Posted by: glennandert | 19-October-2008

The unintended effects of stealing digital works

It is amazing how fast time flies. There has been a stock market crash and all that since my last post!

The unintended effects of stealing digital works…..

When I first started looking at electronic charts and marine navigation software back in 2003, most cruisers I ran into on the west coast of the US used 2/3 photo copies of conventional full-size paper charts. A fair number used the free C-map electronic charts and the free reader for navigation. Nobody used MaxSea (software) and MapMedia (electronic charts) – they were pretty much used by long distance racers and professionals.

When I got started with MaxSea it was pretty spendy. As I recall I spent close to $1K to buy the software, and another $1.5K to buy MapMedia charts for the south pacific, from the Marquesas west to Fiji, and New Zealand. The cost for these electronic charts was about the same as buying the several inches of paper necessary to buy photo copies of the paper charts.

So, it wasn’t cheap, but it was inline with the other essential things on the yacht, like an auto-pilot, an SSB with email, an EPRIB, etc.

Over the years I began running into more and more cruisers running MaxSea or some other reasonably capable navigation software. In the case of MaxSea, I’d say that 90% of them were running a “hacked” copy. [A “hacked” copy is one that you can manage to install without a license, and therefore without paying.]

What about charts? When I was in Mexico, I ran into a guy that would sell you a stack of CDs filled with electronic raster charts for about $20 – old and low resolution stuff that came out before the chart companies started to introduce licenses. There were similar sellers on the internet. But I’d say that 95% of people using electronic charts are using the low-res c-map versions from the early 90s that came out before licenses and can be freely copied.

This is pretty shocking, really. The quality of these old electronic charts is extraordinarily poor in comparison to a 2/3 photo copy of a printed chart. Did people have the corresponding charts in paper form? They had some, but not enough.

Irony #1: Why poor all that money into a boat and put that and your life at risk using poor charts?

Modern culture, worldwide, says that stealing digital works is OK and the norm. How many of you have music on your MP3 player that you did not purchase (a friend “gave” it to you)? Do you feel bad about it? How about movies. How many copies of movies do you have (“given” to you by your friends, or just downloaded off the internet)? How about software? And, yes, I’m guilty of this myself, though I’ve tried very hard to kick the habit.

Cruisers live off a fixed income, and are looking for any and every way to avoid spending – when you run out of cash, you have to go back to work – so there is plenty of incentive to not spend money if you don’t have to.

For the most part, what drives the creation of quality software is the ability to earn a living doing it, and competition. If nobody pays money for the charting software, at best the resulting lack of innovation results in poor software, and at worst the company that makes it simply goes out of business. Same for charts.

Irony #2: The behavior in the cruising community of stealing the software and/or charts puts the very existance of what is being stolen at risk.

Here is a personal example. Marine charts are pretty pathetic for many places in the south pacific – many were created in WW I or II, don’t show all the reefs, have reefs and islands positioned incorrectly on the chart, etc etc. So regardless of whether you use paper charts (or equivalent electronic ones), the charts can be very poor.

In Fiji I ran into another cruiser that turned me onto a program called OziExplorer that allowed you to do marine navigation using satellite images (from Google Earth, for example). Properly georeferenced satellite images are often far superior navigation tools than a marine chart. I started using this in Fiji in 2007 and loved it. I did not stop using my marine charts, but I did use satellite image navigation as an extremely valuable additional aid in the outlying areas.

Here is an example. The best chart (electronic or paper) for Mana Island in Fiji is shown below. Mana island is the fuzzy bit to the left of Sand Cay. Learjet’s track (the red line) shows running over the reef on our way in, and sitting on the reef instead of in the middle of the cute little lagoon. The navigation assistence for getting in there is with local knowledge, and/or sketch charts in an ancient cruising guide.

Here is a satellite image of Mana island. You can clearly see the pass on the west side. In fact you can see the wake of a motor boat that just left the pass. I wish I had an image with my track. If I did, you’d see the red track line going right smack down the middle of that pass.

You can zoom in and see way more detail.

This does not replace the need for daylight and being on your toes going through that pass. It does not replace traditional marine charts. And I’m sure that Google’s lawyers have something in the license agreement to prohibit you from using these images in this way. But you can see that it does give you a complete new dimension of information, with amazing accuracy.

I seriously considered making an electronic cruising guide for Fiji based on that technology (I’d find a source for imagery that was willing to license it). Pretty much every island, bay, reef, or whatever could be covered with amazing accuracy. There was so much that could be done with this, and it would have incredible value – saving lives or boats in some cases. But in the end, I decided against the idea.

Irony #3: Why spend 6 to 12 person months of time creating this wonderful product, when one cruiser will buy it (for $25), at which point it will spread like an epidemic, as one cruiser gives it away to all of his friends. Let’s see, 12 months of work, revenue $25. Hmm.

I was recently trying to help a friend install paid-for copies of MaxSea along with high quality c-map and MapMedia charts – newer versions of what I use. The dongles, request codes, license codes, etc etc that have been imposed in an attempt to prevent people from stealing the software/charts is a bloody nightmare. That and glitches in the installation software resulted in spending a couple days working on it, and failing to get it to work! It’s gone down hill from the versions I have, and according to my friend it’s actually far easier to install the “hacked” versions!

Irony #4: The mechanisms put in place to prevent people from stealing are just encouraging them to use the pirated copies!



  1. Irony #5

    Parasites like C-Map and the rest of the chart mafia are selling you back data that you have already paid the publicly-funded HGOs with your hard-earned tax dollars to collate, and all their “added value” amounts to is condemning end-users to proprietary SENC formats, dongle-hell, intrusive digital “rights” management and charging astronomical sums for your safety at sea. It isn’t theft, it’s poetic justice.

  2. […] to Glenn Andert for the background on OziExplorer. There’s a lot to be learned from Glenn’s very high-quality blog with tagline […]

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