Strong opinions, weakly held

Dead media strike again

Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project is a catalog of media formats that are no longer in use. In many cases, media stored in these dead formats can no longer be read because there aren’t readers are no longer available for them.

The project came to mind when I read about some trouble my friend Andrew Brown ran into trying to access old archives of The Independent newspaper. The archives were distributed on CD (not yet a dead media format) and can only be accessed using a program that’s installed by a batch program that runs only under MS-DOS 5.

I know it’s been said before, but I think this is the real legacy of DRM, whether it’s protected music files, e-books for the Kindle, or movies you download from the iTunes music store. At some point, even if you have the hardware you need to read the bits, you won’t be able to set up the proper software to access the content.

Back in the day, game companies used to augment their copy protection by distributing code wheels with their games. You were required to look up numbers on the code wheel and enter them in the game in order to proceed, so people who didn’t buy the game were unable to play. My friends and I became very good at dismantling the code wheels, photocopying them, and then building new code wheels from the copies using scissors and an X-Acto knife.

Other games used protection schemes that relied on specific quirks of the hardware they ran on. So not only could you not copy certain games, but you also couldn’t play them unless you had, for example, the Commodore 1541 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive.

The more serious software pirates would crack the games and modify them so that you could play without the code wheel, the required hardware, or whatever else the game creators did to stop rampant piracy. Software companies saw the pirates as evil, but they are the only reason most of the games from back then can still be played today. You can still download those games and play them in emulation mode now, but only because somebody bothered to remove all of the impediments that would otherwise relegate them to the dustbin of history.

I’m sure that it seemed like a good idea at the time to put these newspaper archives in a format that only worked with a specific reader, but now even paying customers can no longer access the content that was once available to them. It’s something to think about next time you’re going to download some content protected by DRM.


  1. Great insight.

    But oh my god — codewheels! I totally forgot about them and your mention really took me back.

    Wow. =D

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