Block Party

Block Party
StarForce Must Die

Allen Varney | 21 Nov 2006 07:00
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Clear notice? Not likely. On issues of copy protection, most game publishers maintain a stony silence. For this article, I contacted nearly a dozen companies that use StarForce, asking them to summarize their position on copy protection and to comment on the idea of listing a game's copy protection on its package. Not one company replied.

They may have asked themselves, "Why should we? We don't have to tell anyone anything."

My Way or the Highway
Steven Davis, CEO of gaming security firm SecurePlay, has written about StarForce on his popular blog, PlayNoEvil. Speaking to The Escapist, Davis says the StarForce controversy diverts attention from the larger issue. "Several major game companies are the real culprits. They allowed, very effectively, the StarForce brand to be the focus of consumer ire about anti-piracy. That we are talking about a small Russian programming firm, and not the huge companies that use the product, is a testament to the effectiveness of this tactic - the StarForce Trojan Horse."

Meanwhile, game publishers keep invisibly messing with your computer - because it's their "sole right" - and really, how can you stop them? Regarding Digital Rights Management, aka Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), it's unclear whether you have enforceable consumer rights. Companies aren't even obliged to list their DRM in a game's documentation or End User License Agreement (EULA), let alone on its package; yet by accepting the EULA, you legally accept the copy protection. In a 2004 FiringSquad interview, StarForce Technologies' Abbie Sommer said, "Our product is licensed to our customers [the publishers], and becomes part of their product, so the user, by accepting the terms, is giving approval."

Fabrice Cambounet, producer for Ubisoft's Heroes of Might & Magic V, in a choke-it-down post about StarForce on the Ubisoft company forum, asserted this like immutable natural law: "When you install a game, you have to install all of its libraries; you don't get prompted on each of them. Either you agree to install the game, including its protection, or you don't."

StarForce itself is only a symptom, and the disease will continue until we address its cause: the industry's obsession with front-loaded, fast-selling hits. Big publishers earn a huge percentage of a game's total revenue in the first few weeks of release - because they're good at working you into a lather in advance, so you must-must-must own hot new games the instant they debut. In theory, DRM keeps cracked versions off the filesharing sites long enough to boost sales in those first precious days. In theory! In practice, nearly every triple-A game hits every self-respecting pirate site within hours of release, if not before release. The effect on sales is one battleground in gaming's incessant piracy debate.

Regardless, if leading retail publishers stopped using StarForce tomorrow, they'd still rely on other DRM systems like SafeDisc, TAGES and SecurROM. Putting this stuff on your machine is their "sole right."

Games that follow a different sales strategy need worry less. The Stardock Systems space strategy game Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, released in March 2006, drew attention partly because Stardock CEO and designer Brad Wardell publicly disavowed all disc-based copy protection for the game. "I'm not a crusader against copy protection," Wardell told The Register. (Stardock's utility software WindowBlinds uses product activation DRM.) "It's just business. We make more money on a game like this - a single-player, turn-based strategy game - if we don't put stupid copy protection on it."

Seemingly in retaliation, a moderator on StarForce's copy protection forums posted a link to a pirate site hosting an illegal copy of GalCiv II. Another StarForce moderator later apologized and removed the link. Wardell says he contacted the pirate site and persuaded them to remove the illegal copy.

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