Cyber Robin Hoods and the wars on pirated software


Almost $30 billion dollars in revenue is lost each year to online piracy as the struggle between companies and pirates continues to proliferate.

There’s a line written in the historic essay featured in Phrack Magazine, The Conscience of a Hacker – dubbed The Hacker Manifesto – that continues to resonate throughout the annals of time. They’re the words of The Mentor, written on January 8th, 1986.

“We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals.”

In the hacker world, we call it “warez,” better known as pirated software. Think of it as a tradable commodity that’s obtained freely and thus freely distributed. That’s because freedom of information is a hacker ethos.

You see, hackers never set forth to liberate information until people wanted products and services they couldn’t afford to have. At the end of the day, it was about companies setting unrealistic expectations for consumers to pay ridiculous prices that could have been affordable to all. Companies wanted more profit, consumers wanted more access.

Since prices couldn’t be lowered, hackers started making access to things for free. Things like programs, phone services, movies, music, books, and access to educational resources. I mean, think about it. The revenue earned by the Hollywood film industry was over $77 billion in 2022.

The first Iron Man film grossed over $585.8 million at the box office.

The entertainment industry alone could end world hunger, and so could a portion of Elon Musk’s net worth.

Obviously, the logic of the ethos isn’t without flaws. But then again, neither is the nature of excessive commercialism.

Piracy in cyberspace

In the early 2000s, I found myself in front of my computer, frustration building as I stared at the screen. I had recently acquired a pirated copy of the popular PC game StarCraft. Despite my efforts, the game wasn't cracked, and the serial key generator I downloaded didn’t work. Irritated, I started rapidly tapping random keys as fast as my fingers could move.

Enter. Error. Enter. Error. Then, I struck pay dirt on the fifth try!

As time passed, I found other ways to bypass software restrictions to enjoy them as if I had bought them. The art of subverting restrictions gave me a euphoric feeling and made the products much more enjoyable. For example, I used a Windows program I downloaded from an old hacker website called Claymore. I used this as a last-ditch effort by brute-forcing the serial key or product code field.

Anyone on the hacker and warez scene back in the day will remember tricks like rolling back your PC clock, which allowed you to bypass 30-day time limits. Reverse engineering the programs through a hex editor could allow you to remove flags that check for license and serial keys.

Other times, unlocking the software was as easy as deleting an accompanying .dll file that triggered the in-program license check. If all else failed, I’d just head over to CrackSpider.net and download cracks and serial key generators developed by the pros.

One time, my hacking crew and I broke into the FTP server of a well-known Voice-over IP service provider. We freely downloaded all their high-end corporate software packages but also found their product key generator. The value of the software exceeded $50k. Our first thought was to distribute it as a means to protest the outrageous costs of using their products. We eagerly uploaded the software to some backend server and later forgot that we ever did the hack.

Warez is just another facet of the hacker subculture. On the other hand, the initial idea behind warez was to serve as an act of protest against excessive commercialism, to defy greedy corporations from lining their pockets when services and products should be affordable to all, not just to those who are willing to pay the most money.

However, I believe these ideals fall short, especially when those who fight against injustice, such as hacktivists, also cause injury by stealing products and services without compensating for the commodities they enjoy and promote in underground channels. However, these beliefs only extend so far. I am, after all, a child of the machine and, subsequently, a byproduct of the hacker subculture.

Rebel ideals vs profit loss

One thing that many pirates I’ve spoken with will encourage is: if you download illegal items, show appreciation for the people who produced them by buying them later. Since I’ve spent most of my life downloading music and movies for free, I now subscribe to streaming services where I pay a flat monthly premium to listen to all the songs my black little heart could ever desire.

I do this with music and apps I love. Think about it for a moment. The music industry claims to lose $12.5 billion annually because of music piracy and alleges 71,060 job losses, even though Taylor Swift grosses between $10 to $13 million a concert, which is more than most people will earn during their lifetime.

A yearly license for Burp Suite Enterprise Edition, which is a network security and vulnerability detection software, costs $5,999.00 per year, and the cost for their Unlimited Edition license costs a whopping $49,000.00 per year. That’s nearly $50k – and more than the average person earns in a year. Metasploit Pro by Rapid7 can run you $15k a year. Obviously, these price ranges demonstrate that only big companies can afford the software.

While Taylor Swift earns around $400,000 a week in streaming music services, which amounts to around $2 million per year as an autonomous income stream, obtaining her music legally is affordable to anyone. But even if a quarter of those fans left and pirated her music instead of paying for it, she would still walk away extremely rich.

The same could be said about the programmers behind leading industry network security tools, except that the average person will never be able to afford a license in their lifetime. All this begs the question, is it ever any wonder why people commit piracy? For this reason, the enigmatic words of The Mentor continue to resonate even in the present day.

As software vendors tailor apps to an elite clientele with deep pockets, it's inevitable that someone will break through the barriers, unleashing the product for all. While I don't endorse software piracy on a personal level, I'm no advocate for unabashed commercialism either. I remain neutral, recognizing the inherent duality of this situation, where one side persists because of the other.

As a direct consequence, The Mentor sat down and wrote those words 37 years ago. The section that directly acknowledges the problem with excessive commercialism ended up serving as a testament, which has justified the art of cracking and piracy to the present day. Cyber Robin Hoods will continue their fight to liberate information from the clenched fists of corporate greed.


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