Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Origin of Hackers

I stumbled upon this book by Steven Levy Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution and read it from cover to cover. It is a really interesting read, and keeping in mind that the excerpt below deals with the Hacker scene in 1982, I am stunned to become aware how "old" the issue of copyright is.

It also makes it very clear, why the problem surfaced: A switch in the business model.

The Third Generation lived with compromises in the Hacker Ethic that would have caused the likes of Greenblatt and Gosper to recoil in horror. It all stemmed from money. The bottom line of programming was ineluctably tied to the bottom line on a publisher's ledger sheet. Elegance, innovation, and coding pyrotech¬nics were much admired, but a new criterion for hacker stardom had crept into the equation: awesome sales figures. Early hackers might have regarded this as heresy: all software—all information—should be free, they'd argue, and pride should be invested in how many people use your program and how much they are impressed with it. But the Third-Generation hackers never had the sense of community of their predecessors, and early on they came to see healthy sales figures as essential to becoming winners.
One of the more onerous of the compromises in the Ethic grew out of publishers' desire to protect their sales figures. It involved intentional tampering with computer programs to prevent a program from being easily copied by users, perhaps for distribution without further payment to the publisher or author. The software publishers called this process "copy protection," but a substantial percentage of true hackers called it war.
Crucial to the Hacker Ethic was the fact that computers, by nature, do not consider information proprietary. The architecture of a computer benefited from the easiest, most logical flow of information possible. Someone had to substantially alter a computer process to make data inaccessible to certain users. Using one short command, a user could duplicate an "unprotected" floppy disk down to the last byte in approximately thirty seconds. This ease was appalling to software publishers, who dealt with it by "copy-protecting" disks: altering the programs by special rou¬tines which prevented the computer from acting naturally when someone tried to copy a disk. A digital roadblock that did not enhance the program's value to the user, but benefited the seller of the program.
The publishers had legitimate reason to resort to such unaesthetic measures. Their livelihood was invested in software. This was not MIT where software was subsidized by some institution. There was no ARPA footing the bill. Nor was this the Homebrew Computer Club, where everyone was trying to get his hardware built and where software was written by hobbyists, then freely swapped. This was an industry, and companies would go broke if no one bought software. If hackers wanted to write games free and hand them out to friends, that was their business. But the games published by On-Line and Braderbund and Sirius were not merely paper airplanes of truth released into the wind to spread computer gospel. They were products. And if a person coveted a product of any sort in the United States of America, he or she had to reach into a pocket for folding green bills or a plastic credit card in order to own it.
It drove publishers crazy, but some people refused to recognize this simple fact. They found ways to copy the disks, and did. These people were most commonly hackers.
Users also benefited from breaking disks. Some of them could rattle off a list of rationalizations, and you would hear them recited like a litany in meetings of users' groups, in computer stores, even in the letters column of Softalk. Software is too expensive. We only copy software we wouldn't buy anyway. We only do it to try out programs. Some of the rationalizations were compelling—if a disk was copy-protected, a legitimate owner would be unable to make a backup copy in case the disk became damaged. Most software publishers offered a replacement disk if ; you sent them a mangled original, but that usually cost extra, and | besides, who wanted to wait four weeks for something you already paid for?
But to hackers, breaking copy protection was as natural as breathing. Hackers hated the fact that copy-protected disks could not be altered. You couldn't even look at the code, admire tricks and learn from them, modify a subroutine that offended you, insert your own subroutine . . . You couldn't keep working on a program until it was perfect. This was unconscionable. To hackers, a program was an organic entity that had a life indepen¬dent from that of its author. Anyone who could contribute to the betterment of that machine-language organism should be wel¬come to try. If you felt that the missiles in Threshold were too slow, you should be welcome to peruse the code and go deep into the system to improve on it. Copy protection was like some authority figure telling you not to go into a safe which contains machine-language goodies . . . things you absolutely need to improve your programs, your life, and the world at large. Copy-protect was a fascist goon saying, "Hands off." As a matter of principle, if nothing else, copy-protected disks must therefore be "broken." Just as the MIT hackers felt compelled to compromise "security" on the CTSS machine, or engaged in lock hacking to liberate tools. Obviously, defeating the fascist goon copy-protect was a sacred calling and would be lots of fun.
Early varieties of copy-protect involved "bit-shifting" routines that slightly changed the way the computer read information from the disk drive. Those were fairly simple to beat. The companies tried more complicated schemes, each one broken by hackers. One renegade software publisher began selling a program called Locksmith, specifically designed to allow users to duplicate copy¬protected disks. You didn't have to be a hacker, or even a pro-grammer, to break copy protection anymore! The publisher of Locksmith assured the Apple World that his intent, of course, was only to allow users to make backup copies of programs they'd legally purchased. He insisted that users were not necessarily abusing his program in such a way that publishers were losing sales. And Buckminster Fuller announced he was becoming a With most publishers guessing that they lost more than half their business to software pirates (Ken Williams, with characteristic hyperbole, estimated that for every disk he sold, five or six were P'rated from it), the copy-protection stakes were high.


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