Software Users Shouldnt be Treated Like Criminals

Avoid software that tells us what we can and can't do, writes eWEEK's Jim Rapoza.

I hope this column turns out ok. Im rushed and will file it late to my editor. But its not my fault. First, it took me forever to get to work today. I drove my new car, which is equipped with controls that prevent me from driving over the speed limit. Then, as I am typing the column, my new word processor stops frequently to make sure that I dont include any plagiarized text.

So, I may be late submitting my column, but at least Ill be prevented from committing the crimes of speeding and plagiarism. Thank heaven!

I know what youre thinking: There are no such controls. Any auto company or government that tried to implement them would see a massive citizen backlash. Just look at the controversy caused by the monitoring capabilities of the new black boxes in cars.

However, for many software companies, treating users like potential criminals continues to be business as usual. Whats more, the anti-piracy controls made possible by things like activation, digital rights management and "trusted" computing are leading to a slippery slope of additional controls on how customers can use the software they purchase.

This became apparent when eWEEK Labs recently found out about a nice little undocumented "feature" in the latest version of Adobe Photoshop. When we attempted to open an image of a new $20 bill in the new Photoshop CS, we were presented with a window stating, "This application does not support the unauthorized processing of banknote images." The window also included a link to Facts About Using Banknote Images (, which provides information on how money images can be reproduced.

If Adobe were just displaying a warning, something like the FBI anti-piracy warning on videos and DVDs, it would be fine. But in this case, the program refused to open the bills image.

Stopping counterfeiters is a great thing, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons to have images of bank notes, as the Banknote Web site clearly indicates. Photoshop makes no allowance for this type of use.

Here at eWEEK, our art department has used images of money many times in conceptual art, always within the allowed rules. I cant imagine how much of a pain this feature will be for financial magazines. Its probably safe to say that Money and Fortune wont be upgrading to Photoshop CS anytime soon.

Whats frustrating about this is that users are being inconvenienced for no good reason. As is the case with anti-piracy measures, this anti-counterfeiting feature will have no effect whatsoever on real criminals. Although the feature annoyed us, we were able to easily circumvent it by reducing the size of a high-definition image of a bill, opening the image in Photoshop and restoring it to the correct size.

Whats of greatest concern—and quite scary—is that this could be just the tip of the iceberg. If Photoshop is scanning the images youre opening to see if they are money images, whats next?

When you try to open the cute image of your toddler running naked around the Christmas tree, will Photoshop stop you because it detects it as child pornography? Maybe Quicken can start scanning your finances for tax evasions, or your browser can prevent you from visiting offshore casinos. Also, when you take into account the fact that programs such as Photoshop CS already include activation features that send unique identifier information to Adobe, you can envision the program also sending information about the person trying to open the image of the money to the authorities.

We customers cant allow this kind of practice to continue. We must let vendors know that we wont purchase software that treats us like criminals and limits our ability to use the programs. The vendors dont have legal backing, as the courts have regularly protected the use of tools that have legal as well as illegal uses.

Back to the column. Uh oh, Ive run into another problem. My word processor wont let me save what Ive written. I keep getting a message indicating that the program has detected opinions unfavorable to software vendors. Looks like Ill need to copy the text to another word processor in order to file the column to my long-suffering editor.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapozas e-mail address is