The History of Early Copy Protection

Remember the “good old days?”

You know, when 1 MHz CPUs and 64KB RAM load-outs set the limits of technology? When the machine in front of which you spent way too many hours was called a Commodore 64, Atari 800, or Apple II? Sure, as feeble as those games might look, they were great fun (after all, no could even imagine a game like Company of Heroes or Skyrim back then). But, and you probably remember this, there was at least one thing that really irked you: copy protection. Disks that were so copy-protected that you often couldn’t run them on the era’s primitive disk drives. Bizarre code wheels, plastic dongles, and weird color-coded password schemes abounded, all in the name of preventing losses through software piracy.


Space Quest – Vorhaul’s Revenge II

It didn’t work. Pirates proliferated; every town seemed to have its user group, which often doubled as a pirate’s den. No sooner was a game released than it was “cracked” and distributed by floppy or, increasingly, via bulletin board systems. Sometimes, games were pirated even before they made it to stores. The situation became so bad that many analysts now theorize that the demise of the Amiga and Atari ST machines in the US was directly related to the high level of piracy of the era. And increased piracy lead to more copy protection.

The advent of cheaper hard drives made things worse. Game companies were reluctant to allow you to run games from your hard drive; not surprising, as they weren’t thrilled even about letting you make back-up copies of your floppies either. But, as hard drives proliferated (and games got too big to rely on running from floppies—remember the days of five, six, or even seven 1.44 MB floppy disk games?), game companies could no longer refrain from letting gamers install games to the hard drive. Key disk protection then became the norm; the game wouldn’t run unless a particular floppy disk was in the drive when you started. Gamers hated this, largely because it made your game purchase completely dependent on the survival of this single, fragile disk. You didn’t actually own the game – you owned a floppy that was notoriously unreliable at times, as we all painfully know.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat caused a move away from most forms of copy protection, including the dreaded manual look-up test (where you had to look up a word, phrase, or picture as specified by an on-screen prompt), was the arrival of compact discs as a delivery medium. Though we once mistakenly thought that CDs would alleviate the need for massive hard drives (hah! how wrong we were!), a more realizable goal was the lessening of the burdens of copy protection. After all, a CD could hold over 600MB of data; I mean who even had a hard drive that big? I was growing up in the mid 90’s and finally getting a 400MB HDD seemed like space age storage space to me. And burning CDs, well, that was another ball game from duping floppies. CD burners were slowly made available, but they were large, expensive machines that could barely fit on a disk, let alone inside a computer case. But for a while, we got our wish. Games didn’t require manual look-ups. You didn’t need key disks (though you often had to keep the CD in the drive, at least on start up), and CDs were generally a lot more reliable than floppies ever were.

Alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The 90’s came and went, and CD-ROM drives were as ubiquitous as floppies (more so, as the floppy drive gradually died off). CD burners are cheap and plentiful, and hard drives are large enough to swallow whole racks of CDs. As physical and manual-based copy protection vanished in the early to mid-1990s, the technology to duplicate and distribute pirated games actually improved. And distribution is key; the proliferation of warez sites online made filesharing easy, which then moved on to torrents.

A New Age Dawns

We’ve crossed into a new millennium. Everyone’s ecstatic, and you could almost smell something different in the air. Big companies like Microsoft are cracking down on swashbuckling software pirates left and right, all while both major and minor publishers in the gaming world are re-introducing copy protection. Some of these moves were more bizarre than others – Codemaster’s Operation Flashpoint initially used a feature named FADE, which made it so fake copies were rendered unplayable (by wildly reducing the player’s accuracy model, for example). But the most prevalent forms are serializing game CDs and adding physical copy protection, a move that already started from around the late 90s.


Nox and numerous other games need a CD-Key.

Serialized CDs have a unique number assigned to them. When you install the game, you have to enter that serial number. This method is most effective with games that have an important online component, where there is a central validating authority or master server that can check for duplicate numbers. But of course you can get past this hoop as well – by either doing a web search for the key (some people post them online) or by joining private servers. Physical copy protection, which is sometimes combined with serialization, tries to make a copy of the original CD useless. Burning an original copy of Half-Life, for instance, will get you a disk that won’t work for solo games.

This sort of protection has become the standard since the late 90s. Physical copy protection has its drawbacks, definitely. We know of at least one game that has been delayed due to glitches with the copy protection software; it’s imperative that whatever copy protection scheme is used, it doesn’t render the game unusable for some gamers. Just as in the old days, when a misaligned 1541 drive would result in most C-64 software being unreadable, a slight discrepancy in a CD-ROM reader or driver can result in copy protected games not functioning.

Yet it’s hard to fault the publishers in this case. They can’t raise the costs of their own goods, essentially taxing the honest buyers for other peoples’ misdoings. They have to sell more games at lower costs. So what they do today is apply for increasingly intrusive copy-protection schemes, some of which are so bad that you can’t help wonder how many people have jumped the boat and downloaded an illegal copy just to skip the damned thing so they can play the game.

The Final Verdict…

But the idea is that it’s always cool to buy your games, especially if they’re new. Retro gaming is another matter altogether – they’re harder to find, harder to get working and there’s not much guarantee that, after handing over the money, you won’t end up with an unusable copy thanks to your incompatible Windows 8 machine. But even when you don’t have to, forking over 9$ on Steam or Good old Games (GoG doesn’t even bother you with copy-protection) will always beat a free download. For starters, you get added compatibility and support. And while it’s a tragedy that some publishers have decided to pull off several cool old games from GoG last year (including Fallout 2, Gothic 2 and a few others), it’s still nice to buy old games whenever you can, and, hopefully, give more power to DRM-free vintage gaming in the future.