Software cracking

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Software cracking is the modification of software to remove or disable features which are considered undesirable by the person cracking the software, usually related to protection methods: copy protection, trial/demo version, serial number, hardware key, date checks, CD check or software annoyances like nag screens and adware. The distribution and use of cracked copies is illegal in almost every developed country. There have been many lawsuits over cracking software.[citation needed]

Contents

History

The first software copy protection was on early Apple II, Atari 800 and Commodore 64 software. Software publishers, particularly of gaming software, have over time resorted to increasingly complex measures to try to stop unauthorized copying of their software.

On the Apple II, unlike modern computers that use standardized device drivers to manage device communications, the operating system directly controlled the step motor that moves the floppy drive head, and also directly interpreted the raw data called nibbles read from each track to find the data sectors. This allowed complex disk-based software copy protection, by storing data on half tracks (0, 1, 2.5, 3.5, 5, 6...), quarter tracks (0, 1, 2.25, 3.75, 5, 6...), and any combination thereof. In addition, tracks did not need to be perfect rings, but could be sectioned so that sectors could be staggered across overlapping offset tracks, the most extreme version being known as spiral tracking. It was also discovered that many floppy drives did not have a fixed upper limit to head movement, and it was sometimes possible to write an additional 36th track above the normal 35 tracks. The standard Apple II copy programs could not read such protected floppy disks, since the standard DOS assumed that all disks had a uniform 35-track, 13- or 16-sector layout. Special nibble-copy programs such as Locksmith and Copy II Plus could sometimes duplicate these disks by using a reference library of known protection methods; when protected programs were cracked they would be completely stripped of the copy protection system, and transferred onto a standard format disk that any normal Apple II copy program could read.

One of the primary routes to hacking these early copy protections was to run a program that simulates the normal CPU operation. The CPU simulator provides a number of extra features to the hacker, such as the ability to single-step through each processor instruction and to examine the CPU registers and modified memory spaces as the simulation runs. The Apple II provided a built-in opcode disassembler, allowing raw memory to be decoded into CPU opcodes, and this would be utilized to examine what the copy-protection was about to do next. Generally there was little to no defense available to the copy protection system, since all its secrets are made visible through the simulation. But because the simulation itself must run on the original CPU, in addition to the software being hacked, the simulation would often run extremely slowly even at maximum speed.

On Atari 8-bit computers, the most common protection method was via "bad sectors". These were sectors on the disk that were intentionally unreadable by the disk drive. The software would look for these sectors when the program was loading and would stop loading if an error code was not returned when accessing these sectors. Special copy programs were available that would copy the disk and remember any bad sectors. The user could then use an application to spin the drive by constantly reading a single sector and display the drive RPM. With the disk drive top removed a small screwdriver could be used to slow the drive RPM below a certain point. Once the drive was slowed down the application could then go and write "bad sectors" where needed. When done the drive RPM was sped up back to normal and an uncracked copy was made. Of course cracking the software to expect good sectors made for readily copied disks without the need to meddle with the disk drive. As time went on more sophisticated methods were developed, but almost all involved some form of malformed disk data, such as a sector that might return different data on separate accesses due to bad data alignment. Products became available (from companies such as Happy Computers) which replaced the controller BIOS in Atari's "smart" drives. These upgraded drives allowed the user to make exact copies of the original program with copy protections in place on the new disk.

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