Copy Protection At Home

Since I managed to get a bunch of people all worked up awhile ago by suggesting that musicians boycott software companies that use PACE’s invasive copy-protection system, it seems worth mentioning that the issue of copy protection and whether consumers should put up with it is now being debated in a much wider field: the gaming community. [I guess it’s called Digital Rights Management, or DRM, these days so I’ll start using that acronym for brevity.]

There’s a new game called Spore. There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of it. Its makers have been hyping it for a couple of years, it was created by the same people that did the original Sim games, Brian Eno did the music for it, etc. It doesn’t really look like something I’d get into but I was considering picking it up eventually if it turned out to live up to some of its pre-release hooplah. It was released a few days ago, and it crossed my mind to see what the user reviews on Amazon were saying about it. So I took a look here at its product page.

Rather to my surprise, it has a review-based rating of 1.5 stars (out of five), averaged from 217 reviews. That’s an extremely low rating for any game on Amazon, so I started reading the reviews and discovered that everyone is complaining about the same thing: the DRM. Many reviews seemingly haven’t even played the game; they’re just using Amazon as forum to make their complaints heard, and yes, they’re calling for a boycott of this game.

The DRM system isn’t new. It’s been used on several other high-profile game titles. People don’t like it for two pretty good reasons: 1) it prevents you from installing the game more than three times, enforcing this by “phoning home” to a server owned by the publisher; and 2) it tends to muck up your computer.

Anybody who has spent more than a couple of years with a computer knows that reinstalling software is essentially inevitable, and happens for completely legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide to get a newer, faster computer (e.g. when it turns out that the game you just bought doesn’t run very well on your aged system), maybe your hard drive fails and you have to replace it, maybe your OS gets botched (or botches itself) and you need to reinstall it from scratch which in turn means you have to reinstall most of your other software from scratch. It happens, in short. With Spore’s DRM, you get to install the software three times, no more. Is that enough? Maybe so, if the game sucks and you end up playing it only once. Otherwise, probably not.

I have only limited experience with this form of DRM so my opinions are not worth any more than the time it takes you to read them, but I do know that after installing a demo version of one of the first games that used this DRM (BioShock) my computer acted so oddly that I had both uninstall the game and do a Windows System Restore to get it back to normal. (No, a Windows System Restore isn’t that big of a deal–assuming that you have the mechanism turned on in the first place…) It was all unpleasant enough to dissuade me from buying the game even though it did look like a rather good one. Ironically, I probably would have bought it if the publisher hadn’t put DRM on the demo itself. Why they did that makes next to no sense to me. Why did they want to prevent people from passing around the demo version, which exists only to help generate sales?

As one of the reviewers on Amazon pointed out, this presents a moral dilemma. A pirated copy of Spore does not have these drawbacks. In other words, a legitimate user of the software that has paid for it may well have a worse experience with the software than someone who just downloaded it for free from a dark back alley near the Information Superhighway. If you pay for the software, you’re supporting the use of invasive DRM systems. If you don’t pay for the software, you’re stealing and you’re not supporting the people who created the software (who probably didn’t have much to do with the decision to use the DRM or not).

So, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Will people start paying more attention to the issue of DRM now that it’s touching a much, much larger world than the relatively tiny one of music-software consumers? Or will people who care enough about such things remain the minority while the rest of the market continues to cheerfully vote with their dollars for products that effectively penalize them for their honesty?

Update: As of mid-afternoon MST the day after I wrote the above post, there are 1764 reviews on the Amazon page, averaging one(!) star. The interesting thing about people using Amazon to vent their frustrations with the DRM is that that rating has got to be affecting sales of the product. I mean, really: if you were about to buy something on Amazon and you saw that 1764 people gave it an average rating of one star, wouldn’t you at least hesitate, no matter how much you wanted the thing?

By adam

Go ahead, try to summarize yourself in a sentence or two.


  1. In your example, wouldn’t hardware copy protection like Pace/iLok or Syncrosoft be preferable, since you could just unplug the dongle and plug it back in to your new system? My Mac system is screwed up to the point of needing to reinstall, and I’m dreading it for all of the copy protection that I’l need to reinstall. The hardware copy protection is a blessing in this case, I don’t have to worry about it at all.

  2. Regardless of whether you’re using an iLok or challenge/response, you have to install the PACE stuff either way. You can’t just plug the dongle into a new system and use the software. So no, I don’t see how there’s any advantage in this sense.

  3. The difference is that you know that your serial number is still valid. If I buy a new computer, I’m not sure if Live, Logic, iZotope, Spectrasonics, etc. etc. will work. The system might tell me I’m out of authorizations, I might dig through the closet and not find the manual with the serial number in it, or I might not remember what email address I used to authorize the software. But I feel good about Sonnox, Vienna Instruments and other stuff on the iLok and Syncrosoft dongle.

    It’s worth mentioning that I no longer have a horse in this race, TASCAM isn’t making software anymore. But I still don’t think that hardware CP is The Devil. The only downside for me is that I can’t run it on multiple computers at once. Then again, that’s kind of the point.

    We’re had WAY more problems with challenge/response systems of CP (Giga 2 and 3, contacts a server on first run). It’s a huge support headache.

  4. I never said that hardware CP is The Devil. In fact I didn’t make much of a distinction between the two until you asked.
    If you go back to my original post on PACE, you’ll see that exactly the scenario which you say can’t happen did happen: I couldn’t install my PACE-equipped, iLok-authorized software on a new PC because the PACE installer BSODed.
    So no, I don’t think one is better than the other.

  5. Yeah, some people have trouble with the Syncrosoft system too. I guess it’s OK when it works, when it doesn’t the software is unusable.

    Garritan has an interesting system: when you register the software your name, address, phone, and email are saved with the program. So if you decide to share it on the internet, all of your personal info goes with the program. Cool tactic.

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