Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Perils of Software Activation

You know, I really do respect software developers and intellectual property rights. I am also keenly aware of how bad a problem piracy is. I won't try to defend people who use illegal copies of software on their machine, as I firmly believe that if you are not willing to pay for software that you do not use, then you should find an alternative. (ahem... open source... *cough*!)

However, I do have some serious qualms with the practical aspects of one of the most common methods of keeping people from using illegal copies of software: software "activation." In case you're not familiar with what this is, it works as follows. When you install software that requires activation on your computer, the software "calls home," usually by using the Internet to contact the company that publishes the software. The software then transmits a sort of password, usually based on details about your machine. A simplified example would be the software adding up how fast your CPU is, how big your hard drive is, how much memory you have installed, and send that number to the software publisher, which then provides a key to the software based on that code.

If you give your legal software to your friend to install, it won't work, because his machine has different numbers, and the password won't match. However, this scheme is ruthless in its assessment. If you buy another computer and install the software, guess what--the software you paid hard-earned cash for will no longer work! At the very least, you will be forced to call the software publisher and try to convince them that you need the software activated on your new computer, at which time you will probably be asked some harrassing questions and feel like some sort of criminal for simply buying a new computer.

At the very worst, you may be told something along the lines of "You're only allowed to use the software on the original computer, buy another copy," at which time you're SOL. That's right, the industry that whines so persistently about people "stealing" software has effectively just stolen back software that you paid for!

Here's the icing on the cake: There is a sizable contingent of people who are dedicated to the task of "cracking" protected software. That is, if you're smart enough to acquire an illegal copy of software that requires activation, there's a 99.9% chance that you're also smart enough to download a small illegal patch that changes the software so that it no longer NEEDS activation. The end result is that while this activation scheme provides intermittent hassle for legitimate users, it provides very little protection against the type of theft that these companies are worried about.

So what is the answer? I may not be smart enough to have The Answerâ„¢, but I am smart enough to know that it is actually better accept the fact that a lot of copies of your software will be installed illegally than to piss off your paying customers and STILL have a lot of copies of your software installed illegally.

I don't know who the first company was that started requiring activation, but Autodesk's AutoCAD was doing it in 1995, forcing customers to call a telephone number during regular business hours in order for the software to work. As a consultant, I was endlessly frustrated by not being able to install an industry-standard CAD application after hours, when most of this type of work is done! Microsoft is the company that popularized this practice. Windows XP requires activation, as does Microsoft Office and several other Microsoft applications. The reason I'm writing about it this moment is that I would really like to buy a piece of software called TMPGEnc XPress, but they not only require activation, now they're requiring that the software continue to periodically call home for license validation!

I sent the following e-mail to the company just to see what kind of response I get. I suspect it will be something along the lines of, "Like it or lump it," but I am genuinely curious as to how the company addresses the serious downsides of keeping their own users from using legally bought software. And after using their software for a trial period, I'm also genuinely interested in buying a copy, but I am very hesitant to do so, given that for purely non-technical reasons, I could easily be denied my use of it in the future. Here is the e-mail, and I'll post a follow-up if I get a response:

I am considering purchasing a copy of TMPGEnc 3.0 XPress, possibly with a copy of the DVD Author 1.6 software, but I have some questions regarding the periodic license validation. I am referencing the information provided in the following link:

Specifically, I have three main concerns:

First, as I tend to test a lot of software for personal and professional purposes, I frequently make and restore hard drive images on my computer. I have had some trouble with software that periodically "calls home" in the past in that sometime in the normal course of using my computer, a software key or other piece of information is updated, then I restore my hard drive to an earlier image, after which the software no longer believed it was validated. Can you please elaborate on exactly what information is retrieved when TMPGEnc renews its license validation as I would like to ensure that such a situation does not arise?

Second, as a matter of course, I frequently upgrade and swap hardware in and out of my PC. Over the course of the past year alone, for example, I have at various times swapped out my motherboard, CPU, three hard drives, upgraded my DVD burner to a dual-layer model, and added memory to my system. In your explanation of the license validation, you say, "The identifier key is unique for each computer..." This has bitten me with several products in the past that require activation and/or maintain validation in that over the course of time, the software stopped recognizing my system as the same system on which the software was installed. I actually was forced to stop using a legally purchased software application when the company demanded information from the original purchase that I no longer had available. How does Pegasys handle this situation when it occurs?

Third, although rare, I have also had software stop working when the company that requires validation went out of business. At that time, I was forced to acquire an unreliable (and possible dangerous) hack to the software to enable it to continue functioning. Although I am certain that you do not wish to ponder this contingency, what guarantee do I have that should Pegasys cease operations or stop supporting this product in the future, that I will be able to continue using it?

I certainly appreciate that Pegasys has put a lot of time and effort into the creation and maintenance of TMPGEnc 3.0 XPress. It performs very well, and I am sorry that my trial period of use for the software will expire in a few short days. I am impressed that it has become somewhat of a standard by videophiles and the pricing is very competitive with other comparable products. However, as I am sure you can understand, if I do purchase your product, I want to ensure that I am making a decision for the long-term use of your software. Any useful information you can provide to answer my concerns would be greatly appreciated.



I received the following response today. I don't know whether or not I'll purchase the software. On the one hand, I've tried it, and it really is a good product. On the other, I really don't want to support this type of activity because of the reasons stated and becuase I feel that it only serves to add hassle to legitimate users. Anyway, I'll let you decide for yourself what you think. Here it is:

Thank you for your interest in our software.

When activated, manually or automatically, the validation routine sends to our server your license key and some information aimed to individualize the host machine. Returned key contains the validation and time information. There are 2 possible cases regarding disk image swapping. The first is your latest disc image contains data from a previous validation period so the validation system will ask you to renew. The second case is the image contains data from the current validation period, the software should start without asking.

You can change everything, but in some cases the validation routine may have to recalculate a machine key and send it to our server along with your license. Enventually this is the server that decides to validate or not. Unless you keep changing your machine and system within a relatively short period you should not have problem to gain the validation. In the worst case just contact us and we reset the server.

We do our best to keep the business running, but we do not what tomorow is made of. In case we disappear the validation system will certainly to continue to function independently since other software or content makers are starting to use it. If we have to close everything, server included, I do not know we will do but will take the best possible decision for our users.

If you have more questions do not hesitate to contact us.

UPDATE (May 3, 2005)

Well, I sucked it up and bought the software. I really didn't want to because of the whole license validation issue, and if I had the time and energy to put into using an open source tool, I certainly would have. Unfortunately, the open source tools in this particular area (transcoding video files) are still a little skimpy and very not-user-friendly, something I hope that people a lot smarter than me are working to rectify. As soon as I can switch, I likely will. But in the meantime, as I said, I am using the software and therefore am obligated to pay for it.

Plus, the guy did bother to send an individual response, which counts for a little something, even though I don't like the answers. I do, however, like his phrase, "...we do not what tomorow is made of." I think I'm going to start using that one. I'm thinking of going to see a movie this weekend, but I don't know what tomorrow is made of.


At 5:30 PM, Anonymous adrian otter said...

I couldn't agree more. I used an industry standard activation service for quite a while and lost a lot of customers.

However there are both user and developer friendly services out there if you look. I went with and since then I've actually had many more re-purchases.

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous kev said...

I lost my tmpgenc software when I got an update which caused the new version to not recognize the new executable file.You can't go back to the old version which they won't make available so unless they are able to fix this then I will lose it like I did with magix software which again was a dvd protection fault and this one is an exe file protection.


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