WAVES and PACE defend their anti-piracy hardware protection and respond to allegations of technical difficulties from a blog entry … and why, if this discussion really matters, we should look at it a different way.

At the beginning of the month, we pointed to a blogger who posted what was essentially a rant about why he was fed up with PACE. (PACE is a common anti-piracy developer whose technology is most often deployed as an iLok dongle, but available as software-only protection, as well.) The blog entry began with a series of technical problems, but developed into an argument about why the author felt third-party anti-piracy technology was problematic in general. There’s nothing so unusual about that, or even the fact that he announced he was "boycotting" products that use PACE. I’m sure you’ve heard people gripe about PACE and iLok; I’ve heard just these kinds of rants for years, and the word "boycott" does come up. (Whatever the equivalent of a "watercooler" is for audio — coffee maker? — it’s something you hear, period.) That’s not universal — some people are very loyal to PACE-protected products, and in some cases prefer an iLok to another solution. But complaints are common on the user standpoint; it’s no secret that copy protection in general is not something that users are enthusiastic about.

What made this slightly unusual was that the blogger, Adam Schabtach, works as a developer (for Audio Damage), and that a rant that a few years ago might have been shared with friends wound up on the Web. (The blog entry was NOT an official message from Audio Damage, but it did cause the blog to be received differently than if it had been a random user.) And because I believe in meeting these issues heads-on, I personally helped the story get more attention.

Of course, just as the Web amplifies rants, it also amplifies the responses. You can read some 86 comments in response to Adam, some very well-reasoned, some heated (including those who claim Adam was biased by being a developer). Sure enough, some people stepped up to defend PACE and iLok. Some did not, though there were two separate responses, one frustration with PACE, and the other with WAVES customer support. (I should note, these are not the same issue. Any developer, no matter their intention, can be bitten by unhappy users.)

There was also an official response: I was contacted by PACE Anti-Piracy. PACE had communicated with WAVES, the developer whose products Adam was using. Waves didn’t contact CDM, but PACE relayed this response from them. Specifically, both PACE and WAVES called into question the blue screen that had so frustrated Adam, claiming it had another cause:

The last written correspondence WAVES had with this user was over two years ago. No other mention in their database of correspondence with this user under this name.

In this "article" the user mentions to different scenarios where he has attempted to install/use Waves.

It is difficult for Waves and PACE to comment on the first attempt as there are not enough details for us to diagnose the problem. [PACE agrees – not a lot of info and historically very very few if any Mac issues seen].

A Waves tech rep will not recommend a user to reformat his system unless; they have found a number of symptoms indicating a major problem with the system. This is extremely rare. I can speak for my self, handling thousands of cases by phone and email where I have maybe suggested 1 or 2 users that they need to reformat their system.

[Note: PACE will NEVER recommend such reformatting due to any PACE issue as that is not how issues can be resolved].

The second scenario is not PACE related, this is an issue with Windows DEP (Data Execution Prevention) protocol.

“The installer almost immediately informed me that it had to restart my PC, so I let it. It launched itself automatically after the PC rebooted, started the installation process, and then my good faith and efforts were rewarded with this: (picture)”

There is a very simple fix to overcome this. All of WAVES tech support reps are aware of this issue and are able to resolve this issue within minutes. Period.

End of Waves response.

Since this description and Adam’s didn’t match up, I went back to Adam to find out what he had to say about Waves’ response. He wrote back:

I did not contact Waves after this most recent failure of their product because my previous contact with them was completely unsatisfactory.

Regardless of what their records say, I was asked on the phone whether reformatting my hard drive was an option. At the time there were not "a number of symptoms indicating a major problem with the system." The support rep seemed essentially stumped by the problem, and I believe asked about reformatting the drive as a last-ditch attempt to rectify the situation.

It may indeed be true that the problem documented in my blog is not related to PACE but there is no way for me to know this as an end-user. This Waves bundle was the first PACE-protected product I attempted to install on this system, and it was the first whose installer caused my PC to blue-screen. I have successfully installed products from at least ten other vendors on the same system–products that are not protected by PACE.

As I attempted to make clear in my post, this incident was only the latest in a number of problems I have encountered as a (former) user of PACE-protected products, not an isolated one.

To be honest, I’m not sure this really clears up much about this particular situation. It certainly demonstrates that one technical incident — or even a series of incidents experienced by one user — can’t really be taken as the basis for a deeper discussion of anti-piracy technology.

In fact, what it seems is that this is really more about customer support and a dissatisfied customer than anything else. (And yes, for the record, sometimes people who develop software are also themselves customers — often demanding customers, I would imagine.)

Ironically, it illustrates the opposite case of what Adam had originally been trying to illustrate.

In his original post, Adam said,

This points up the biggest problem with PACE: if something goes really wrong, the maker of the PACE-wrapped product can’t help you.

But the reverse is also true: if something goes wrong with the maker of the PACE-wrapped product, PACE often gets blamed. That’s neither a defense of PACE or a criticism of the software maker; it’s just a matter of fact. And in this case, something did go wrong: at the very least, Waves wound up with an unhappy customer; that’s inarguable. Unhappy customer can translate to larger rants about technology, which in turn can make other unhappy customers. That’s what happened with an infamous 2002 PACE rant on ProRec. You can read an archived copy of that story on Google, though looking at it again, even a hardened PACE foe would have to admit there’s plenty in there that’s just not technically true, at least today. If you want to criticize PACE, in other words, that’s not the best place to start: the concepts are sound, but the examples may not be, and that’s a problem.

Also, if you do want to talk about PACE (or any other scheme), you also have to talk about the different ways anti-piracy pteoction is used and supported by vendors. Take hardware keys (known to most of us as “dongles”): you’ve lost or broken your dongle. Some vendors will sell you a replacement for a fee (say, $100), or even replace a broken dongle for free. Some will make you pay the full purchase price of the product (say, $500, or $1500). Now, how do you feel about dongles? Probably depends on which vendor you purchased from, huh?

I think the good part of all of this is that discussions are being had in the open, more so now than even in 2002. The challenge is basing those discussions around technical realities, not just personal experience. Likewise, while Adam may have made broad arguments based on specific technical issues, you’ll notice WAVES and PACE avoided all of the broader questions he asked. (Does PACE actually prevent piracy, why do we use it, and is it really better for developers?)

And if we were to continue the above back and forth, I expect we could get a circular argument going between Adam, readers here, Waves, and PACE — and learn absolutely nothing from it.

So, if none of these is a good way to look at the issues around piracy and software copy protection, what is?

My New Year’s Revolution for 2008: we will look at these issues in a comprehensive, technically-accurate way, involving both developers and users. There are two major topics here: one is piracy itself, and the other is anti-piracy measures, whether it’s a simple serial number protection, an iLok, or BanPiracy.org suing studios. It’s time for a serious examination of how bad the piracy problem really is (or isn’t) at this point, what makes people invest in software in the first place, and what can be done to improve the customer/developer relationship. It’s also worth revisiting the available options for protection, what the drawbacks and advantages are, and just what users really think of them.

I won’t pretend to be neutral, because I’m not — I have my own opinions, and I’m happy to be upfront about them. I think the effect of pretending to be neutral can be tip-toeing around the issues. I don’t believes that serves anyone, whether users, software makers, PACE, WAVES, or anyone else. But I also don’t want my opinions getting in the way of the full spectrum of discussion, because I don’t think my own opinions are all that matter. (Far from it.)

If you’re interested in being part of this conversation and series — PACE and WAVES included — let me know, seriously. We want to hear from software makers and users with different experience of piracy and copy protection. The "cat is out of the bag." (Or is that, dongle is out of the box? Torrent is out of the tracker?) No one can avoid the discussion. We can just try to make the discussion more productive.

And if you do get a blue screen of death and can’t get an answer why, let us know that, too, and we’ll see if we can find your solution. Philosophical discussions aside, I know users don’t like things to be broken, whoever is to blame.

Stay tuned.