A Comment on "Warez D00dz" Culture


In response to Eric S Raymonds claim that "cracker d00dz" contrary to the hacker culture at large, are elitist and unwilling to share information and in particular source code, it is claimed that this is not the case because there is no source code and the culture is actually not a gift culture but one of scarcity economics. This article hopefully also provides some insight to what The Scene, or "warez d00dz" culture really is.

What are "Warez D00dz"?

In the often-referenced article Homesteading the Noosphere by Eric S. Raymond the following quote appears:

The cracker d00dz have a gift culture which thrives in the same (electronic) media as that of the hackers, but their bahaviour is very different. The group mentality in their culture is much stronger and more exclusive than among hackers. They hoard secrets rather than sharing them; one is much more likely to find cracker groups distributing sourceless executables that crack software than tips that give away how they did it.

As I read it, this shows a misunderstanding of what the "cracker d00dz" or "warez d00dz" culture really is and how it works. (These "d00dz" terms are imposed on the culture by outer -- often contemptous -- sources, itself often refers to itself as "The Scene" as in "The Cracking Scene" or "The Demo Scene", I will hereafter refer to it as The Scene.)

Raymond's works (The Hacker FAQ, The Jargon File, The Cathedral & the Bazaar, Homesteading the Noosphere etc) deal in depth with the cultural ancestry of a very "academic" hacker culture which you mostly associate with something resembling what existed at the MIT AI-lab in the early 70's and before that. In this respect I regard Raymond as the authoriative source alongside Steven Levy, who wrote the biography on Hackers - Heroes of the Computer Revolution. However, the only place where a reasonably just account of the underground culture of The Scene is touched upon is in the book The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling.

The Scene has strong connections to other underground cultures such as phreakers and netrunners (often referred to as crackers by hackers, or hackers by your average John Doe who don't know, neither care about the difference). It also has connections to the virus breweries of Bulgaria and elsewhere. The Scene was born out of 8-bit homecomputers such as Tandy Radio Schack TRS-80, Apple ][, Atari 800 and mostly Commodore 64. This was in the late 70's and early 80's. It later migrated partly to the 16-bit platforms of Amiga 500 and Atari ST, and eventually ended up as a IBM PC clone culture as well. Mostly Scene members were teenagers.

The aim of The Scene and the reason to why "real hackers" show such contempt for it is what it's purpose was: breaking copy protection of copyrighted software. Most "real hackers" regard this a meaningless and immoral activity. The Scene's members also developed a closely related "demo" culture on the Commodore 64 and upwards, distributing binaries that showed off the hardware capabilities of the machine. This worked fine on the C64 and similar machines as the hardware was common to all machines. (On the PC your average demo will take a lot of configuration and luck before running.) "Real hackers" consider demos a plain waste of time because it:

(You could call this "hardware-dependent multimedia".)

So get to the point, what's the problem with Eric's statements?

Raymond says about Sceners that "They hoard secrets rather than sharing them; one is much more likely to find cracker groups distributing sourceless executables that crack software than tips that give away how they did it." This is simply not correct, or if you prefer, the wrong question was asked to yield this answer. Raymond is defining an sharing, open-source community as one which distributes source code with executables and encourage sharing and learning, so that the average programming ability of their members increase. (And this is a good thing.)

So (I think) he resons in this simple causal manner: "an open and encouraging hacker culture publish binaries and source together, the warez d00dz doesn't publish the sources of their crack patches, so they are not an open and encouraging culture, but a closed and exclusive culture". And what is the problem with this?

The answer is: there is no source. You see, Sceners have a habit of programming in a way "real hackers" left a long time ago. They program using a tool called machine code monitor or more commonly debugger. And do so by tradition. As the higher-level languages were not available or extremely costly on machines like Apple ][ or C64, this was out of necessity for your average computer-loving teenager. The only language that was available out-of-the-box would often be a simple BASIC interpreter which really didn't bring anything out of the hardware. Only later did assemblers (like the C64 Turbo Assembler for 6510 or QSEKA for Amiga) appear, and this was only because they were being cracked and/or reverse-engineered by members of The Scene.

What you do when you "crack" a program, is to go through it with a debugger or similar, disassembling the hex numbers into mnemonics, one by one, looking for system calls to check for registration codes, dongles and the like. When you find a viable way of defeating the protection (usually by throwing in a few NOPs (No OPeration) commands over the check) you tried it out. Cracking is an art of trial-and-error and always will be, because software vendors don't publicize their source code. Needless to say, cracking would not exist if all software was open-source.

So "learning" to crack is no big secret: just learn assembler, just learn using a debugger. Write a patching program or use one of the publicly available, to create a crack patch. In the older days, crackers would do more than removing registration code checking and dongle protection checks, they would distribute the whole program in a patched and compressed executable binary, adding on top of it a "trainer" (for games only) enabling infinite lives and such goodies that the original inventors didn't put in there.

So this is the point: there is no source code. In case there is a source code in the form of a few assembler lines to be compiled and linked, it would hardly tell you anything you couldn't learn from just disassembling the program in a debugger. So there are no secrets. I have even seen crackers, as late as the (19)90's, programming by punching in opcodes in hex as A9 00 8D 20 D0 and when I asked about this behaviour instead of writing atleast mnemonics the cracker in question claimed it was a faster way.

Secretive culture? No way!

So there is plenty of object code to look at if you want to learn cracking. You could then ask why the cracker culture doesn't share its knowledge in any other way. This question has two obvious answers:

  1. This is a partly criminal subculture. Not that cracking games or distributing patches is in itself criminal, but redistributing cracked programs sure is. Also crackers going public for obvious reasons often experience very hostile attitude from organizations like the Business Software Alliance and their like. And thus it goes underground, and underground customs apply. These customs include reducing the number of people you make contacts with to an absolute minimum of trusted parties. The same is true for Hell's Angels or any other underground organization.
  2. The other answer is that whereas programming device drivers, protocol stacks and sorting algorithms is kind of generalizable knowledge, cracking a software specific, platform specific copy protection is not. There are as many ways of creating weird and innovative copy protections as there are programs, and just as many ways to defeat it. It would do little good to try catalogize or generalize that knowledge, and it would not be very fun either. (Cracking a game is in itself actually quite fun, it's a lot like solving crosswords.)

The virus creating culture has the same characteristics in these regards. Apart from this there actually are cracker manuals dealing with some common forms of protection schemes, but I know this is an exception. A link to some of these can be found below in "related links".

But Eric is also right!

Now to the contrary there is a point in Raymonds argumentation which is correct, and also yields us a better way of explaining why The Scene can be so exclusive and elitist. The very word elite used by Sceners comes from this fact: the distribution of cracked software for Apple ][, C64, Atari 800 and the likes didn't go by leased-line as in the Internet-based "real hacker"-culture. It typically went through a BBS run on an single-user machine of said brand, connected to an extra phone line in a teenagers bedroom, where said teenager is cracking away at proprietary software and listening to Metallica. (Metallica is not optional, the crack will not work unless you listen to them.)

Now, a single user BBS is a scarcity. You would often dial it up in the middle of the night and still find it busy. So you somehow had to restrict access to it. Thus a tightly knit "elite" group ran their own BBS and shared this scarcity. This was their "water hole" if you compare them to the Bushmen of Eric's. 5 1/4" and 3 1/2" disks are not scarce, but nice BBSes and extra phone lines are. And as many of the contributors to this BBS would be plain leechers (or lamers to use a more rude term) not being able to crack, neither wanting to, those had to go first. As many of these leechers seldom would contribute to the software archives (download areas) a ratio was also imposed on the users, forcing them to upload a number of bytes in proportion to the amount downloaded.

The elite, ie the guys who did the actual cracking and ran the BBSes would of course meet no such ratio. And this is why being elite is so cool. (By the way, I don't recall anyone writing B1FF (3l33+ etc) before the Internet, this seems to be a very new thing actually.) Some groups would also exchange substantial amounts of data by disk-swapping, especially on the C64. I think the main reason as to why "real hackers" look upon Sceners with such disgust is due to the fact that the elite dudes they've met have actually been those leechers, who were at times known for boasting, lying and generally being a pain in the ass at every BBS in the world, all for trying the easy way to become a part of the elite without really contributing cracks, BBSes or whatever.

But the main point here is that the group mentality of the Sceners is what it is just because it historically has scarcity economics. And still have -- even though this culture is nowadays all over the Internet, huge and good FTP servers (distro sites) with warez and cracks on them, are a true scarcity. It also has to be secretive in this regard because as soon as BSA or similar organisations find out about such a site, it is immedeately cracked down upon, obliterated, destroyed. (As would happen to the bigger BBSes in the older days.)

The scarcities that cause The Scene to be so elitist and exclusive is thus the legal systems imposed by governments and hostile actions from interest organisations and police. It has very little to do with actually wanting to keep the warez and cracks for oneself. I think you will actually find your average cracker willing to share, and very generously indeed, in case you take the time to bring your CD-burner or what have you to his place or elsewhere for a copyparty. And in case you have nice warez to swap, he will probably be willing to mail you CDs in exchange for your CDs.

It should be noted that a Scener seldom sells ("pirates") software. He simply copies it in exchange for software. I have yet to meet a skilled cracker who also makes a profit from selling cracked software. That kind of people belong to an entirely different group, which Sceners refer to as pirates, who are in turn often leechers.


I think you get the point, and I hope you have learned a bit about what The Scene really is. An entirely different kind of question is whether this kind of culture is "moral" or not, whether it is "right" or "wrong" to crack software protection. That subject deserves to be treated at lengths elsewhere. But considering that a professional assembler for the C64 would cost close to $1000 in the early 1980's, and the average user being a teenager of moderate income, it might not be very hard to understand why this kind of culture inevitably had to evolve.

And in case you care, I'm not making this up. I cracked some 100 C64 games in the late 80's and early 90's. (And I do not regret doing so.)

Linus Walleij

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