Software Piracy Prevention…

DWBlog, from the maker of NewsFire (the first RSS reader to hook me before I outgrew its feature set at the time) has an entry on a subject that I’ve often felt conflicted about: product activation. In many ways, I agree with his points, even this one:

What activation allows is for reasonable limits to be placed on licenses. One has to realize that people will try to pirate software, and that in cases of rampant abuse it must be possible to stop the bleeding. The use of activation means that while honest users are given very liberal boundaries, rampant and excessive abuse can and will be stopped. 99.99% of users will never have an issue. In the few cases where the liberal boundaries are broken, there’s probably something suspicious happening.

First of all – I absolutely loathe “copy protection.” In software this is the practice of deliberately manufacturing a CD or other disk so that it violates the spec but is still readable – on the majority of readers – but the “bad” sectors can’t be copied. Time after time this has resulted in disks that are bought and paid for that don’t work on some fairly small subset of perfectly functional CD-ROM drives. Given software return policies at most stores this is usually money down the drain. In the music industry this has resulted in everything from CD’s that won’t play in the fancy DVD/CD player you now use for your home system or in your car stereo, to CD’s that run software to prevent your computer from reading the audio tracks. Some of the latter, such as the Sony rootkit, have gone as far as completely hijacking your computer.

To add insult to injury, if anything happens to the original media it gets scratched or your 4-year old decides it makes a shiney frisbee you are stuck, with no recourse, because you cannot back it up.

That said, I think every software distributor deserves to be paid for his work if you use his product. That leaves us with the question of what is fair value and how to best enforce the programmers/distributors end of the bargain.

He’s right. programmers need a way to tie “you paid for this” to “you can use this,” and serial numbers are so easily distributed and cracked that it’s practically worthless. My point of disagreement with his article is the following many people pushing activation and digital rights management are very restrictive in their activation licenses, and the boundaries are not liberal and are very easy to slam into. There are also other issues relating to activation vs. serial numbers that can make it a pain to use and need to be addressed.

Let me get one triviality out of the way. There are a few other methods of piracy prevention. One that is common with higher-end and specialty software (Lightwave, Nobeltec) is to use a “dongle.” The huge disadvantage with this methodology is the same as copy protected media – if the key is lost or damaged then poof, no software. That said, it allows you to install a copy on several machines that you may sit at use the software at whichever one simply by bringing the key along.

Another method is to not even bother. Apple takes this approach with a good percentage of their software, though not Aperture and their “pro” apps. The sci-fi publisher Baen Books, one of the few to make significant money off of ebooks not only doesn’t lock theirs down at all, but gives away an entire “free library,” the better to hook you with. All of the books are available in numerous, standard, easy-to-transfer formats. If you want to know why they did this:

If I can’t make a living as a writer by the quality of my writing outweighing any losses I might suffer from theft — without trampling all over blind and crippled people in order to stop the theft — I’ve got no damn business being a writer in the first place. I’ve still got my tool box, and I haven’t forgotten how to be a machinist.

Eric Flint

Entire pages of this material on copyright and why they did the ebooks the way they did are available at the old Library still available at: under “Prime Palaver.”

Back to our topic. Our remaining issues are these: What constitutes fair use and what problems does “activation” bring to the table for users?

With serial numbers/etc. if you lose the number, well, you’re toast. That said, it’s easy if you’re reasonably careful to keep duplicate copies of your serial numbers and disks so that if anything happens, you can still install and use the program.

What happens if the company providing the software or service goes away or is bankrupted, and the computer you originally installed the program on had to be replaced or reinstalled? Suddenly, even though you have a product bought and paid for that you can reinstall off of your backup discs, you can no longer use the program because there is no activation/authentication database to activate it against.

This to me is the biggest achilles heel of any centralized activation system, and one reason why despite the weaknesses of serial numbers, etc., I avoid “activation”-based schemes where possible.

Lest you think I’m merely fearmongering, even worse is already happening. Google just shut down their pay-for-download video service. Everyone who bought a movie through the service will no longer be able to play those videos because Google will not even continue to run the authentication servers for the rights management embedded in the movies. Since they can’t verify the copies are authentic and on the approved computer they will not play. Google may decide to do something different, but right now they are only giving partial credits towards new purchases that expire after 60 days. At least with iTunes you can backup your music store purchases to a real CD that can get re-ripped, in the event the iTMS gets shut down – and your music will also still keep playing on any authorized computers.

So what is fair use? Obviously, that depends on what the software maker decides, to some extent. The blogger that inspired this article obviously “gets it.” Some of his products feature “family pack” pricing that allow several users in a household to use the program without buying entire separate copies. Apple does the same with OSX. For $200 you can buy a family pack for up to five users instead of the usual, one-user standalone copy that goes for $130. Contrast this with the price of Windows, which “mere mortals” like us can only get one very expensive copy at a time. While required to have some sort of DRM for the iTunes Music Store, Apple made the policies very liberal by any other retailers standards: You can burn a song to CD any number of times, just not the same playlist more than 7 times. A song you buy on iTMS can be copied to, authenticated, and used on up to 5 computers. Songs can be shared via streaming to however many computers are practical that are also running iTunes.

This concept is just perfect for a typical household. it is becoming more and more common to have multiple computers in a house. I personally have two: a workstation at home and the laptop I use on-site. Ponying up for two copies of everything just so I can use it as the sole user where and when I need it at the best computer for the job is ridiculous. So is having to pony up for separate full-price copies of an office suite just so the kids don’t have to take over my workstation to work on a school project – one more reason I’ll be getting the newest version of iWork. I’d gladly pay extra for Windows if it gave me the right to run several copies concurrently in virtualization or on several computers in my household. As it is – I don’t buy the extra copies (still running a w98 and a w2k machine) – and MS will get an even smaller cut via Dell or a similar vendor when I finally do replace my computer.

Piracy is an issue that needs to be addressed. The problem is that many of the cures are either only marginally effective, or worse, actively interfere with your ability to use a product you paid for. A lot of software vendors could look to Apple and Baen for ways to effectively deal with piracy without ruining their own image – by providing a better value for the reality of how people wish to use the software they paid for, and being very careful not to step on the toes of those self-same customers.