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Can’t spell “pirate” without “-irate”: on DRM and punishing the customer

Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: "Stop, thief!"

I am livid. Which superficially might sound very stupid, except that this kerfuffle combines ethics, DRM, social networking, and my integrity, all in an interesting and infuriating tangle.

I was at breakfast with one of my very closest friends—a retired English and Latin teacher—and her son. Her son and I had just started arguing over the pronunciation of the word “diaspora” when, half-joking, I pulled my phone out of my handbag and played a recording of the word aloud at the table.

Then I stared down at my phone. I frowned. My friend wanted to know what the matter was.

“Um,” I said, blushing furiously. “Um. This is weird. My cell phone is accusing me of stealing the Oxford Dictionary of English.” I blinked. “That was a really expensive piece of software.”

Some of you might already know about the Enfour dust-up. Here’s a quick recap anyway: at the beginning of this month, the developers at Enfour announced they were putting anti-piracy measures into their software. (Enfour develops and publishes iOS versions of the Oxford Dictionary of English and the American Heritage Dictionary, among others.)

How did Enfour intend to combat piracy? By auto-posting tweets to their users’ Twitter accounts! But the clever plan backfired when the tweet—a confession of “software piracy”—began appearing on legitimate users’ Twitter accounts, too.

Enfour has since launched a “crucial maintenance release” to iTunes, and the issue has seemingly been resolved.

Of course, that makes little difference to the Enfour customer who, ahem, discovers that a “critical update” is waiting for her in the app store queue only after she has confessed, to 3,454 of her readers (not to boast or anything), that she stole some software. (Until hours ago, Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman had confessed to the same crime via Twitter as well.)

Worse, Enfour’s software has a built-in “nag” notification. “I am a software thief!” the Oxford Dictionary of English repeatedly told me. It continued to notify me of my crime—and, inexplicably, in first-person tense—until I had gotten to a WiFi network to update the software.

Another iOS "nag" notification

I found Enfour’s accusation especially insulting given the price I paid for the software—US$55. That is to say, the iOS version of the Oxford Dictionary of English costs the equivalent of a dense printed-and-bound volume of the very same. Worse, I grumblingly upgraded from the 3G to the 4S a year ago explicitly to purchase this expensive dictionary software (in fact, it was the very first purchase I made in iTunes once I was home from the AT&T store). I have frequently taken to Twitter to manufacture arguments over the cost of Enfour’s Oxford application, always defending my purchase.

Some are wondering whether the auto-posted tweet constitutes “libel”; still others wonder why a customer would ever permit the Oxford Dictionary access to her Twitter account. I remember seeing the app’s request pop up, and I’d simply assumed the dictionary had added some sort of social networking functionality, something like “share this crazy new word with your friends!” or whatever. (Enfour’s software integrates very nicely with another app, the excellent Terminology, which does indeed include a “Twitter” button along with each definition.) At no point did Enfour disclose its intention to “post to Twitter on [my] behalf,” however. The request seemed perfectly innocuous.

One user did deny Enfour this permission request, and he discovered that Oxford booted him from the software entirely. This is to say, he could not use Enfour’s Oxford at all unless he granted the dictionary permission to humiliate him publicly.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines "piracy"

Enfour has since admitted there was a “glitch” that caused “false positives” in the software. What’s especially harrowing, though, is that Enfour apparently mined the data in the iPhone itself in an effort to determine, not whether Enfour’s own software is pirated, but whether any software on the iOS device is pirated. This is ominous news for anyone with a jailbroken phone; for my own part, my device is perfectly legal (to a fault), but I do have a copy of TestFlight, a type of software that allows me to test beta builds of developers’ apps.

The timing of my auto-posted tweet was ironic, to be sure: at breakfast I had been crowing about finally rooting my Nook Glow. That is because I will endure DRM safeguards if I must, but I would also like to read my already-legally-purchased Kindle books—anthologies, mostly—on the e-reader of my choice. (“What if you purchased a book but you could only read it in the kitchen,” I reasoned aloud to my friend and her son, “never in your living room?” I’m pretty sure my greatest crime here is “voiding a Nook warranty.”)

I am a longtime and fanatical opponent of DRM—well, and of proprietary software in general. It’s taken me a long time to get my Mac to stream to my Xbox, my iCal to sync with my GoogleCal. Not only do I dual-boot into both OSX and Windows, I frequently run my Mac in “coherence” mode, an unholy mishmash of both operating systems. Years ago I did build a “Hackintosh,” but I used a real, out-of-use copy of OSX to do it. I’m willing to go the extra mile to avoid “brand loyalty”—whatever it takes, thanks.

Some years ago I needed to review a game for Computer Gaming World; the game, a commercial build, was reinforced with Stardock protection. (Edit: Here, a reader suggests I probably mean StarForce. While that makes a lot more sense, I remember it differently. It was a Sherlock Holmes game, which is Stardock, but a quick search says my beef is really with TAGES.) When I attempted to run the game on a MacBook Pro using a real copy of Parallels, and in a paid-for copy of XP—see a pattern emerging here?—I was notified of my piracy, and the game would not run. I did review the game using my office PC, but only in my off-hours, meaning I had to take a cab home every night. In short, that turned into a pretty expensive review for me. (This summer, outraged customers encountered the same headaches when they tried to emulate legitimately-purchased copies of Diablo 3 from within Linux environments.)

So DRM measures consistently have this problem, and it’s the reason lie detector test results are legally inadmissible in court: alas, the “false positive.”

I’m not saying that piracy is okay—the truth is, it never is. Unless, of course, you’re trying to watch foreign television programs, or build your own DVR. Or convert your legally-purchased iTunes library to stream to your Xbox. Or make your friend a mix CD for her bridal shower. Or upload a supercut to YouTube. Hmm. Okay. Maybe it’s the litigiousness of things like DRM and SOPA that go a long way in revealing exactly how much gray space there really is.

Sure, it’s okay, even noble, to combat piracy. In a way, Enfour’s decision to post auto-tweets from seemingly counterfeit software makes hilarious sense: culture has shifted so that we now post an announcement to our “timelines” anytime we log hours into a video game or throw financial support into a Kickstarter. Instead of “gamifying” only our achievements, why not also gamify shame?

I’ve stated this before, publicly and privately, but as a freelance writer my only real collateral is my sense of integrity. That is what I have to trade on. There is something peculiarly invasive about having an attack on my integrity come from my own phone—from my dictionary!—and posted to my own Twitter timeline. I think I would still feel that way even if I had stolen software for iOS, in fact.

And there’s the rub again, that issue of the “false positive.” It’s very Minority Report: as Enfour has proven, you can’t just use an algorithm to weed the unethical from the ethical. Using “workarounds” and “hacks” may well be suspicious, but it sure isn’t unscrupulous.

Edit: I meant to say it somewhere in the course of writing this diatribe, but I got a little trigger-happy. Anyway, I thought Jonatan Söderström handled the issue of piracy very elegantly when he politely directed pirates to a Hotline Miami fix. He didn’t say it explicitly, but I feel like there was a subtle message embedded: “Not that I’m judging too harshly, but legit copies of this game are already patched.” Very, very nicely done. Edit #2: This!

Update: Boing Boing is on it.

Also, I apparently missed Enfour’s “apology” [pdf]:

Nevertheless, a number of users with certain system configurations were affected during this time period. Some may still be if they haven’t updated to the fixed version. If you are not running the latest version, we urge you to update your app immediately to avoid the potential embarrassment of an unexpected tweet.

According to Enfour’s apology statement, the errant tweet was sent because I put my phone in “sleep mode” before closing out of the app. (Who closes an iPhone app, like, ever?) The statement goes on to claim the tweet was sent if the user actually chose to “send” a tweet—this simply is not true. Rather, the application asked for permission to access my Twitter account, and then, voila! (Finally, the statement stresses that no data was compromised and that Enfour has “removed” the “anti-piracy module” from the latest software.)

Again, Enfour’s dictionary apps have been “fixed,” but customers who haven’t updated to the newest version are in for a splendid treat. No telling whether Enfour plans to “fix” the module and try to implement it again.

16 responses to “Can’t spell “pirate” without “-irate”: on DRM and punishing the customer” »

  1. Jake says:

    Oh! Maddox! It’s a Maddox quote. It took me a few minutes.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Um. Not on purpose, but okay.

      • Jake says:

        No, I didn’t think so, coming from you. Or, I don’t know, maybe you are a huge Maddox fan. There’s a good chance he was quoting someone else when he used the “pirate”/”-irate” line, anyway. But I couldn’t concentrate for the first half of the article because I was trying to remember where I’d heard that.

        I did immediately go back and give the parts I’d missed a more focused reading. I think your decision not to steal stuff is way cool. I’m the same way. What a drag it is that we must not only be constantly reminded that we could have superior versions of the things we buy if we weren’t bound by stupid old scruples, but that you’re being actively punished for supporting the creators and purveyors of a useful tool. I can just imagine the cackling around the table at the meeting where this oh-so-clever anti-piracy scheme was proposed.

        What can a person actually do about this? You can complain on the Internet, which is probably the best option, but it’s also easy enough for the Dastardly Coalition of DRM Creators to brush aside. You can refuse to buy any software containing harsh DRM, but your affect on the marketplace is still easy to ignore, and now you’re cheating yourself out of a vast array of otherwise-good products. Or you can steal stuff, but the problems there need no explanation.

        It’s a rotten, disempowering system for consumers and creators, alike.

      • Jenn Frank says:

        Sorry, I am still stuck on the Maddox thing. “Coming from me”? I will have you know that I do refer to my own shirts as “tit-curtains” on the regular. The guy’s got my number.

      • Jake says:

        Me-from-two-hours-ago, what were you thinking?

        Sorry. No. You would totally be down with Maddox. But…actually, no, I still didn’t think that specific reference in that specific context was intentional coming from you. And I was right! But I have no idea why I thought that.

        Jennifer, you should know by this point that I have no idea what I’m saying. If nothing else, I’ve managed to make a fool of myself, and I found encouragement to catch up on several months of The Greatest Page in the Universe. All in all, a successful couple of days.

  2. stevelaudig says:

    this action by the company is possibly criminal trespass and theft. report it to the police. possible copyright infringement also.

    These are intentional acts and if not intentional [whose intent?] reckless, very reckless. rather like shooting into a room filled with people. it was meant to hit someone, anyone who met certain, intentionally created, criteria.

  3. P.F. Bruns says:

    I’m not sure I can report Enfour’s behavior to the App Store TOS Enforcement Department, since I didn’t buy a copy of the app, but you did, and I think you should. Also, I’d call law enforcement and an attorney.

  4. eks says:

    so you twitter account was compromised and unauthorized technically you were hacked by this company. you didn’t tweet that your account has been compromised. If some young punk kid does this with out that app, he is going to jail for some time. Now this company does it no jail time only a letter and still twitter account are being compromised and unauthorized access to a third party account.

  5. plums says:

    This part irked me a bit:

    “I am a longtime and fanatical opponent of DRM—well, and of proprietary software in general.”

    I would also describe myself that way—which is why I don’t use software or hardware that uses DRM at all. AT ALL. I’m not criticizing you for not being strict enough, and I respect that someone can be opposed to something while still living and working in a space where they have to make use of that thing. It’s just that, following that line I quoted, you describe for two paragraphs how DRM has negatively affected you. If that is a fanatic opponent, what am I?

    Sorry, that was probably longer than it needed to be. Great write-up otherwise.

  6. chupageek says:

    If there were pirated copies of the dictionary, I am sure the people who provided them would actually strip out the wretched functionality. Pirated movies remove the unskippable commercials, pirated software removes the impediments to stop piracy, etc.

    In other words, pirated content often PROVIDES A SUPERIOR USER EXPERIENCE. That companies don’t get that drives me nuts, that they are providing terrible user experience to people who are willing to give them money, while folks that are unwilling not only pay nothing, but actually often get a better product for it.

    Specific to DRM, what drives me nuts is that 90% of the time the whole piracy excuse is a canard. Kindle DRM has nothing to do with preventing piracy, but rather locking you into their ecosystem. DVD & Bluray DRM is primarily to ensure that only licensed device manufacturers are allowed to make devices that can read/write the media. Why on Earth should I, a paying customer, be treated as a pawn in such games?

  7. Matthias Urlichs says:

    If everybody who bought this app had instead worked at improving Wiktionary for whatever time $55 is worth to them, we would now have an excellent free dictionary and no commercial , instead of a so-so free dictionary and a pseudo apology from a company which should have known better.

  8. Edgar Allan Poe says:

    (This summer, outraged customers encountered the same headaches when they tried to emulate legitimately-purchased copies of Diablo 3 from within Linux environments.)

    Point of fact, I can personally confirm that, as Blizzard has publicly stated, simply running Diablo 3 in a Linux environment doesn’t cause issues. It’s not a supported OS, but every Wine user I’ve encountered who wasn’t using botting software had no trouble.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Hmm, interesting. I remember reading over the original thread on the Blizzard boards, and I was under the impression that Linux players who emulated the game in Wine were almost unanimously SOL. Well!

  9. Sharing is good. Please don’t call sharing “piracy”, because that
    term is spin supporting the enemies of sharing. Implicitly, it
    legitimizes their DRM and their spyware, exemplified by this Enfour

    These attacks on our freedom would not be any more legitimate if they
    were implemented without bugs.

    Please join DefectiveByDesign.org and help us get rid of DRM.

  10. Bonedwarf says:

    Amazes me. We teach kids to share, and that sharing things is how civilized society works, then grow up and get this “You can’t share this, you can’t share that”.

    Asinine. Hope this company gets sued for this garbage. And $55 for an app? Are they high? Apparently high on their own holier than thou importance. Google or dictionary.com has always been there and never steered me wrong.

  11. the elfin plumber says:

    get thee to a class action lawyer. enfour has committed actionable defamation of character – apparently, on a thousand or more legitimate paying users. 50-100 thousand a pop i would say. don’t just be livid, bring this company down. remember that the courts are society’s safety valve, enabling aggrieved persons to obtain justice in the most socially acceptable fashion.

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  4. Enfour's iOS apps mistakenly report legitimate customers as software pirates - IGXPro
  5. iOS Application Points Legit Users as Pirates on Twitter | HOTforSecurity

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