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Last Updated: Friday, 6 May 2005, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Pirate or harmless computer buff?
By Chris Summers
BBC News at the Old Bailey

After an exhaustive series of trials around the world, several members of a network of computer software pirates known as Drink Or Die have been sent to jail. But what motivated them?

When he gave evidence at his own trial, Steven Dowd certainly did not appear to be a master criminal.

Crippled by a debilitating spinal condition called ankylosing spondylitis and stricken with severe psoriasis, the unemployed father-of-two from Merseyside appeared to be a harmless computer buff.

floppy disks
Dowd downloaded hundreds of pieces of software
He admitted quite freely to being a "geek" who developed a love of computers, and software in particular, after a friend lent him a notebook computer during a long stay in hospital in 1993.

"I was like a duck to water. I was hooked from day one," he told the Old Bailey.

He was asked by his lawyer, Timothy King QC: "Were you a computer anorak?" and he replied: "I would say I was a computer addict...I used it 24 hours a day. It was my life and to be honest it still is."

Dowd learned quickly the art of computer programming and learned how to create his own software.

Out of work as a result of his spinal injury, he wiled away hours building websites, such as one for local historians in Newton-le-Willows, near St Helens, where he lived.

"As far as I'm concerned everything I have ever done on the internet has been charitable," Dowd told the jury.

He even produced software to aid New York Police Department's registration scheme for bouncers.

Asked to describe how he felt about software, Dowd said: "I looked at software like some people look at art. I have an appreciation for software and the way it's written."

Dowd admitted it was an "obsession" and said he collected software like he had in the past collected model cars and McDonald's Happy Meal toys, of which he had around 6,000 in his attic.

Binary code
I looked at software like some people look at art. I have an appreciation for software and the way it's written
Steven Dowd

He told the court he spent hours every day downloading software from the internet.

"I was writing software anyway and you only get ideas from looking at other people's software.

"If you had put your granny on the internet and called her Net Nanny 5 I would have downloaded her too," he told the court.

But Dowd denied being involved in software piracy and said he never downloaded anything for personal gain.

"I honestly believe that if you are using software you should buy it," he said, adding that this was DOD's ethos too.

Dowd claimed he only downloaded software so he could try it out to see if it was any good before deciding whether to buy his own copy.

He said he joined DOD in March 2000 after being invited by a member called Andrew Eardley, who used the internet nickname Maverick.

'Like being in a candy store'

Dowd told the court: "It gave me access to everything I could possibly want from the internet. I already had this obsession with downloading software and it was like walking into a candy store. No matter what you wanted it was there."

But Dowd said DOD was a private club with only about 30 members and cracked software was not available to outsiders. He said members were all "sensible, older individuals" and not teenage "script kiddies".

As I understand it the only illegal thing is if you are selling it and we were not. Nobody I ever knew at DOD ever sold a single piece of software
Steven Dowd
He maintained that far from his actions costing software firms money, they had actually made money out of him.

"I have purchased software and I would not have purchased that software unless I had a piracy copy. I haven't seen examples of where anybody has lost money. I've only seen examples of where people have saved money."

Dowd downloaded from various sources, including the Microsoft Development Network, which allows programmers and developers to test out new Microsoft products before they hit the market in order to give the company feedback.

Dowd also had licences for numerous other software programs.

But he said: "As I understand it the only illegal thing is if you are selling it and we were not. Nobody I ever knew at DOD ever sold a single piece of software."

The pirates with no profit motive
16 Mar 05 |  Technology

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