Some Warez Over The Rainbow
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Some Warez over the Rainbow Meet Jake, His Recordable CD, and his $200,000 of Software By David Pogue Jake is 15. He's a street skater, a snowboarder, and a Mac fan, and the son of one of my clients. After I gave Jake's dad a Mac consultation a few months ago, Jake offered to give me an in-line skating lesson. There, in the park, in his affluent New York State suburb, Jake taught me something I've always wanted to know: how to stop. A few nights later, Jake (not his real name) dropped me an e-mail. "Hey, if there's any software you need, let me know," he wrote. It was followed by a list of programs he was prepared to e-mail me--a list so long it made MacWarehouse look like MacCloset. SoftWindows, Illustrator, Photoshop. Microsoft anything, Adobe anything, Kai's Power anything. A hundred games and 20,000 fonts. So far, he's got 13 gigs of commercial software, compressed onto 18 recordable CDs. Now, the Internet's shadow web of teen software pirates is nothing new to me; in fact, I even wrote about America Online's software-exchange chat rooms two years ago in Macworld. But this wasn't some faceless hacker in a dimly lit university cubicle; this was a kid I knew. So I asked if I could sit in on one of his pirating sessions to see what goes on. Digital Baseball Cards The great underground trading circle is made up mostly of boys, 12 to 18. "Some of these guys do nothing all day but sit there and trade. Their reputation online is their life. It's pitiful," Jake says. (Jake himself spends about six hours a day online--especially when he decides to take one of his three-week "vacations" from school. What he really wants to do is become a 3-D animator; as one of those, he says, "you can make unbelievable money.") To make software trading feel even more dangerous, illicit, and exclusive, the teenagers have adopted a secret shorthand. Software that's traded online is called warez. The traders describe each other as either elite (having lots of excellent stuff to upload) or lamerz (wannabes, guys who receive but don't give). It's trendy to use Zs instead of Ss, Ks instead of Cs, and Js instead of Gs, and to arbitrarily capitalize consonants: "i'M MaJiK SKuLLZ, KiNG oF THe FiLeZ!" As Jake hooks up his PowerBook 1400 to a phone jack, he muses on the wild days of his youth in the early nineties. "There used to be all kinds of stuff you could do on America Online," he recalls. "We'd do this thing called morphing, where you could go online as anybody at all." Using an illegal AOL plug-in, he says, "I could sign on as Steve Case, or anyone I wanted." AOL hackers also figured out how to hook in to several AOL administrative tools, including a gagging feature, he says. "That's when you make it so a certain member's comments don't show up in a chat room," he says. "You could gag everyone in a chat room except yourself. They're all going, 'Hey, how come nobody's answering me?'" He shakes his head ruefully, like a grandfather recalling his war days. Over time, according to Jake, AOL staffers gradually plugged the security loopholes. "Hardly anyone hacks on AOL anymore," he says. Nowadays, the warez action is on the Internet. Using BBS programs like FirstClass or HotLine, or in chat channels of the Internet's IRC protocol, individual teenagers set up software trading posts in their bedrooms. As I watch, Jake brings up a list of such sites, with names like NuKlear, Warez Depot, and SuPeR WaReZ. Anyone can join; the price of admission is an uploaded piece of commercial software. "This one guy's server? He's got 100 CDs of stuff available," Jake tells me with awe. "He has every single piece of Mac software released since 1984." As I watch, Jake logs in to one of these software centers. One window is a chat room ("DeMoNBLooD: Anyone got Photoshop 4?" and "DRaGoNTooTH: Need serial no. for Illustrator"). Another holds Finder-like folders organized by category: 3-D/Animation, Business Apps, Games, Manuals, Programming, System Software, Utilities, and so on. As Jake promised, every recognizable software title is there, plus many that are less familiar. The operator of this server has four CD-ROM drives daisy-chained to his Mac, for 2.4 gigs of software at a time available for downloading. Clear Conscience Trading warez isn't about ripping off software companies, Jake says; in fact, warezers aren't ripping off software companies. "If I steal your dog, then I've got your dog and you don't. That's theft," he explains. "But we're not taking anything away from anyone! [Famous jailed hacker] Kevin Mitnick didn't steal those credit card numbers, he just copied them. They're still sitting back where he found 'em!" Yeah, I tell him, but warez traders deprive the software companies of income. "Not at all," he insists. "I'm 15. If software cost ten bucks, I'd buy it. But Electric Image Animation System is $7000! I could never afford this stuff." As it is, he does pay for some software: "Anything from Apple, and anything from a games company who's brought a PC program over to the Mac. I like to support them." (He also mentions that his dad gets all his Mac software through the usual mail-order channels, and disapproves of his son's warez hobby.) Furthermore, Jake says, most warezers don't even use what they download. Warez are like baseball cards; their value is the prestige of ownership. "I don't even know what half this stuff is," says Jake, eyeing one of the HotLine server lists. "These kids have huge 3GB hard drives full of compressed software they can't even use, high-end stuff they don't have the manuals for," acknowledges Joshua Bauchner, litigation coordinator for the Software Publishers Association (SPA), which shuts down warez operations all the time. Still, Bauchner told me, illegal is illegal; he estimates that $5 billion of warez is transmitted each day--"We're talking about thousands of sites." While much of it is used only by teen warezers or not used at all, some of it is intercepted by grownups who do deprive the software companies of sales. "We send out about ten cease-and-desist letters a week," says Bauchner. "About 90 percent of the server operators immediately shut down voluntarily." If they don't, the SPA files a lawsuit. Bauchner told me about a bust last year when the SPA filed suit against the mother of a 15-year-old warezer. Just meeting a handful of briefcase-wielding SPA lawyers is often enough to change a warezer's tune, he says. This kid's mother promised: "His @*&$!! fingers will never touch a @*&$!! keyboard again!" Change of Heart Still, I don't see Jake as a criminal; he's a smart kid who'll probably make a darned fine 3-D animator. As he starts closing windows of Jake's Infinite Online Software Emporium, I'm smiling indulgently at his harmless little hobby. I thank him for giving me a glimpse into the cybergangs who ask for CD-ROM burners for their birthday and don't tell their parents what they're doing up there in their rooms all night. At least they're not pushing drugs and getting into trouble with their long music and loud hair. It's all in good fun, I'm thinking, a chance for shy teenage boys to be somebody--such as SKuLLZ, BLooDMaSTeR, and CYBeRDeViL. The SPA should get off its high horse, I'm thinking; you can't really blame the poor kids for wanting to-- "Hey, wait a minute!" I yelp as Jake's about to sign off. "What's that?" I'm stabbing my finger at the screen. Jake grins. "Hey, you're famous." There, in the list of warez, is my own book--the 16MB electronic edition of Macworld Mac Secrets, which took seven months of blood, sweat, and tears to write. One of these little creeps copied it off the CD that comes with the book and posted it for anyone to download! Something must be done! Call the SPA! Somebody stop these kids!
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