It's been months, or at least weeks, (a few days, maybe?) since this column has addressed itself to a topic familiar to every computer buff: copy protection. Watch out, gentle reader, because I'm about to take on that hardy perennial once again. But this time, in addition to my normal ranting and raving, I have good news to pass along.
Copy protection, the bane of the software buyer, is dying. Thanks to open rebellion by consumers -- including big corporate buyers -- against this reprehensible marketing tactic, many small software houses as well as some industry giants have decided to give up copy protection and start trusting their customers.
Moreover, early indications are that most software for the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST is being sold without copy protection. That means that Amiga and ST owners probably won't have to wage the battle the rest of us have been fighting for years.
"Copy protection" refers to various gimmicks that software makers build into their program disks to make it impossible for users to make backup copies of the program. There are countless legitimate reasons why people would want backup copies, but the software industry always has acted as if the only reason a buyer might make copies is to steal the program and hand it out free to all his friends. When you buy "copy protected" software, you are giving your money to a company that has decided in advance that you're probably a crook. Insulting, isn't it?
Adding injury to the insult, copy protection slows down some programs and impairs normal operation of others. When a user upgrades from floppy to hard-disk storage, it is usually tough and sometimes impossible to load a copy-protected program onto the hard disk. And, of course, if you spill a little coffee on the floppy disk containing your $500 program, you're basically out of luck if you weren't able to make backup copies.
The dwindling number of software houses that still rely on copy protection argue that they must guard the product to protect against widespread "theft" of the software by folks who copy a friend's program instead of buying their own. There probably are some instances of this, just as there are some music buffs who make tapes of their friends' albums and some readers who photocopy an article from Time Magazine rather than buy their own copy. Somehow, though, the record companies and magazine publishers manage to turn a profit without presuming that all their customers are thieves.
The software industry's estimates of losses due to unauthorized copying range from $1 million annually up to the hundreds of millions. But all these estimates are simply plucked out of thin air. Nobody can measure how many potential buyers of a program copy a friend's instead. My guess, which is as uninformed as all others, is that the number of lost sales is minute. I believe that anybody who copies a friend's program and likes it is a prime candidate to go out and buy that program in order to get the user's manual, etc., and to be eligible for future updates.
The big recent victories in the anti-copy-protection drive have been won in the world of MS-DOS software. Corporate buyers (who are mainly MS-DOS users) have told the software houses that they won't shell out any more for programs that are protected. Result: Ansa Software announces it will no longer "protect" its Paradox data base program; Microsoft eliminates copy protection for the IBM versions of all of its programs, including the upcoming version 3 of Microsoft Word; and MicroPro drops copy protection on the latest WordStar.
But Microsoft and other firms still put copy protection on programs for the Macintosh. Many Apple II programs are still "protected." Are Apple users somehow less honest than the IBM-PC types? Of course not; it's just that, so far, they haven't had the same corporate clout in the marketpace.
Some users' groups and other believers in collective action have sworn an oath not to purchase any software that's copy protected. This sounds noble, but it usually breaks down when the oath swearer realizes the pledge means he can't use Lotus 1-2-3 or some other crucial program.
For example, I have recently gotten crucially addicted to a sweet little $50 program called Mean 18 (Accolade, 20833 Stevens Creek, Cupertino, Calif. 95014). It's a game, similar to electronic golf games in arcades; but Mean 18 lets you play golf on some of the world's most famous courses, including Pebble Beach and the Royal & Ancient at St. Andrews. It's fun and has nice color pictures.
Mean 18 is out now for the MS-DOS world and will be available soon in Amiga and Atari ST versions (where the pictures should be beautiful). All very nice, except the makers of Mean 18 slapped on copy protection. Why do these firms want to treat us all like criminals?