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The Net Takeaway: Should programmers fight back?

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Should programmers fight back? · 02/14/2005 09:20 PM, Tech

The wonderful Aunty Spam points out a destructive ploy by a PocketPC software writer to combat piracy. Bad Serial? Erase your Data! explain how “Pocket Mechanic”, a tool used to fix SD and CF cards which go awry, will instead erase your data if you use a blacklisted serial (presumably one which is floating around the net).

Anton Tomov has decided that hurting his users is more important than providing functionality, and has dedicated his efforts to this end.

Many folks have posted about this, and the general consensus seems to be that of the RIAA against perceived piracy: If a user lies down with dogs, they get bitten. Others have pointed out the foolishness of writing software which knowingly intends to destroy user data without permission, which is setting up the programmer for an impressive set of legal actions.

Interestingly enough, in the real world, I am not allowed to protect my home with lethal force in most states. Just because someone is on my property, I can’t shoot him or her unless I am directly threatened in many states. We have a history of restraint in this country which is rapidly declining in the online world. So, I can’t perform “harm” in the real world, but in the online space, I am allowed to destroy data, i.e., harm the unit? I am not comparing destroying someone’s address book with taking a life, but I can compare magnitude of impact from actions on a relative basis in both spheres. And clearly, in the real world, we expect more moderation.

The author posted his opinion on his own forums, but they are down as I write this. This post on PDAPhoneHome repeats some of his comments, including:

The program indeed contains a piracy check for a single serial number. It is used by approximately 2000 pirates at the moment and can be found on #pocketwarez on EFNet. The people who are using this key have no excuse, the chances of entering the pirated key by mistake is 1/10000000000 which is approximately 0.000000001%.

So, is this fair or correct? Should companies be allowed to “strike back” when they feel they are running improperly? Under the current environment, I suspect we will see more and more programs start to behave like this. Instead of locking up when they detect an invalid license, they will start punishing the user. Excel will randomly change data, or add incorrectly. Word will change spelling of words, but only when printing.

Windows XP, for all its faults, did something right for the activation. Once the key is typed in, it can’t be used for any other installs for 3 months. After that, it can be used again. This makes lots of sense. A pirate wants a key that can be used to run off millions of DVD copies and sell them cheap. A warez distro just wants a working serial to get cred. The regular WinXP key works, but only once every 3 months. This makes sense for a user, who may go a year or more between reinstalls… but is free to do so after 3 months.

Compare this with almost every other phone home product: once installed, you are screwed. They ping home and if you have multiple codes “pinging” at any time, you are out of luck. SPSS, for example, doesn’t describe how to “unregister” an install. If you install it twice, might as well throw away the CD; you’ve screwed yourself.

So, I think this shareware author is insane to write a program which knowingly destroys data, no matter what reason he gives. I also think companies are short-sighted (and I’ve blogged about this before here, here, and here), restricting users is long term stupid.

But like the music companies, I think they will have to sink before they learn how to swim.

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