Fringe Benefits

November 5, 1996

Purely to satisfy my investigative curiosity, I set out to see what software I could scarf for free on the Internet. After only an hour of penetrating the underground world of warez, I was busting skulls in the three-dimensional dungeons of Hexen.

I started out by plugging the relevant words into one of the better search engines. It directed me to a Web site which was but a directory of other directories, some of which were "warez" directories ("warez" meaning free copies of proprietary software). I chose one at random. This second directory was different from the first, as it listed file servers, which are called FTP (file-transfer-protocol) sites. Unlike a Web site, there's not much to see on an FTP site-just a list of computer files that can be downloaded. None of the first three FTP sites I selected worked, but a fourth did. When I got there, a few interesting titles came up, and I picked Hexen.

I spent the next 30 minutes reading the latest issue of Spy as a copy of the Hexen file trickled down onto my computer. Once this sucker was home, I unzipped it and installed it. My faith in fellow geekdom was tremendous: This nine-megabyte file could have been a virus ready to flatten-and I mean wipe out-my hard drive entirely. But hey, when you live beyond the law, there are no money-back guarantees.

Welcome to the world of warez, a world the software industry doesn't want you to know about. And with good reason: According to the Business Software Alliance, worldwide illegal copying of software cost the industry more than $15.2 billion in 1994 (don't come after me, folks; I erased my copy of Hexen). And software is but the tip of the iceberg of illegal copying in the digital world.

Targeting theft of intellectual property on the Net is a slippery endeavor indeed. I struck up an E-mail correspondence with someone who goes by the handle BigDudeO. You could call BigDudeO a guerrilla librarian; he runs a warez directory. The average warez file site, BigDudeO writes, stays up less than a week-if that long. In many cases a warez site exists for no longer than an hour. Parties meet on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), whereupon temporary holding pens are set up to download goodies. Roving sites are common, as are mailing lists of the latest locations, BigDudeO says (there are even places to request software), and system operators who run the computers these sites appear on rarely know of the clandestine activities taking place on their own machines.

"Most people are prepared to pay $50 for one new game or a lot more for an operating system or application," BigDudeO writes matter-of-factly. "But at $50-plus each, the money adds up fast."
--Joab Jackson

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