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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, protection against the manipulation of software), trial/demo version, serial number, hardware key, date checks, CD check or software annoyances like nag screens and adware.
A computer program that performing software cracking is called crack, or is euphemistically referred to as a patch.
The first software copy protection was applied to software for Apple II, Atari 800 and Commodore 64 computers. Software publishers have implemented increasingly complex methods to try to stop unauthorized copying of 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 identify 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. However, 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.
On the Commodore 64, several methods were used to protect software. For software distributed on ROM cartridges, subroutines were included which attempted to write over the program code. If the software was on ROM, nothing would happen, but if the software had been moved to RAM, the software would be disabled. Because of the operation of Commodore floppy drives, one write protection scheme would cause the floppy drive head to bang against the end of its rail, which could cause the drive head to become misaligned. In some cases, cracked versions of software were desirable to avoid this result. A misaligned drive head was rare usually fixing itself by smashing against the rail stops. Another brutal protection scheme was grinding from track 1 to 40 and back a few times. Oddly the first duplication of computer software id witnessed was a tape format that had been put into a twin high speed cassette stereo player and dubbed. Compressed tape data required a higher quality recordable cassette.
Most of the early software crackers were computer hobbyists who often formed groups that competed against each other in the cracking and spreading of software. Breaking a new copy protection scheme as quickly as possible was often regarded as an opportunity to demonstrate one's technical superiority rather than a possibility of money-making. Some low skilled hobbyists would take already cracked software and edit various unencrypted strings of text in it to change messages a game would tell a game player, often something not suitable for children. Then pass the altered copy along in the pirate networks, mainly for laughs among adult users. The cracker groups of the 1980s started to advertise themselves and their skills by attaching animated screens known as crack intros in the software programs they cracked and released. Once the technical competition had expanded from the challenges of cracking to the challenges of creating visually stunning intros, the foundations for a new subculture known as demoscene were established. Demoscene started to separate itself from the illegal "warez scene" during the 1990s and is now regarded as a completely different subculture. Many software crackers have later grown into extremely capable software reverse engineers; the deep knowledge of assembly required in order to crack protections enables them to reverse engineer drivers in order to port them from binary-only drivers for Windows to drivers with source code for Linux and other free operating systems. Also because music and game intro was such an integral part of gaming the music format and graphics became very popular when hardware became affordable for the home user.
With the rise of the Internet, software crackers developed secretive online organizations. In the latter half of the nineties, one of the most respected sources of information about "software protection reversing" was Fravia's website.
Most of the well-known or "elite" cracking groups make software cracks entirely for respect in the "The Scene", not profit. From there, the cracks are eventually leaked onto public Internet sites by people/crackers who use well-protected/secure FTP release archives, which are made into pirated copies and sometimes sold illegally by other parties.
The most common software crack is the modification of an application's binary to cause or prevent a specific key branch in the program's execution. This is accomplished by reverse engineering the compiled program code using a debugger such as SoftICE, OllyDbg, GDB, or MacsBug until the software cracker reaches the subroutine that contains the primary method of protecting the software (or by disassembling an executable file with a program such as IDA). The binary is then modified using the debugger or a hex editor or monitor in a manner that replaces a prior branching opcode with its complement or a NOP opcode so the key branch will either always execute a specific subroutine or skip over it. Almost all common software cracks are a variation of this type. Proprietary software developers are constantly developing techniques such as code obfuscation, encryption, and self-modifying code to make this modification increasingly difficult. Even with these measures being taken, developers struggle to combat software cracking. This is because it is very common for a professional to publicly release a simple cracked EXE or Retrium Installer for public download, eliminating the need for inexperienced users to crack the software themselves.
A specific example of this technique is a crack that removes the expiration period from a time-limited trial of an application. These cracks are usually programs that patch the program executable and sometimes the .dll or .so linked to the application. Similar cracks are available for software that requires a hardware dongle. A company can also break the copy protection of programs that they have legally purchased but that are licensed to particular hardware, so that there is no risk of downtime due to hardware failure (and, of course, no need to restrict oneself to running the software on bought hardware only).
Another method is the use of special software such as CloneCD to scan for the use of a commercial copy protection application. After discovering the software used to protect the application, another tool may be used to remove the copy protection from the software on the CD or DVD. This may enable another program such as Alcohol 120%, CloneDVD, Game Jackal, or Daemon Tools to copy the protected software to a user's hard disk. Popular commercial copy protection applications which may be scanned for include SafeDisc and StarForce.
In other cases, it might be possible to decompile a program in order to get access to the original source code or code on a level higher than machine code. This is often possible with scripting languages and languages utilizing JIT compilation. An example is cracking (or debugging) on the .NET platform where one might consider manipulating CIL to achieve one's needs. Java's bytecode also works in a similar fashion in which there is an intermediate language before the program is compiled to run on the platform dependent machine code.
Advanced reverse engineering for protections such as SecuROM, SafeDisc or StarForce requires a cracker, or many crackers to spend much time studying the protection, eventually finding every flaw within the protection code, and then coding their own tools to "unwrap" the protection automatically from executable (.EXE) and library (.DLL) files.
There are a number of sites on the Internet that let users download cracks for popular games and applications (although at the danger of acquiring malicious software that is sometimes distributed via such sites). Although these cracks are used by legal buyers of software, they can also be used by people who have downloaded or otherwise obtained pirated software (often through P2P networks).
The most visible and controversial effect of software cracking is the releasing of fully operable proprietary software without any copy protection.