Online Activation

******UPDATE******* Yet another case of DRM not just limiting what you can do with what you paid for but putting you in jeopardy. In this case Microsoft DRM creating security vulnerabilities. Serious ones.

*****UPDATE****** No surprise but Microsoft Office 2011 will apparently require activation. What a marvelous opportunity to buy iWork and or download OpenOffice.

Product Activation is a process wherein, having purchased a piece of software, sometimes even directly from the vendor, when you go to install it, it refuses to work until you go back and ask for permission to use what you have already paid for.  This is an anti-piracy measure. The thinking is, if you buy a license of a piece of software that will install with a serial number alone, you can easily give copies and the serial number to friends, family or colleagues and violate the license terms. That this system is often applied even when a product is bought direct from the vendor associating a credit card with a serial number is emblematic of the paranoia behind these schemes.

(See the bottom of this article for a Wall of Shame list and links related to this issue which will be periodically updated. Please leave your own Wall of Shame contenders and productive suggestions for alternatives in the comments. Under no circumstances will rationalizations for why piracy can be OK be allowed to remain posted. Make that disingenuous argument on your own site.)

Let me be clear, crystal clear; Software piracy is wrong. Period. No “I just wanna try it.” no “It’s too expensive and I’m a starving artist.” no “They are an evil corporation and don’t deserve the money.” No. Period, end of story, if you use software you haven’t paid for you are morally and criminally liable and that’s that. There are edge cases carved out implicitly in a recent memo from the Copyright Office but for all practical purposes, these don’t apply to your objections to the price of Maya.

Having made that clear, online activation is a shameful, rude, value destroying, presumptuous and unacceptable abuse of the paying customer rationalized as a means of preventing theft. Online activation is something software buyers should protest and make untenable. This is the first of a series of posts discussing not only the pitfalls and problems with this kind of DRM but outing vendors who use it but also offering recommendations of, often superior, alternative products and even copy protection approaches. The purpose is  galvanize  you, the buyers of software to take active steps to make Online Activation so crushingly expensive and embarrassing that the practice ends.

First, what’s wrong with online activation:

  • You paid for the license. You should be able to use, or not use it, with privacy.  If you buy a retail license to a software title, it’s simply none of the publisher’s business that you have unless you choose to register with them. Consider a scenario where, for example, you are an technologist at a media company and you have been asked by your employer to crack the DRM on a DVD so they can use clips in a documentary within the bounds of fair use. This is now a legal circumvention of DRM but you, and your employer, have good reason not to want to telegraph your purchase and use of circumvention tools (the most usable such tools are commercial products despite the ample number of free and open source alternatives) prior to the release of your documentary. Consider the purchase of encryption tools. Even if it’s as benign a need as locking up your own web server password records, once you tell a company you use their encryption tool, they become potential participant in violating your privacy.  Bear in mind, if you buy it online, they have a record of your IP address etc. but not the IP of where you use your license. In the scenarios above, that can matter.
  • The file formats software stores your data in are not commonly openly documented. If you need to count on the publisher to allow you to activate their product, have their connection to the internet, or yours, be up and running when you need to access your data you are taking on a significant risk. If you buy a license to a tool, keep a backup of the installer and serial number and maintain access to the hardware and OS you need to run it, if they go out of business and can’t activate your software, you are unable to access your data or use the product you paid for. Should you not be able to replace the battery in your Oldsmobile because the company (division) went out of business and can’t reactivate it for you?
  • There is a litany of cases of where bugs not in the product itself but in the online activation schemes have made the software unusable or caused other problems on the computers where it is deployed. You get the normal accidental bugs and all the bugs associated with the software companies method of policing their paying customers.
  • If you are an IT technician or manager, you are forced to manually interact with each machine to activate each seat. This adds to your costs and strains your resources.

The software publishers who use this copy protection scheme feel they are entitled not just to sue or seek criminal charges against you for violating the license terms but to police your use of their products on an ongoing basis. Ongoing basis but you activate once and you’re done right? No. If you alter the configuration of your computer, reformat and reinstall, sometimes if you apply a bugfix update, you will be asked to activate again. At any moment, the possibility of needing to activate could come between you and your work using a tool you paid for. (See below for Symantec’s activation failure that demanded re-activation at every reboot.)

So, what can you do about this?

  • Don’t buy products with online activation copy protection. I will be updating this and other posts with a ‘wall of shame’ to help you know which products do this.
  • Call the companies on the phone to talk you through activation. Be really, really, really, stupid on the phone. Make it take forever to help you. Have fun with it. Make it a game with your friends and colleagues. Heck, invent a ‘tech support’ drinking game. Just make it more expensive to use these schemes than not to. This doesn’t need to consume your time. You can make this a background task constantly asking support to hold as you do other things. Yes, you will torture their employees. Yes, it’s mean, heck, it’s arguably downright childish but, it returns the costs to the perpetrator and if they can’t retain staff, they will rethink the policy.
  • Actively support the vendors of products that don’t do this. Buy their products instead. Promote them instead. Tell them and their rude competition why.
  • If you buy a product and find out after you bought it that it includes online activation? File a complaint with your local Better Business Bureau and/or Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Affairs.
  • If your software fails not due to a bug in the software but due to flaws in an activation process, complain. Loudly.
  • If you are an I.T. manager, insist on volume license packaging that doesn’t include these schemes. If you genuinely might need 200 seats of a product, the call to demand a ‘no-activation’ alternative will get noticed.
  • If you have some spare time, if you get burned, file a small claims action.
  • Make useful suggestions to the companies who do this for other ways they can non-rudely reduce piracy.

This last point is important. It’s vitally important that we respect why companies feel a need to take these measures. We must participate in a dialog wherein we seek out better methods to help companies who produce useful products to profit handsomely doing it and not be stolen from.

To that end, some alternatives companies can not only reduce piracy but build a healthy relationship with customers that will delight and engage them. Here you go publishers. Some ideas:

  • Make technical support conditional on registration. When you’ve done this, make the support good.
  • Offer premium training, plug-ins, templates, or discounts on other products to users who register.
  • Offer a ‘dongle’ version of a product as an alternative. Yes, dongles suck *but*, if you buy a product and have your dongle, it doesn’t matter if the maker stays in business if you need the tool a year later. (I do understand the limitations of this, ADB dongles speak to the perils on this  though there are ADB to USB adapters available.)
  • Track repeat registrations of the same serial number to different owners and build a blacklist of serial numbers.
  • Provide regular reasonably priced feature upgrades that require registration and a non-blacklisted serial number.
  • If you must, use concurrent use metering on a LAN but make this a feature. “Each serial number allows you to install this product on up to 3 computers on your local network. The software will check and refuse to launch when there are other users running the product. This is a convenience that allows you to install the product wherever it’s convenient but helps you stay in compliance with the license.” Every license becomes a ‘family’ license. You deliver more value to your customer at no incremental cost.
  • Coordinate your online sales with your registration process and bind the serial number to the purchaser’s name. This poses some challenges for volume license purchases but it adds a simple bit of “your accountable’ to the license. It does mean anonymous purchase is a problem but, relatively speaking, less problematic than activation.

Any other ideas? Be part of the solution!

[I am considering expanding the walls of shame, honor and the link collection for this as a more usable feature here than just updating this post.  Let me know if this would be useful to you.]

Wall of shame software products:
onOneSoftware: Plug-In Suite 5 (and component products also sold separately including GenuineFractals). They get a small pass for being fairly transparent that they use online activation but this is a pretty ugly ‘gotcha’ in their implementation: “DO NOT choose to remove license.  Removing the license will make your license code completely inactive.” and if my deadline is in 6 hours? “Our customer service team will be able to assist you with issues relating to download, purchase, shipping and/or registration of your onOne Software product. You can expect to get a response to your inquiry within 1 business day.” Buy this suite instead: Topaz Labs Plug In Bundle which largely overlaps the onOne feature set, is easier to use, updates and improves more often, has some additional functionality and doesn’t have rude copy protection schemes.

Adobe: Creative Suite Products. Some liberal policies and a generally forgiving response to glitches but, nevertheless, employ Product Activation.

MacRabbit: CSSEdit and Espresso. HTML/CSS specialized text editors. Activate online. User friendly license policy however “Licenses are personal. Installing your license on multiple Macs is fine, as long as you are the user of the license. For example, you can use one license on both your desktop and laptop, but not on all your employees’ Macs.”

Wall of Honor Software Products: These products deserve your money. These publishers respect their paying customers. (Note: Do not assume there are no anti-piracy measures in place and that you can’t get caught pirating these products. There often are and you often can. They are listed here not because they are easy to pirate but because the measures in place don’t negatively impact the legitimate paid user.)

MacOS X Snow Leopard
Apple iWork ’09
Apple iLife ’09
Apple Final Cut Studio
Apple Aperture
(note: Apple’s Pro apps do check on the LAN and do implement some support access based copy controls. Generally quite civilized.)
Topaz Labs Photoshop and Aperture Plug-Ins
FilterForge – Photoshop Plug-In and stand-alone texture generator (Is inherently copy-protected by the need to use the great online community to keep growing your library of filters. Slick.)
Fetch FTP client (Will try to connect to when entering serial number but does not need activation)
BareBones BBEdit – The One True Text Editor
BareBones -Yojimbo – Slick document organizer and storage system. It’s not just a product, it’s a lifestyle
(Assume BareBones employs subtle protections in user-respectful ways I won’t comment on.)
PhotoAcute – PhotoAcute Studio – Slightly odd granularity to licensing but no user-hostile behavior.

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  1. techgoose
    October 26th, 2010 at 00:11 | #1

    You can add FileMaker Pro — and I believe FileMaker Inc. is an Apple subsidiary — to the list. Versions 9, 10 and 11 require “activation” and it is a royal pain in the ass.

  2. December 10th, 2010 at 19:12 | #2

    @techgoose Thanks and bummer news. Been a while since I upgraded. I look forward to torturing them by doing it on the phone when I do.

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