The war on illegal software piracy and copying is as old as computer software itself. “Don’t Copy That Floppy” was the big PSA campaign used by the Software Piracy Association (now known as the Software & Information Industry Association) in 1992, when copying a computer game was literally as easy as 1, 2, 3. Today we have DRM, Digital Rights Management, which uses a variety of methods to make sure you’re playing a game or watching a movie you legitimately paid money for, and didn’t just download or torrent from someone. It’s a whole lot harder to get away with piracy today than it was 20 years ago, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even when it seems like a software company is a step ahead, hackers always find a way to break their new encryption technique. And over the years, some of these techniques have been very creative.
On the home console side, Nintendo was the leader in the fight against software piracy. In around 1994, the illegal copying of Super Nintendo cartridges was on the rise. The standard in the industry at the time was to use a bit of code called a “checksum.” This is a check that happens usually when you turn on the console. (Much like the region check I posted about earlier.) It adds up a block of code in the game’s memory and checks the sum of that code with a defined number of what it should be. If the sums match, the game runs. If they don’t, it means that something has probably been modified, and it stops the game from functioning. But most software pirates had easily figured out how to bypass that check. So Nintendo decided to try something different this time around with a new game they had coming out: EarthBound. On its own, it’s a remarkable RPG, and probably one of my favorite video games of all time. But even more remarkable is the many anti-piracy safeguards that, in some cases, play tricks on the would-be software pirate.
Nintendo’s first line of defense is a few bits of code that, on startup, checks the SRAM of the cartridge, which is the part where your progress is saved. An official, Nintendo-produced cartridge has 8 kilobytes here, but many copied cartridges have more. So, if this check finds the cart has more than 8KB, it displays the screen on the right and doesn’t allow the game to go any further. Should that test pass, the normal checksum check I mentioned earlier will take place, and if it fails that, it’s back to that blue-orange screen again. If it passes both of these checks, the game boots up normally.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. As I mentioned, software pirates are able to get through these initial checks with great ease. So Nintendo’s next line of defense comes up once you load up your saved game file. It runs another modification check,(Not a checksum, though. It just seems to be checking one variable to make sure it’s zero.) and if this test fails, it doesn’t stop the game, but instead it makes WAY more enemies appear! (See image to the left.) It’s a unique effort, to say the least. It makes the game very difficult and ultimately unenjoyable to scare off the software pirate. But hey, some gamers enjoy a challenge, which is where Nintendo’s last line of defense comes in.
When you get about halfway through the game’s final battle, the game performs one last checksum. But this time, if the test fails, it crashes the game. The screen freezes, and all you can do is turn the game off or press reset. But when you turn the game back on, you confront every gamer’s worst nightmare:
It wipes out your saved games! All the game progress you spent months or even years on goes down the drain and you’re forced to start back at square one! It’s a harsh move by Nintendo to stop cartridge copying, but in a way, shows what piracy does to a software company: it makes all their hard work count for nothing, since they won’t get any money from the illegal copies sold. Unfortunately for Nintendo, the software pirates found a way to track down all the anti-piracy checks and disable them. Copies of the game’s ROM (read-only memory) with crippled anti-piracy codes have been discovered around the internet.
The fight continues in the present day as software developers come up with new, seemingly foolproof ways to safeguard their hard work, but at the same time, software pirates will work just as hard to circumvent them. The war on software piracy continues, and most likely will as long as computer software is around.