Where Do You Want to Pirate Today?

Adam L. Penenberg
Forbes.com, 08.08.97

MOST PEOPLE AT WORK JUST CALL HIM THE “TECH GUY.” After a mundane morning of rebooting computers, reconfiguring desktops and shoring up the company’s firewalls, he heads to his office, where he cracks open a can of Mountain Dew. On his desk, there’s a package and a note from his supervisor: Install new server software on all of the company’s PCs. Since the software is a brand new release-costing his company thousands of dollars-he realizes he’s just bagged a big one. He grins fiendishly, unwraps the box, extracts the disks and-WHAMMO!-morphs into his favorite cyberhero.

He’s no longer merely “the tech guy,” the geeky middle manager with the encroaching weight problem, wife, mortgage, two kids and years of impending orthodontia. He is now, or, rather his “nick” is, “Mutant,” but it could just as easily be “Vader” or “Tease” or “Techczar,” and he’s a big-time software pirate. He traverses the world of “warez,” as in softwares, a virtual arena rife with videogame-like rivalries and online monikers, ftp sites and ratios, “release” groups, “couriers” and “lamers,” code crackers and stolen credit card numbers-and every piece of software ever released.

Mutant is the first link in an electric chain of distribution that winds its way through the warez world, a highly structured, hierarchical net-based community that, according to BSA, the Business Software Alliance, costs software makers $4 billion every year-one-third the world piracy total. Globally, as the watchdog organization’s web site reminds visitors, that translates into $355 a second, $21,300 a minute, more than a million an hour and $215 million a week. SPA, the Software Publishers Association, weighs in with its estimate that $5 million worth of software is cracked and posted to the Internet every day.

Although other forms of piracy, like the sale of CD-ROMs stuffed with hundreds of pirated programs in China to stores in Poland stocked with 100 percent pirated merchandise, may get more press and drain twice as much away from industry coffers, it’s the net potential that chills software executives. As BSA Vice President Bob Kruger states on the BSA web site, the growth in the number of Internet users is creating a huge, borderless market for pirated goods: “Instead of reaching the limited number of people who can crowd around a card table at a flea market, pirates can peddle their wares to tens of millions of online users around the world.”
Which is why you’d think that the antipiracy divisions of these organizations, not to mention those of large software companies like Microsoft and Novell and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would be pursuing these guys through vaporous trails of Hotmail accounts and ever-mutable site addresses.

But they’re not. They can’t. Not until the law is changed.

“If I want registered programs, I get them,” brags a warez wiz with the kind of courage only anonymity can buy-a phony E-mail address: BlackMan@Pirate.for.ever.gov. “If I want the latest versions of software, I get them. If I want to buy a Pentium MMX200 using stolen credit cards, I do that, too. Because I can get anything I want over the Internet.”

The warez world
The warez world has an ethos all its own, a vitriolic culture oddly bereft of capital letters, where street slang has been neatly woven into the lexicon-“school” is spelled “skewl;” “the” is “da” (as in “da warez scene”) and anyone not on the inside is a “lamer.” Skirmishes between rivals abound, decided not with guns and knives but by computer antics like taking over rival ftp sites, sabotaging chat channels and spamming one another. You can even read about their exploits on RCN -it stands for the Reality Check Network-the pirates’ homespun online zine.

There are two main parts to the scene: release groups, which, since they locate and crack the software, sit at the top of the warez world, and couriers, who ferry the pilfered product to the masses. Some of the better-known release groups are, for software applications, Mortality, Pentium and Premiere, and for games, Class and Hybrid. Some of the bigger couriers include Razor 1911, Motiv8, Amnesia and Fate. Each organization sports a president, vice president, a council and a staff, including site ops and recruiters.

As for the MPEG-3 crowd, all those music pirates that have proliferated over the net in recent months, they are strictly bottom feeders, “lamers” that most major pirate organizations dismiss as rank amateurs, as are all the pirate wanna-bes hanging out on Internet Relay Chat, trying to break into the coolest warez groups.

And, like the personal computer market, the scene is broken down into “pcwarez” and “macwarez,” the vast PC world offering dozens of new cracked software products every day while the Mac scene is smaller, more elite, containing individuals who are as much into the Cupertino mystique as they are the technology. In fact, the latest word out in the Macwarez scene is that pirates shouldn’t copy Apple’s OS8-Mac’s latest operating system-they should buy it, since Apple so desperately needs the money.

Think of them as pirates with a conscience.

Warez the beef
According to Sandra Sellers, a member of SPA’s antipiracy brigade, criminal prosecution under current copyright law requires that the defendant have received commercial or financial gains (See Cracking loopholes). Although there have been recent attempts in Congress to deal with net based piracy-for instance, Senator Patrick Leahy recently introduced a bill to close this not-for-profit loophole in the law-until government acts, pirated software is going to flow freely, unfettered over the Internet, available to anyone who wants it.

Although pirates admit their biggest fear is being rousted out of bed by the FBI, they have little to worry about. January’s Cyber Strike, the FBI’s most ambitious Internet antipiracy act to date, when the Feds raided businesses and homes in half a dozen states, seizing computers, modems and illegally copied software, resulted in no arrests.

Why no jail time? The pirates can thank ex-MIT student David LaMacchia, who, in 1995, was charged with running two bulletin boards off his university’s server that offered an estimated $1 million worth of software for free download. Ruling that no commercial motive existed, the judge, from the U.S. District Court in Boston, threw the case out. Prosecutors then tried charging LaMacchia with wire fraud, but they lost on that, too, so he walked.

But perhaps people like LaMacchia are doing the industry a favor. Although software makers moan about how much the warez scene is costing them, warez junkies claim they are actually spurring demand for quality software.

“We are the best marketing system the software industry has ever had,” said Klingon, a 10-year veteran of the warez scene. “Many of us work at companies where we are the ones who decide what software our company buys. So it’s important that we sample software, and believe me, if the software is good, we buy it. Plus a whole generation of kids who can’t afford to pay for the latest software release get to learn about it anyway, which increases computer literacy. There’s no way they can claim that every piece of pirated warez would translate into a sale for them. To them it means money, but to us it’s just hard drive space, a hobby, like stamp collecting or yachting.”
Type “warez” in a search engine and you’ll see it’s one popular pastime, international in scope, with sites offering everything from Apple’s Greatest Hits to the collected works of Microsoft (Windows NT, all the betas for Windows 97 and even advance versions of Windows 98) to lists of cracked software equipped with User IDs, registration and serial numbers, to even lists of stolen credit cards, which can be used to purchase more sophisticated hardware.

If SPA’s Sellers had her way, net-based software pirates would walk the plank. But she will not only have to wait for a change in law; she will also need an increase in her budget, which is about $3 million a year, 90 percent of it earmarked for software audits. This is when companies are investigated for making unauthorized copies, usually in the interests of cutting costs. Ironically, American business, which has helped fuel the legitimate software industry, is more vulnerable to antipiracy enforcement than pirates are.

15 seconds of fameā€¦
So what happened to that software Mutant got from his supervisor? He uploaded it to a site maintained by a release group with which he’s affiliated. Within minutes, a “cracker” grabbed a copy of the software off the site and got to work, expunging any serial numbers that could be used to trace the software back to the company-and, ultimately, to Mutant. Any encryption or watermarks were likewise eradicated and the software was compressed. The cracker even went so far as to supply a user ID, registration number and the release group’s imprimatur, its cyberlogo: This guarantees quality control. No group wants a rep for shoddy merchandise.

Meanwhile, couriers were watching, waiting. When the cracked software hit the release sites, they started moving it to any and all sites they are affiliated with, the idea being to redistribute the software to as many places as possible, as quickly as possible. Sometimes “racing” occurs, which means rival couriers are upping the same release onto the same site at the same time. But this is generally frowned upon, since it can screw up a release. Word also got out on IRC and through private warez chat networks, or via E-mail or even word-of-mouth.

Within hours, this expensive, proprietary software that took years to concoct, design and manufacture became available, free for the asking, over the Internet. No money changed hands, no profit was made.

Because for those involved in warez, it’s about things other than money: speed; conquest; the high of defeating rival couriers by uploading a fresh piece of software to a site seconds before they can; being the first release group to crack a new program; maintaining a site with the largest warez cache. Like winning a pinball tournament or turning over the scoreboard on Missile Command. It’s about ego and ephemeral glory, about being “the man” in a world that doesn’t even really exist: the Internet.

But mostly, it’s about having your 15 seconds of fame.

“Some guy says, ‘Boo hoo, I’m a big pirate,’ and everyone fears him, but then he leaves the house and he’s a nobody,” says EveryPirate, an ISP manager by day who used to be heavily into warez. “If they can’t make it in real life, they get into warez to try and be cool. It’s like living in a big city without being able to see what people look like and judging them only by their typed words and technical expertise.”

Look around the office at your Mutants. Note that meek college student on work study helping out with the computer network or that balding system’s administrator. Keep your eye on that software beta-tester with the bruise-colored bags under his eyes. Watch that graphic artist with his laser-quick mouse work. Take a good, hard look at your boss.

One of them may be leading the secret life of a software pirate.

Copyright 1997 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)