Copy protection

ProtectionIn the late 1980s I bought a game for my Acorn Archimedes. It came on a floppy disk and was shipped with a piece of laminated card printed with a 10×10 grid of coloured cells. To run the game I had to insert the floppy disk and type in the colour of the cell at a given, random position. Floppy disks, bits of coloured card, dongles daisy-chained four deep into the printer ports, funny plastic lenses: this was the state of copy protection back in the 1980s. Did it stop people cracking games? No. Did it piss users off? Yes. Unfortunately, although the mechanisms are different now, the result is often still the same.

Much copy protection is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption. Obviously, the point of copy protection is to stop people copying your software. Obvious, but wrong. The point of copy protection is to maximise the amount of money that you, the vendor, make from your software.

These two goals are not aligned, as a simple thought experiment shows. Imagine you’ve written an application that can decode any encrypted message. You’ve spent years perfecting the algorithm. You’re protected by patents and you’ve obfuscated your code but you’re worried that your customers will copy your application and not pay you. You devise a fool-proof, dongle-based copy-protection system. The Pentagon hear about your software and want to buy it. They’ll pay you $250,000 a copy and want 1,000 copies. You’re happy: your copy protection will stop the Pentagon from stealing from you. You dream of retiring to the Caribbean, a multi-millionaire. Unfortunately, the Pentagon have an anti-dongle policy. You refuse to budge. What if they bought 1,000 licences but installed the software on 2,000 machines? You’d lose millions. They don’t buy. You end up with nothing and end up burnt out and penniless.

Here’s another story. Say you’re selling software at $500 a seat. Alice downloads a free trial of your software. She tries it, it’s not for her. She doesn’t buy. You’ve made no money.

Bob also downloads your software. He tries your software, and likes it. Your only copy protection is a nag screen encouraging people to buy. Hitting the ‘remind me later’ button is easier than opening his wallet, so Bob doesn’t buy either. You’ve made no money.

Charles downloads your software. He tries it, and likes it. His trial expires. He could try to get round the copy protection system, or search for a warez site, but he’s an honest man so he gets out his credit card and buys. You’ve made $500.

David downloads your software. He tries it, and likes it. His trial expires. David is a student. He thinks that charging for software is evil. No way will he pay $500 for it. He spends a couple of hours cracking your software and gets it for free. You’ve made no money.

Out of the four people who tried out your software, there are only two interesting cases. Alice and David are never going to buy: Alice, because she doesn’t want the software, and David because he wants it but will never pay for it. You want to make Bob behave like Charles. All you need to do is to make it easier to buy than not to buy. There is no point in worrying about the Davids of this world. And David might even grow up one day, get a job, and actually buy a copy.

You might not even need copy protection. If Alice is your typical user then you need to fix your software. If you’re just starting out then your biggest problem isn’t people not paying for your software. It’s that they don’t want to buy it. Either your software doesn’t fit people’s needs or you’re not able to tell enough people about it. Don’t spend time and money on copy protection: spend it on product development and marketing instead.

In real life, users are on a continuum. At one end lie those who are honest to a fault: people who’ve actually paid for a WinZip licence. On the other are those who will crack software they don’t even want, just to prove a point. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle. The point of your copy protection system should be to encourage us, the honest but imperfect and lazy users, to buy without pissing us off.

Do you use copy protection? How draconian is it? Post here …

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One response to “Copy protection”

  1. Eugene says:

    Hi Neil,
    You’re spot on with this article!
    Those who don’t believe in the paid software (mostly, as you mentioned students but also many normal people from emerging markets) won’t buy in any case, not matter if there is a “crack” on the software site or not.
    So why spend so much of your teams’ your precious time on doing something that will not bring any extra cash anyway?
    Actually, we found out that the sales are likely to go up after a “crack” for your program has been published on a warez site. There are several reasons for that…
    We never knew exactly what drove sales but we suppose it could be because:
    1. The program got crippled and stopped working after installing a crack
    2. The user was so happy with the result that he decided to “thank” the developers
    3. The user decided to legalise
    3.1. The user could not sleep well because he was using an illegal version
    Anything else?
    Because of realising the well in advance when starting development, we saved so much of our time!
    All the best,