Up till now anti-piracy measures have been attempting to prevent users from making copies of intellectual works. Most of the introduced technical solutions have been cracked quickly. In addition legitimate users have complained since the used techniques have restricted them in several ways. The market has finally realised that this concept does neither protect intellectual property nor is it accepted by customers, who do not want to spend money on something they cannot use in the way they want.

This insight has led to a new approach: detecting illegal use and make the infringer feel uncomfortable. We can find examples of such anti-piracy measures in a number of recent software releases, especially in games both for personal computers and mobile phones. The present article will introduce some ways used in practice to annoy infringers and to make them feel uncomfortable.

The expectation is that this kind of penalty imposed on the consumer can achieve more than just annoying infringing users. With smart prodding, users are to be pushed to buy the product they have illegally used before. Thus vendors want to make illegal copies work for them. It is assumed that consumers, who have got into the habit of using a certain product, will possibly be ready to pay for it, when their user experience becomes disappointing due to the anti-piracy measure employed.

Some history of annoyance
As a matter of fact, the concept is not as new as it may seem. Similar measures have been used by shareware programs since their existence, as their developers had no other chance to recover at least some fraction of their expenses. Nag screens were the first implementation based on the new concept: annoying users in order to make them pay for the software.

In the simple case a screen pop-ups at the application start or while using the application. More sophisticated cases need the interaction of the user, for example unregistered Total Commander (Total Commander 2004) users have to push one of three numbered buttons at the start of the application – the correct button is chosen randomly each time by the program itself, thus preventing the user to do this subconsciously after a certain period of usage time.

Besides nag screens, punishment can also mean some degradation of functionality. In this case the user can do almost anything with the application for a while, but sooner or later he or she comes to a point, where some functionality is missing, or becomes faulty. A good example of this is the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing application (America 2003), where files saved with a cracked beta version of the software can not be opened with a legally purchased release. Not only are the users of the unlicensed copies punished this way, but anybody who wants to use the document.

Nowadays, as network bandwidth of the Internet increases, the spread of illegal content is made extremely easy via P2P networks. One of the obvious methods to prevent users from downloading and using cracked games is to require the original CD to be in the drive while playing the game, as for example the Warhammer 40k Dawn of War game release (Kobrano 2004). This measure is much about preventing the copying. However, illegal copies are often available on P2P networks as downloadable ISO CD images, that one can burn to a blank disc directly, having a spitting image of the original media. Furthermore, there are some utilities that can simulate an optical drive; thus users can play the games directly from their hard discs without having to copy the ISO image to a CD. To avoid this vendors use an anti-piracy method, in which these utilities are removed automatically, or the disc burning software or hardware is disabled while the game is running. We can interpret these measures as a very weird way of punishing infringing users. Some consumers even complain that doing this automatically is nothing else but a Trojan horse, and they might be right.

Punishment to push purchases of legal copies
The most sophisticated and most promising measures are those where the developers introduce slight differences in the application’s behaviour once the illegal copy is detected, which from the point of view of the user's playing experience make a big difference.

One of the first titles that involved this kind of anti-piracy measure was the second release of the strategic game Settlers. The playing experience was reduced near to zero when playing an illegal copy, as the player’s gunsmiths produced pigs instead of swords. It is not hard to imagine, what the combat strength of soldiers strapped with pigs is against the computer driven and well-equipped armies.

Another, recently released title using this kind of protection was the first-person-shooter game Operation Flashpoint from CodeMaster, which used Macrovision’s Fade anti-piracy solution. The player had to face some strange things after a certain time when playing an illegal copy: not only that sometimes the empty clip could not be filled with ammunition, but the controlled character seamlessly dropped down dead occasionally. Some other game releases based on Fade technology involve progressively decreasing gravity on a snooker table, cars that do not steer, footballs flying away into space, or army units exploding without warning (Fox 2003). These behaviours are of course not documented. Keeping them secret means that crackers can never be sure, whether they have found all of them.

As the market for mobile platform games is increasing, it is facing the problem of piracy more and more. However the hardware environment is different from home computers. An illegal copy can be easily detected, as every game issue can be linked to its carrier media, the memory card (MMC). A release of the Athena Space Impact game for N-Gage utilized the described anti-piracy measure. The game became too hard to play, e.g. the player could not collect bonus items providing some special functionality, or the enemy aliens could be destroyed only with many more shots than required when using a legally purchased copy of the game.

Vendors can think about this new method in terms of a "demo version" of their product, which is almost perfectly beneficial to spread freely. The software is the promotion tool for itself, as people, who have got crazy about a game, are more likely to buy the legal copy, as they want to have a version without those annoying things happening (Fox 2003).

“That's the beauty behind it – if you make a copy of a CD protected with our technology, there's no sign that you haven't been successful," said Bala Vishwanath, the chairman of Smarte Solutions, a company that deploys anti-piracy solutions (Willem 2002). "The pirate user all along thinks they made a copy, until they reach the point you decide to stop them. That's the optimal moment to capture that pirate user and turn them into a paying customer."

The “tried and liked” experience is probably also of advantage for consumers, as the new concept offers them more freedom of choice.

Bottom line
Until now, anti-piracy mainly aimed to prevent illegal copies from running. This made the work of crackers relatively easy: they were successful if they managed to make one illegal copy run. Following the new approach of "slight modifications", a cracker can never be sure, whether he has found them all. The approach described above seems to hold some promise in the field of computer games, where playful measures meet playful users. However, how this approach can be extended to cover other types of digital content, like music or video, remains to be seen.


About the author: Ernő Jeges is a researcher at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in the SEARCH Laboratory. His research areas are mainly focused on biometric security solutions, but he was involved in a number of research activities dealing with IT security and the technology aspects of digital rights. He received an MSc in computer science from BUTE in 1995. Contact:

Status: first posted 16/12/04; included in INDICARE Monitor Vol. 1, No 6/7, 17 December 2004; licensed under Creative Commons