Software Activation, Licensing and Piracy
A friend needed to reinstall Windows (too many gadgets downloaded off of Facebook may have spelled doom to his OS). He didn’t have his Windows installation disk, so we used one of my disks. I figured we could use my disk but use his CD Key that was plastered to the side of his computer case. I was wrong. His code did not work with my disk.
So I called the activation number that Windows has for activating over the phone. Not surprisingly, the lady that answered had a strong Indian accent. I explained the situation to her… and she proceeded to tell me that I needed to call the computer manufacturer for a new installation disk. I have to admit that I lost my temper, dropped the mother-of-all-F-bombs and asked that she pass on to her managers something that was really making me mad:
I have paid for tons of software. Thousands and thousands of dollars. And I have repeatedly had to deal with software licensing and activation nightmares. Yet, surprisingly, I have known many people over the years who choose not to pay for software (you know, get so-called hacked versions) who simply do not have these problems.
I was irate. And she hung up on me. It wasn’t her fault—she probably knows nothing about the inside workings of software and probably makes less than minimum wage (American standards). So it wasn’t her fault. My anger was directed towards the software distributor (in this case Microsoft). Ironically, my anger only hurt the feelings of someone on the other side of the world—and the people who make these policies will never hear of my anger. And I am sure that is why they pay dismal wages to people on the other side of the planet—so they won’t have to hear the aggravation themselves.
This is not a Microsoft issue. It’s an issue that permeates the entire software production system. And it is an extremely flawed system.
As mentioned, almost every major program that I have paid for over the years has given me headaches (and sometimes cost me time and money) because of the hoops software manufacturers make us (the users) go through to unsuccessfully protect their software from piracy. Following are some of my stories.
Adobe Flash and Flex
Flash is program owned by Adobe that is used to create interactive web graphics and ActionScript programs. Flex is another program by Adobe that compliments Flash that allows web developers like me to create so-called Rich Internet Applications.
Both Flash and Flex have completely stopped working on my desktop. This usually seems to happen when one of the two programs does an update. Sometimes updating Flex somehow deactivates Flash, and vice versa. When this happens, you cannot use the deactivated program unless you happened to install the deactivated program within the last thirty days—in which case you can still use the trial software (you paid hundreds of dollars for) until thirty days after installation. In some cases, a call to tech support can solve the issue—a thirty-to-sixty minute wait on the phone may bring up someone who may or may not speak clear American English. Sometimes the rep will ask you to check if various services are running on your computer; or they may be nice and give your license a new activation. In either case you may have to uninstall the program then reinstall it. It could take thirty minutes of time at the least; it could also take a couple hours depending on how long you wait on the phone. Lost time is lost money, lost life…
Notice, there are people who don’t pay for the activation problems. They bypass activation problems by not paying for their programs… they freely download the hacked version and avoid work delays as well as arguing with someone on the other side of the world.
CorelDRAW Graphics Suite has been my program of choice for design and layout for over a decade. Over the last couple of versions, I have opted to purchase my copies of CorelDRAW from the Corel online store. When you do this, you get a copy of the program as a download. This version installs with a licensing service that, like the Adobe software licensing service, is supposed to protect software from theft.
Both CorelDRAW X3 and CorelDRAW X4 have completely stopped working on me. In the latest instance, I spent an entire day getting the program back up and running. After following various online instructions (that failed) I followed various online tech support chat instructions (that failed). The next step was to call Corel (or their tech support division somewhere in India). Luckily, this gentleman was intelligent and spoke excellent English. I followed his instructions (which were repeats of instructions I had already followed). Since it didn’t work, he remotely connected to my computer; I watched him repeat the steps I had already taken several times. The procedure failed (again). So what was the solution? He sent me a link to download a copy of CorelDRAW that doesn’t require activation. That was also the solution for when X3 failed a couple years back.
I once turned on my computer to find it would not let me login to Windows. The computer said that I needed to activate Windows. But I had already activated it a year previously. So I followed the instructions and all was fine. Fine until the next day and I started the computer again. The screen popped up again. But this time I could not activate—the message was that I had activated too many times. That was interesting since the Windows DVD (I bought) had only ever been installed once. On this machine.
So I had to call Microsoft (probably in India). They were nice enough to add more activations to my key—but what if they decided that I wasn’t the person who bought that copy? Or what if I still had the DVD but had lost my CD Key? They could have opted not to help (like the lady earlier in this article opted). In that case I may have had to buy another copy of Windows! And with an updated version of Windows I may have had to reactivate every program on my computer that was activated (using the old copy of Windows—meaning more calls to Adobe, Corel, Autodesk and other software companies).
I have also had problems with activations using Norton Internet Security. I used that antivirus and internet security software for years. But after the activation services stopped working on numerous occasions and after the program started taking up huge amounts of computer services, I dumped that program. I now use free anti-virus programs like Avast and Comodo.
I have other programs that require activation (like Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Mudbox) that have not given me problems. Tap on wood!
The Argument for Software Activation
Software developers have used activation procedures to protect their copyrighted software from being illegally distributed. Being someone who develops website software (I have developed the Webonizer CMS) I understand very well their motivation. All businesses need to make money. At the same time, I am not entirely sure that the logic and reasons behind all activation features and procedures are actually valid.
The concept of stealing digital content is still hard to wrap your head around. What does it mean to steal a program? It’s information. Copying a program and sharing it is not exactly the same thing as stealing a book from the bookstore shelf; the stolen book literally means lost commodity and lost profit—but the shared software is not a lost commodity. You could argue that by copying a program and sharing it you steal potential profit from the software manufacturers because the receiving party will now have no incentive to buy the product. In a certain way, this is true; at the same time, it has a flaw, which I will return to shortly.
Software activation methods were developed because it became apparent over the last decade that there is no way to keep the general population of internet and computer users from sharing software. The nature of the internet itself spurs the sharing of every form of digital media. By forcing software to work only for users who activate their local copies, it no longer becomes necessary to worry about the sharing of software. In fact, because of activation, many companies offer free trial downloads of all their software that will work for anyone for a limited period of time (trial installations). These trial installations give users a chance to see if the software is a good fit for them (and worth the money).
In some ways this is good for users. But there are some caveats. First of all, many activation services are installed as programs that are always running on your computer. That means that the more programs you run using these things, the less efficient your computer is at all times because it is running these activation services. Secondly, as demonstrated in earlier sections, the services often fail—meaning that your computer and programs do not work as they should when the activation services fail. Thirdly, hackers still find ways around all these methods—and the activation requirements are completely circumvented and stripped from many programs. What this means, in the end, is that people who pay for their software have less efficient systems because of extra services running on their computers than people who use hacked versions; people who have activation service failure have downtime that people who use hacked software do not have!
Warez Software, Stealing and Opportunity
After I bought my first PC back in 1998, I was given a CD that contained a collection of software. At the time, I knew nothing about software licensing and software theft. I gladly installed all the programs on the disk, including programs like Lightwave, 3ds Max and various other graphic programs. I played around in many of them. I found that I did not like most of the 3D programs but I did like 3ds Max. So I uninstalled the others and kept 3ds Max. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought many books on the program over the next couple of years and practiced using it.
It wasn’t for a couple of years, however, that I really understood the licensing and warez (hacked software) conflict. Once I realized that installing warez was not "legal” I decided to buy 3ds Max. That enthusiasm, however, quickly disappeared when I saw the price tag. 3ds Max was several thousands of dollars! I was working as a journalist and could never afford that. I did keep it on my computer for quite some time; my rational was that I didn’t have the income to afford the program, so the manufacture was not actually losing money on me—I couldn’t buy it anyway. Eventually, however, I uninstalled it as I succumbed more and more to the pressure of following the rules.
Years later, I was able to afford 3ds Max and bought it. I doubt, however, that I would have bought it had I not installed the hacked copy long enough to learn and appreciate it! So, at least in this case, it was good for the manufacturer that someone had a hacked copy of their program—it turned into profits. Was it stealing? It’s hard to say that was theft; it was more like an extended trial that led to a sale.
Now that I own 3ds Max I am using and promoting it every day. Had I not learned to love it as much as I did, I would never have paid for it; I probably would have ended up using a lesser (but free) alternative.
Major software manufacturers need to make profits to stay viable. I do not question the motives behind the creation of activation systems for their software. What I do question is the implementation that ends up causing frustration for legitimate users and is easily circumvented by those who are not so keen on paying for software anyway.
In the end, software activation systems are inefficient and flawed. If someone really wants a hacked version of a program, they will be able to find it—and even though the people using those versions aren’t paying for their software, it isn’t really costing the manufacturers any money anyway. Teenagers and college kids (and even home enthusiast) don’t often have the money to pay for software, so there was not a potential for lost profit anyway. The clamor in popular media that the cost of software piracy is a loss of billions of dollars every year is simply flawed and grossly exaggerated. Mass produced piracy that is then sold may legitimately be counted as loss... but the average (common) piracy that average internet users partake in is not really a loss at all.
I think most people are fine with paying for their software if the software is a major or essential part of their lives and/or it is not exorbitantly priced. Professionals often need to pay for their software simply because of the support that usually comes from the companies that make software; being able to call and get technical support is often essential for business—something that people getting illegal software don’t need or expect.
I don’t expect software companies to work without an expectation of profit for their efforts and investments. But their efforts at stopping the illegal spread of copyrighted software has proven to be as effective as speed limits—from time to time someone gets caught…. But the majority of people speed, including the law enforcement. (Do a search online for how many times each software giant illegally uses patented/copyrighted technologies every time they create a new program; which makes it all seem like a joke when the big guy steals proprietary software, but it’s a joke no one laughs at; the little guy "stealing” software can’t shrug off the consequences as easily as software manufacturers can).
It’s time for a new outlook on the development and business of software. Is that outlook the way espoused by the Open Source community? I’m often amazed at the technologies developed in the Open Source (free) world; at the same time, I have my doubts. Competition and money are always motivating factors ignored by the Open Source world. Take, for example, a free program called Blender. It is a 3D design program that anyone can download and install for free. There are many talented 3D artists and animators using it. But one of the big problems with it is that it has slow development and a clunky interface compared to other commercial alternatives. As cool as Blender is, I am sure that a huge percentage of the CGI world would be devastated if Blender was the only option available!
Other free programs are closer to the commercial counterparts. Open Office, for example, is an extremely powerful and robust alternative to Microsoft Office. Whereas Microsoft Office costs hundreds of dollars, Open Office is nearly identical in functionality but costs nothing. You don’t even have to supply an email address or any other information to download it—registering is entirely optional!
Again, I am not calling for a Software Revolution where we put all software company CEO heads on a platter. I think that software giants like Microsoft, Adobe and Autodesk are exceptional resources to society. What I do think is that they need to evaluate the wider perspective of computers, software and society and realize that they can find ways to turn a profit without turning the public into villains. As it stands, software companies take the stance of paranoia that would make people like Goebels proud.
Useful Links & Resources
- Software Activation
- Software Licensing
- The Cathedral and the Bazaar
- The Problem with Software Activation
Reports on the Cost of Piracy
- CNET: Software Piracy Costs $34 billion in 2005
- PC World: Software Piracy Costs $10.9 billion in 2001
- TG Daily reports $50 billion lost to pirates in 2008