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Cracking Under Pressure?

Published September 2003

A couple of times in the past few years, most recently in January 2002, I've written a Leader column on the contentious subject of software piracy and suggested that if it continued in its rampant form, some of the software companies we've come to rely on would go out of business. Fortunately, most of the big names are still with us, but I'm sure that losses in revenue due to piracy are at least partly responsible for some of those big names being bought by multinational software houses or computer manufacturers, often for a fraction of their perceived worth. Hardly a month goes by without news of another takeover or more redundancies at a music-software company, but what's the answer? After all, no dongle or install code is foolproof.

Appealing to the software user's better nature rarely seems to work — the appeal of getting something for nothing would appear to be stronger. Furthermore, some people actually believe they have an intrinsic right to copy any form of data, often excusing their actions by saying that the software isn't that good anyway and that it's overpriced. After all, pretty much any IT student could write a sequencer package in a few weekends — couldn't they? In fact it may surprise many to learn that a major software package such as Emagic's Logic or Steinberg's Cubase can take up to 20 man-years to write, so being robbed of the returns on this huge investment by piracy has very serious consequences for the software manufacturers.

Finding a solution to this problem may shape the future of the recording market, because if a piece of software can't be copy-protected, the only way forward is to start making hybrid products that have both software and hardware components. For example, soft synths may be replaced by inexpensive DSP devices that hang on the end of a Firewire cable, but with a user interface that still resembles a plug-in. Roland, TC Electronic and Creamware have already taken steps in this direction, but what I'm envisioning are hardware components no bigger than a games console cartridge, but without which the product can't work. In other words, the hardware functions as both a dongle and as a vital signal-processing component of the system. Whether these devices are strung out on cables like fairy lights or slotted into some kind of expansion box remains to be seen, but I honestly can't envisage any other solution that can guarantee an end to piracy.

Of course these anti-piracy measures could also benefit the user, as adding external processing capacity means less load on the host CPU, and in the case of virtual instruments, specialist chips could be used to provide features that may be completely impractical to implement on even the next generation of host-powered systems. It would also allow the traditional hardware instrument manufacturers to develop products for the sequencer market safe in the knowledge that the performance of their creations will not be limited by the architecture or available power of the host system. They might also be willing to invest time and money to create more sophisticated instruments once the risk of piracy has been eliminated. After all, until piracy is removed from the equation, why should the Rolands and Yamahas of this world risk losing hardware instrument sales by designing plug-in versions of their flagship products that can be copied by any hacker with a weekend to spare? Would you?

Paul White Editor In Chief