I want to get something out in the open. It’s not illegal to hack your software.
This is probably contrary to what you might assume when you hear the words “hack” and “software” used in the same sentence, but there is an important distinction to make: hacked software is not the same thing as pirated software.
Let’s throw out a couple examples.
The OSx86 Project
You may not think that ripping music from a CD counts as software, but the theory holds and mp3s are nothing if not digital files to be manipulated by another software application. You may also assume that ripping a CD to create mp3s is not violating any terms of anything. The RIAA, however, would have you believe that you are violating copyright law by ripping mp3s from a CD that you own. The reason here being that the record company may also sell those mp3s themselves and just because you can create your own mp3 copies doesn’t necessarily mean you should. On the other hand, we’ve all come to accept the common terms of property law which states that, once you purchase something, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. (This is why it’s no more illegal to copy a record onto a blank cassette than it is to sell the record to a used vinyl shop for cash.) In this, the recording industry really has no bite since we’ve already established that copying music to a tape doesn’t violate any law (although they tried to disallow that in the 80s), so there’s no reason why creating a digital copy should be any different (they would disagree again, pointing out that it is possible to create digital copies of music with today’s technology that are a direct facsimile of the original – to which we all say “…so?”).
Windows Genuine Advantage Validation Hacks
This is what lead me to start writing this post in the first place. When Windows 7 was in beta, I signed up and was using Windows 7 for almost a year in it’s early beta and release candidate forms. I was so impressed that I decided to actually purchase a copy for each of our computers. Of course, according to Microsoft, Windows 7 beta/RC was not for use on any machine you actually use (which sort of defeats the purpose IMO) and there was no direct upgrade path to a retail version of Windows 7 from the RC. It wasn’t long before someone found a way around this, which even worked for me, who bought Windows 7 Home Upgrade (the RC had the featureset of Windows 7 Ultimate). But fast forward to both hard drives on both my computers failing (at different points). Though you are allowed to do a format and install with an upgrade version of Windows 7, the license key is not valid for a full install, I had to find a way to workaround the Windows Genuine Advantage Validation to use the copy of Windows that I purchased.
Commercially-Supported GPL Software
This one is close to home because not only do I write commercially-supported GPL software (in the form of Museum Themes), but I also support commercially-supported GPL software (in the form of Event Espresso). In this instance, hacking may not be anything more malicious than taking the code and modifying it for your own purposes (something that is allowed by the software license). But what if the means by which you obtained the software wasn’t one of the “official” channels? By the terms of the GPL, anyone, anywhere, for any reason has the right to take GPL software and distribute it in kind as long as they do not alter the GPL license itself. This means that you could take GPL software that you purchased and post it on your website for people to download.
However, with most commercially-supported GPL software, what you are actually paying for is not the software itself, but rather the support (and the knowledge that the software is being maintained, tested, and the developers will presumably fix any bugs you may find – all things that may be harder to come by when you are working with free – as in beer – GPL software). If you took the example above and posted your commercially-supported GPL software on your site, you would likely earn the ire of the developers if not violate the terms you agreed to when you purchased the software, and they would more-than-likely deem you invalid for receiving any further support or updates.
At this point you should be seeing a pattern. “Hacked” software is making the software do something that wasn’t the intended use by the manufacturer. The consequence isn’t death, the FBI won’t come after you over your illicit VHS copies of movies you rented from Blockbuster, and you won’t go to jail. You will not, however, be able to get support for whatever software it is that you are hacking. The EULAs that you click through without reading, though they sound like legalese, are at the end of the day just license agreements and generally not a basis for legal action. We have become so used to clicking through EULAs without reading that, as a result, we only follow the terms of them as far as it resembles common sense or, at the very least, supports what we were already intending to do with it.
Breaking the rules
I was going to end this post here, but I’ve recently been made aware of something that is making the rounds in the Warrior Forum. For those of you who don’t know, the Warrior Forum is basically where spammers and black hat internet marketers are made. It is to scammy online money-making schemes what 4chan is to griefing. Recently, some brilliant member of the forums realized that because the terms of the GPL allow you to redistribute the software (even repackage and resell the software) that you could potentially make a lot of money stealing other people’s code and selling it.
Here’s the problem with that.
GPL software is released without any warrantee that the software even works. No guarantee is made for support of any kind. As discussed previously, that’s what you’re paying for. How likely is it that the guy you got a free copy of a WooTheme from is going to help you out when you have a problem with the theme or want to upgrade it to the latest version? Not at all. Go to WooThemes for support? Sorry, if we don’t have a record for your purchase, you’re SOL. This hurts not only the customer trying to use the theme but, ultimately, becomes a big headache for the guy trying to redistribute it because he probably didn’t realize that he’s going to have to help (or ignore) the people he gave his theme to. For someone out to make a quick buck, this was probably not part of the plan (however, for anyone actually in the business of selling GPL-licensed commercial software, this is precisely the plan).
Hacking software or using hacked software is not illegal. Once it’s (legally) in your possession, you ultimately have the right to do whatever you want with it. However, doing so means you should at least be aware of the consequences, namely: you’re on your own. If you break anything after hacking your software (or using someone’s patched version of commercial software), you can’t go back to the developer and ask for a refund, or support, or much of anything, really. Hacking is not piracy and shouldn’t really even imply piracy (though pirated software often requires a hack in order to bypass the built-in protection against just that). Hacking is just code, which, broken down are just words, which are protected by article one in the constitution allowing free speech. That said, there are many cases when the forces in place guiding you toward actually purchasing or using the software legitimately have benefits that outweigh whatever benefits of the hacked version. Maybe this is in the form of support from the developer or maybe you just believe in the product and want to help them keep writing good code. As a free-thinking individual, it is up to you to make the choice for yourself and understand the consequences of either decision.