The WaReZ Wars

Once upon a time, people started deadbolting their doors at night. The response by the criminal community? To start fashioning lockpicking sets. And ever since, those humans harboring an urge to snoop, steal and penetrate have matched wits with property owners intent on protecting their assets.

Similarly, soon after the first copyright-protected computer program hit the consumer market, programs to strip that copyright protection began to circulate. Back in the days when an Apple IIc with a 400 baud modem was considered high tech, groups of devoted technophiles were using Locksmith 2.0 to crack the popular text adventures of the era.

They had concluded that making duplicates of Zork was better sport than playing it.

The hobby wasn't such a big deal back then. The digital revolution was still underground. Distribution was minimal, and piracy was mostly conducted by small, private groups. But the sheer corpulence of today's software market, coupled with the rapid growth of the Internet, has changed all that. The potential for the distribution of pirated software, or warez, as it's commonly called, on a global computer network is mind-boggling. In just a day's time, one pirated file can spawn many thousands of copies. In fact, there are thousands of people exchanging thousands of pirated files each day. Clearly, the financial loss to software developers is immense.

Many ingenious copyrightprotection methods have been developed to stop this blood loss--only to be bested by equally ingenious methods of circumvention. For instance, when CD-ROMs became standard issue, software companies began producing games so large that copying, by any means other than actually burning expensive CD duplicates, would have been impractical. The warezaholics' response? Shrink file size by removing the soundtrack, video and extra animation sequences, and then release the bits and pieces separately-- kind of like plug-ins for Netscape. The escalating sophistication of the war has honed technical excellence on both sides of the fence.

Warez trading has become an integral part of cyber-life for many and a full- blown addiction for others. The scene has evolved from its once-insulated origins into a thriving subculture.

Every aspect of the Net is exploited by the warez scene. Some Usenet groups are dedicated to the trading of pirated files, and the Web is a cornucopia of intertwining tendrils of hyperlinked file downloads. The core of the scene, however, is on IRC. That's where you'll find the channels where software fiends trade files, advertise sites and discuss warez in general. Some channels even have what are referred to as "offer botz," which are automated programs, capable of maintaining multiple high-speed connections, that will send files to you upon request 24 hours a day. In fact, there are channels that consist of nothing but offer botz.

Where are all of these pirated files coming from? At the backbone of it all are the "release groups," the organizations that crack and release the pirated software, or "rip it and zip it." Much like well-known cliques, release groups maintain a high profile and take a great deal of pride in their accomplishments. People vie to join the established groups. Each piece of warez contains a text file that tells a bit about the group that released it, lists its members and gives credit to all those responsible for the particular release. Sometimes the group creates elaborate programs to simplify the installation on the end user's computer, and full-motion video, music and 3-D graphics are not uncommon.

There are several roles in a release group. To begin with, there's the supplier. A supplier is the one who actually supplies the original piece of software, and usually is someone who works in, or is somehow connected to, a computer store.

Then you have the crackers. These scriptmeisters are the elite gearheads who rip, strip and reformat the software until it's ready for mass distribution.

Next in line is the site operator. Site ops run the release sites, FTP servers where newly released warez are stored.

Last, but not least, are the couriers. Couriers download the warez from the release sites. They then upload it to public sites for distribution, using T1 and T3 accounts to transfer files at speeds well in excess of 1,000kbps. Elite couriers are known to move amounts of warez more easily measured in gigabytes than megabytes.

One warezaholic offered this explanation for his illegal hobby: "It's bullshit that the only people that have access to great software are businesses and wealthy individuals. Some of the better graphics applications cost upward of $200. Your average computer user can't afford that just to experiment with, so a lot of great artwork may be lost because economic factors keep a would-be artist from discovering his potential."

Is copying Photoshop for a friend tremendously different from making a tape of music from your collection? How about copying movies rented from Blockbuster? Can piracy even be qualified?

Not really. Robin Hood analogies and justifications of altruism or revenge don't make the theft of software any less illegal. And although it's rarely admitted, greed is often the driving factor.

The more the Net becomes integrated into the global community's daily existence, the greater the demand and pressure the networked community will feel to obtain and share task- specific software. Conversely, the more users share task-specific software, the more diligent copyright holders will have to become to protect their investments.

Beyond the obvious copyright infringement issues, combatants in the warez battle have to consider a number of concerns: illegal use of telephone lines, possession with intent to distribute copyright-protected material, use of network servers to commit a felony crime and intercontinental smuggling of contraband.

Is software piracy the organized crime of the 21st century? Or will the software bandits of today go on to become the programming gurus of tomorrow, and chalk up such activity as misspent youth?

One ex-police officer, who preferred anonymity for this story, equates battles against warez with the Prohibition Amendment. It was never a secret that the Prohibition law was being broken, but attempts to prosecute bootleggers were futile. Similarly, software piracy is happening everywhere, and will never be stopped totally--that would require the dispatch of an officer in every home with Net access.

In other words, the Warez Wars will rage on...for now.

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