Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 35 / AUGUST 1989 / PAGE 38



The Danger of Power Tools

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

—Lord Acton

Blissfully ignorant of the realities of time and space and plain old common sense, Maurice Molyneaux hopes someone will someday discover "retroactive reincarnation" so that when he dies he can come back in a previous life as animation director Chuck Jones. His greatest fear would be to come back as Wile E. Coyote, and in the process have to learn some humility.

How many times have you heard all or part of that famous quote? It's been repeated so often that most people welcome it about as warmly as they would a visit from a collection agency. Despite the fact that it's almost a walking, talking cliche, it does seem to hold a sizable (but perhaps not ironclad) and bitter grain of truth. I can't possibly imagine how many times an argument has raged about what that quote is really saying, and whether or not it is absolutely correct.

No, I'm not going to engage in a philosophical discussion about what Lord Acton meant. However, I want you to keep that quote in the back of your mind as you read this article, because it's relevant to the theme here.


Power Tools

There's no question in my mind that computers can be a great aid in life. Of course, the computer alone can and will do absolutely nothing for you; conversely, it's what you do with the computer that matters. I'm fast approaching my fourth year as an ST user, and my fifth year as a serious computer user, and I've been doing a lot of reflection on how these machines—my STs in particular—have shaped and changed my life. I went from struggling to find a way to channel my interests into a job to making a career out of doing what I want.

I've taken to referring to my ST as my all-purpose tool because I use it for just about everything. Want to write a story? Whip out a word processor. Want to send an article to STLOG? Turn on the modem, boot Flash! and the editor has my article in minutes. Want to design a spaceship? Use the Cyber Studio, and I can model it in 3-D and look at it from any angle. Want to animate a cartoon? Dig out Film Director and make Megabit Mouse tap dance. Want to make it more interesting? Genlock Megabit so he's dancing on my shoulder.

But playing around with what you want to do isn't everything. A computer can also help you get what you need. CD ROMs (just wish Atari would ship theirs!) are making encyclopedias, dictionaries and other references quicker and easier to use by eliminating the time you'd spend digging through massive volumes for the information. On-line databases and information services provide powerful research facilities where you can access more information than the average public library, capture it in a form you can edit to your needs (keep this part, throw away the excess) and print out to keep a nice copy for future reference.

Stewart Brand's excellent book, The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (I recommend this so highly I'd almost urge you to hunt down a copy this very minute) gives a tantalizing glimpse of what kinds of fantastic capabilities technology may give us in the near future. Personalized electronic newspapers, high-tech telephone answering systems that can actually screen calls, take messages and remind you to call your mother on her birthday; fiber-optic lines into every household, where home computers/video systems could tap into massive databases and download everything from the latest stock quotes to complete movies. There are scientists, educators and business-people all over the world struggling with the problems of making technology improve people's lives, giving them the power to do whatever they please, be it music, animated cartoons, learning an obscure African dialect or watching every single movie made that features someone speaking the word "kumquat".

But there's trouble brewing in paradise. No, not some new symptom unique to the information age, but some old, unwelcome and dubious "friends": dishonesty and greed.

Something for (next to) nothing

"Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient."

Stewart Brand, The Media Lab

Information, and not just of the "news" variety, has indeed become cheap. It's almost too cheap. All one has to do is look how far we've come in the past decade to get an idea of how technology has changed our lives. In 1979, Atari was just getting to the task of launching the 400 and 800 computers, each starting with 8 to 16K of RAM. Throw in a disk drive and a color monitor, and you were looking at $2,000 easily. Fast-forward to today—a Mega ST4 (with 256 times as much memory as that first 400!) with a color monitor and a hard disk runs about $3,000 retail. A lot more bang for your buck, especially when you compensate for inflation.

But that example just covers the hardware end of it. And while the hardware makes everything possible, it's the information created and used by the hardware that's of key importance. Let's look back exactly 11 years to the August 1978 issue of the late Fantastic Films magazine. Star Wars was all the rage in such publications, and on page 61 of that issue we find an ad selling "Star Wars Home Movies" (remember, this is before the VCR really took off as a mass consumer item). What were they offering?

"Now you can see almost 8 minutes of exciting scenes from Star Wars in a specially condensed Super-8 version. . ." And the price? $8.95 for a black-and-white silent version! $17.95 for color silent version, and $29.95 for a color and sound version! Thirty dollars for eight edited minutes! I've seen boxed sets of all three Star Wars movies in video stores for about $80! That translates to roughly 20 cents per minute for the videos and $3.75 per minute for the 8mm film. That's almost 19 times cheaper!

Now, how many people do you suppose bought a film like that? Not a lot. How many people have tapes of the Star Wars films? Lots. Next question, how many people bought those tapes at a video store, and how many people copied someone else's tape? (We won't discuss taping it off a TV broadcast because it's irrelevant at this point in the discussion.) A blank videotape can be had for as little as $5, renting a VCR, another few bucks. Now how about records, cassettes and CDs? A new one costs between $8 and $16. A blank cassette costs a buck or two. People make tapes for their friends all the time. You see a couple of kids buy a tape in a record store, and there's little doubt that one keeps the original and gives his buddy a copy.

Now, without making any proclamations about the rightness or wrongness of that, let's take a quick peek at computer software. An average ST program costs about $40. A disk costs about a buck. If you have one computer and one disk drive, you can probably copy the disk.

See? It's so cheap to reproduce these items that it's not even funny. It would seem that with VCRs, digital audio, computers, fax machines and photocopiers, every medium would be riddled with illegitimate copies running hither and yon.

But it ain't so. Take a look at book publishing. I can pick up a 250-page paperback for between four and five dollars. How much does 250 sheets of typing paper cost? Getting close, eh? How about photocopying the book? Let's see, if we lay it flat and copy two pages per sheet (single-sided copy), it's going to take 125 sheets of paper to make the copy. If a cheap photocopier charges four cents a page, it's going to cost $5 to copy the book, more than the cost of buying a legitimate copy. Could you imagine photocopying a newspaper? It costs maybe 35 to 50 cents and would cost you probably $10 to photocopy.

So, what we begin to see is that the industries that don't have problems with people making copies are those where the real goods are less expensive than an illegitimate duplicate.

If I have it, is it mine?

Probably one of the stickiest questions around today is exactly what are you buying when you buy a book, videotape or computer program. This is where the copyright laws come in.

When you buy a toaster-oven, you own it. As far as the laws of this country are concerned, you own every molecule and fleck of dust in that appliance. You can do anything you want with it. Jump on it, throw it in the swimming pool or make toast. Your choice.

Now, when you buy a novel, what are you buying? Okay, yes, you bought a book, but what part of that book do you own? You own the paper it's printed on, the ink that makes the letters, even the cover; but, according to the law, what you don't own is the intellectual property behind that book. You don't own the exact sequence of words or the thoughts therein. You bought paper and ink and paid for the privilege to read the contents of the book. The same goes with software. What you've purchased when you buy Alien Ninja Vixens from Hell (in 3–D) is a cardboard box, some paper with ink on it and a floppy disk. In doing so, you have paid for the privilege of playing the game. Like the toaster-oven, you can stomp on the package, throw it in the pool or try to make toast with it. But the one thing you can not do is duplicate the intellectual property, which includes the text of the manual, the art on the box and the data on the disk.

Now here is where the question arises as to what you own. Whenever a discussion of this topic crops up, you have people who point out that when they buy that toaster-oven, they own it lock, stock and barrel, but when they buy a computer program, they are restricted, because they don't really own it. They own the disk and box and paper, but not the program proper or the instructions. This is a double standard, they say.

Or is it?

Let's go back and take a look at that toaster-oven. No intellectual property here, is there? Let's make sure. As we poke around the rear panel of this appliance we find some text, most of which warns us we can get zapped good if we mess around back here while the thing is plugged in. Nothing relevant there. Below that is a small sticker states very plainly, "Manufactured under the following U.S. Patents:"

Whoa! Intellectual property just reared its ugly head! The design of the components of this toaster-oven are patented. Legally, we can't duplicate them without permission of the patent holders. So, what we find is that this toaster-oven isn't much different from a book or a piece of software. You own the metal, the dial, the heating elements, but you don't own the design of the components. If you built a duplicate of the-oven, you'd be violating the laws by infringing on registered patents.

Interesting. We own every molecule of that toaster-oven, but not the exact sequence in which those molecules are arranged to make its parts. That is the intellectual property. The same holds true for cars, toothpaste tubes, VCR's, those toy Smurfs I burn to cheer me up on depressing days. In every case, we own the physical property but not the intellectual property. You own the car but you don't own the design of the patented rack-and-pinion steering. You own the toothpaste tube but not the design of the tube itself. (Heck, even the company logo has a little registered trademark symbol on it!) You own the plastic Smurf, but the look of their little blue buns are copyrighted.

So, in this light, a book, videotape, CD or piece of computer software is no different from a car or a toaster-oven. We own the material but not the intellectual property.

Apply here

According to the law, copying certain kinds of intellectual property is a major no-no. Okay, this is nothing new. I think I've more or less established that, on the ground level, software (all types, books, videotapes, etc.) is no different from hardware. You can't copy an Atari ST bit for bit without stepping on Atari's patents. You can't copy the data for Ninja Vixens without stepping on the software producer's copyright.

Now, let's say some unscrupulous person manages to get his hands on a photocopier and finds he can churn out photocopies of the latest hardcover Stephen King novel for one cent a sheet. Each sheet holds two pages of the book, which is 600 pages long. One complete photocopied manuscript is 300 sheets and costs him $3. He finds some customers willing to buy these copies from him for $4 a pop, while the hardcover goes for $18 in the bookstores. He has one photocopier, and it takes a while to grind out 10 complete manuscripts. Also, he's limited to the locals as his market. Thus, he does little harm all in all (not to say there's nothing wrong with what he's doing, it's not right at all).

Compare this to someone who decides to copy Alien Ninja Vixens for a few friends. His friends give away copies to other friends. Unlike a photocopy or a videotape, the copies are perfect, digitally identical to the original, with no degrading of quality. The disk copies in minutes, the data can be smashed into a single big file and sent across modems. Modems can reach just about anywhere. A copy of the game can go from California to New York in minutes. One way or another, the disk ends up in the hands of someone who runs a BBS (Bulletin Board System) on his ST, and who has no qualms about posting copyrighted software where others can download it. The software spreads from board to board, user to user, until there are literally thousands of illegitimate copies floating around the country.

The effect is a bit more devastating than the man selling a few dozen photocopies. Consider a Stephen King book may sell millions of copies in hardcover and paperback. A successful ST program is measured in the teens (yes, teens) of thousands. There are a few dozen bootleg King novels and a few thousand bootleg copies of Ninja Vixens. Who stands to remain in business longer, King or the publisher of Vixens?

This is where the power principle comes in. Modern technology is too easy to abuse. How many of you never gave a second thought to copying an audio tape or a piece of computer software? Would you have second thoughts about stealing the design for Atari's Megafile 44 removable hard disk and using it? Probably.

The rub

There is a serious possibility for abuse in our high-tech world. A computer, while a marvelous tool that allows us to do things otherwise impossible, expensive or difficult, can also be a dreadful weapon—one many people wield without realizing just what they are doing: computer viruses, phone phreakers passing around and using other people's credit card numbers, hackers who break into the computers of government agencies and hospitals to play with their records, pirates passing around copyrighted software as if they had every right to.

One thing it seems our modern society has to learn—and I'm talking from the youngest child to the eldest statesman— is that with power there comes responsibility. We have to learn to think beyond our own wants and see the greater consequences of our actions. From TV to videos to music to computer software, the prevailing idea is to get it for nothing. Don't buy it if you don't have to. That doesn't say too much for what kinds of values we're passing down from generation to generation, does it?

And this is where we can say, "Power corrupts." Why? Because when we have the power to do these things, we begin to think we should be able to do these things. We no longer question if we're right or wrong, we no longer look at what we're doing as stealing (whether it be an idea, money, whatever), we just say, "Hey, it's my right to do what I want," and leave it at that.

So, I'd have to say that I must generally agree with the first part of Lord Acton's statement, as I see it happening before my eyes. As to ". . .and absolute power corrupts absolutely,", I'll reserve judgement until I meet someone with absolute power.

The real world

The potential for high-tech abuse is rampant. In an excellent "Footnotes" column a few months back, Michael Banks discussed the all-too-real dangers and temptations for misusing modern information technology (for plagiarism and so on), so I won't retread that ground here. But on the specific topic of software piracy, here I'll concentrate.

The piracy end of this issue would seem to have been beaten to death, but it hasn't. There are all kinds of rationalizations and explanations bandied about to try to legitimize its practice in some circumstances. Some say they aren't really pirating, they:

—Just get a copy to see if they want to buy it.

—Want to make sure it does what they want and need.

Really? And how many do buy it once they have it? And how many who decide not to buy it ever erase those bootleg copies? Very few.

Then there are those who rationalize it, saying they aren't hurting anyone or the ST community because:

—They wouldn't have bought it anyway.

—One copy won't make a difference.

To address the first excuse, just because you wouldn't have bought it anyway doesn't make up for the fact that you're taking something that you have absolutely no right to possess—unless you pay for a legal copy of it. Secondly, sure, one copy probably doesn't make any difference, but if everyone thinks that, then it's not just one copy anymore.

For several years now, I've seen ST users complaining that software publishers blame their poor sales on piracy, and who say that the Atari community is so pirate-riddled that it's unprofitable. I can't speak from the point of view of those publishers, but I can speak from my own experience. I have been paying attention to what I see and hear. The Atari World Show in Anaheim last April was a real eye-opener. Aside from wandering around the show, I was helping out at the Code-Head Software booth, where not only did we find people were stealing diskless manuals (presumably to have the instructions when they got a bootleg copy of the software), but I also heard a lot of interesting comments from users. Let me quote a few of them:

"My brother buys all the software, and he just sends stuff to me over the modem."

"We want to buy a copy of —."

"My friend gave me a copy of MultiDesk."

And they say this in front of the guys who wrote the stuff! I got the impression that a lot of them had no idea that what they were doing was wrong. Furthermore, a lot (and I mean a lot) of average users were telling us that they used TOS 1.4. Odd, because as of this date TOS 1.4 is not released on ROM, and the only versions out there are disk-based Beta versions, which are supposed to be only for licensed developers. Yet, it seemed half the people who talked to us had a copy. Sure, the disk-based versions of TOS 1.4 aren't being sold, so technically it's not hurting Atari moneywise, but the very idea that so much of the ST community has bootleg copies of the under-development operating system makes the mind reel.

I've had other users try to talk me into trading copies of software. I've been at user-group meetings where one guy will sit down at his computer and grind out copies of copyrighted software for anyone who asks, and I've been appalled to find that just about every computer user I've ever met has at least a few bootleg programs in his/her software library.

I've heard some ST users state that piracy on the ST is, percentagewise, not as bad as on other brands of computers, that ST users are, all in all, better educated. My experience doesn't tend to make me agree with them, but if they are right, then I'm going to start to feel that only a tiny fraction of computer users are honest. . .and that isn't the kind of thing I want to think about.

To close, if and when ever you find yourself tempted to provide other users (or yourself) with illegitimate copies of commercial software, I'd like you to try to recall the following quote by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which I think sums this subject up quite nicely:

"Be just before you're generous."

As the disk turns

If you find this topic of discussion a little out of place here, I'm not surprised. Step 1 is not an editorial platform, but it is supposed to be here to help novice users understand their STs better. A number of people I talked to said they felt the question of software ownership was an important one and that I should cover it for those who are new to computing or unaware of these aspects of it. I agreed, particularly in light of what I have seen and believe to be a widespread problem.

Next issue, the topic will be a little more upbeat, as I'll be covering in depth the myriad ways a personal computer can help people reach goals and make it easy for them to do what they want. The downside of that for those of you who enjoy this column is that the next Step 1 will be the last. Yup, it all wraps up next time.