It isn’t often that the world of software design generates newsworthy controversy with its products. After all, the whole point of creating new software is to help people by allowing them to be more productive, more organized, more speedy…right?
What it doesn’t generally do is force them to be more aware of their moral boundaries. One software developer, named Reza Hussain, decided to be a bit more ambitious in his design.
Much to the chagrin of numerous eager users, it was discovered that his seemingly-innocuous screen capture program called Display Eater had a much bigger appetite than they expected: if a pirated serial number was entered during registration, the software would delete the offending user’s home files; effectively killing their poor Mac.
Display Eater is intended as a very practical, easy-to-use and streamlined piece of software for doing live video screen captures and storing them as clips, which can later be compiled and saved as a QuickTime video. In addition, it includes the option to use custom cursors in the clips, or no cursor at all. All of this sounds like it would make for a useful program, but what isn’t expected from the get-go is that Mr. Hussain also included some questionable lines of code which perform the dirty deletion deed.
Hang on, you say, but isn’t that a bit archaic? Sure, pirating software is bad, but when did it become the responsibility of developers to include and execute such brutal punishments against their own users? Therein lies the problem, and the spark of a great deal of controversy which now surrounds this particular utility. The threat is included in the original license for the software, and many legitimate users who downloaded it were downright scared by such draconian methods; they began purchasing multiple licenses just to be on the safe side, and those who weren’t too sure what piracy even is avoided the software entirely.
Because this controversy first came up exactly one year ago, with the software’s original release, it has become difficult to find up-to-date information regarding the functionality of this bizarre app. It seems, from various sources that I’ve come across, that the developer responded to the numerous complaints and open letters by stating that the threat in the license was actually a hollow one, intended simply as a tactic to scare potential pirates away. Somehow, he didn’t expect that all the other users would also be scared quite probably more so by these threats. As one user, Mark Grimes, aptly commented, “Wow, he charges money for malware that's a novel concept!”
And he’s not the only one who shares that view. Blake C., another commentator, expands on that and points out a glaring logical error in the scheme:
Purposefully inflicting damage on a user should be a crime if it's not already. Assuming it's not, purposefully inflicting damage based on pure mathematics should be. How can the developer prove that the original licensed user actually gave away his SN to anyone? Assuming for a second that this app *does not* display the SN to anyone who opens the About box, how does the developer know that the licensed user didn't just write the number somewhere and someone else grabbed it? And now, after months of paid-for usage, and no illegal action, the customer finds his home directory nuked.
Various other commentators have pointed out that, either way, such anti-piracy measures don’t dissuade software pirates: if they want to pirate the software, they’ll find a way to do it anyway, and then the only real result will be that the normal user’s experience with the software will be less positive. The focus, they argue, should be on providing more useful features as opposed to thickening the code with ultimately-ineffective fail-safes.
In an extremely useful entry on his blog, the commentator Blake C. from above dedicated some time to doing a massively-detailed, step-by-step deconstruction of Display Eater’s code in an attempt to figure out and explain exactly what’s going on there. The end result of that analysis was best summed up in the closing lines:
So there it is. Display Eater recursively deletes the contents of its own Application Support folder(but not the folder itself), and nothing else. If the user was silly enough to put anything in that folder, it would have been nuked. But in that case, one might argue that they deserved it. But that only refers to version 1.85 of the software. In an open letter to the developer, the question was posed of whether or not other versions of the software actually did do any serious deleting. The reply was prompt and to-the-point:
Version 1.85 was the only release to feature deletion.
Version 1.85 was released three times: Version 1 had no deletion, version 2 had home folder deletion, and version 3 had display eater preferences deletion.
So it seems that Display Eater’s notoriety was more the result of intentional bad press than actual truth. This whole story leaves us with an interesting look at what happens when a developer tries to take the law into his own hands to prevent software piracy. Clearly, the intent was noble enough, but the actual application employed draconian scare tactics which only served to destroy the reputation of the software and the developer himself.
As a last response to all of this turmoil, Reza Hussein decided to release a free key for Display Eater which would effectively make the software free. However, this apparently wasn’t enough: the home of this app used to be found at http://reversecode.com, but it seems that the site has since been taken down, leaving only a barren file directory which serves as a glaring message to all other software developers of the dangers involved in trying to be too judgmental with their code.
A quick Google search will reveal some remaining download locations for Display Eater, including the Apple Downloads site, and ZDNet for those of you who are still willing to risk a look. The trial will allow you one minute of recording per clip and the license originally cost $17.00. Until the open-source release, you can go here to find the Serial Number that Reza released for users to unlock the software for free.