often seems inconsequential because of its ephemeral nature. It’s a dynamic expression of electrons on a computer screen, and that doesn’t mean much, instinctively, to brains that evolved to recognize value in physical objects.

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But software is also a powerful tool whose mastery says something profound about our civilization. If we look back through a museum, we can get a good idea about a certain society’s potential by examining its tools. If a civilization could build threshing machines, for example, we know that they could harvest and process wheat much faster than people 100 years earlier. That, in turn, might explain a known population boom.

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