Product Activation: A Slippery Slope

by Tony Lovasco, President of Twisted Lincoln, Inc.

Product Activation is a particularly insidious form of "Digital Rights Management" (DRM). Product Activation (aka "Activation") requires that the user of a piece of software inform the software manufacturer of their purchase, and in doing to, links that software to their particular machine. Prior to the activation process, the software is usually crippled in some manner- it either does not function completely, or ceases to function after a set period of time.

While the specifics vary, the basic principle of activation is the same: the software program generates a unique code based on your individual hardware configuration, and this code is sent back to the manufacturer. Using a formula of some kind, the manufacturer uses this code to compile an unlock key, which is then returned to the user's system. This key will then "activate" the software, and allow unrestricted access. If the software is subsequently installed on a different machine, this unique key will not unlock the software, and it will remain crippled.

Product Activation is marketed as an unobtrusive way to fight "software piracy" -- the manufactures claim that it is trivial for legitimate users to use Activation, yet those who would sell bootleg copies would be thwarted by it. In reality, Activation does little to stop illegitimate distribution, as most bootleg software either ships with some kind of "crack" or workaround to activation, or originates from a volume-licensed corporate copy that does not use Activation.

The real evils of Product Activation are not immediately obvious. Most users shrug off the idea of Activation, because it happens so transparently. Once Activation is completed, most users never encounter it again, unless they make a major change to their machines. An upgrade such as a motherboard or hard drive replacement may trigger the software to believe it has been moved to another machine -- and ask you to re-activate it. In many cases, this requires the consumer to call the manufacturer's customer support line to get permission to re-activate. Yes, that's right. permission. Apparently, some software providers do not believe their customers have the right to change or upgrade their computers on a regular basis, and think it is no big deal that they should have to explain their actions before using the product they purchased.

This concept of permission becomes even more sickening when it comes to replacing one machine with another. Since Product Activation is designed to prevent the installation of one piece of software on multiple machines, users often have much difficulty reinstalling their software on replacement machines. While some products allow you to re-activate on a new machine without having to call support, almost all limit the number of times you can re-activate (even on the same, identical machine). Once you've reached this limit, you must call and explain your actions. Apparently, software providers feel their own customers are guilty until proven innocent.

Many customers have no problem calling up to re-activate. However what about professionals? Imagine you're working late one Friday night on a project for a client, and in the middle of your work, your system dies. No problem, you have a backup machine ready. So you re-install your software and start working-- but wait, it's time to re-activate, as you changed hardware. You call up customer support -- but it's after business hours, and you simply get a recording. You now have to wait until Monday morning before you can re-activate your software -- meanwhile you can't get any work done, because the crippled pre-activated copy you have installed won't let you save any files until you activate. Now your project won't be done in time...

Perhaps that seems like an unlikely example, as many companies offer 24-hour support. However there is another situation that is even more infuriating: what happens when the company discontinues support for a product? Is it feasible that a company will keep their activation servers active ten years after a product has been discontinued? Probably not. But certainly one should expect to be able to reinstall their legally purchased software years after the initial purchase. This becomes even more frustrating when one considers the possibility of a company going out of business.

It is obvious why Product Activation is inconvenient. But is it really insidious, as the opening sentence of this article suggests? Yes, it is. Why? Because at its foundation, Product Activation takes almost all control over a product away from the consumer, and gives it to the software developer. Activation requires communication to exist between customer and developer, but no obligation on the developer's part to maintain such communication. It restricts the customer's ability to upgrade, repair, or replace their hardware, and in some cases, prohibits it. Furthermore, it can easily be used by the software provider as leverage to upgrade -- if they discontinue a product, they need only turn off their activation servers, and all discontinued versions can never be re-installed. This can be particularly hard in corporate environments, where the company has begun to rely on proprietary file types used by a specific program, and all of their employees have already been trained to use it. Power-hungry software manufacturers can use Product Activation to force businesses to upgrade, or potentially lose money in lost productivity while they adapt to a competitor's software.

Initially, Product Activation was used only in a handful of higher end software packages. Now, it is extremely common, even in low-level consumer software. The fact that more and more software is being shipped with some form of Product Activation is a sign of a much wider, more disturbing trend: subscription based licensing. Using Product Activation to leverage consumers to upgrade, software makers could begin slowly accustoming their customers to the idea of paying a subscription fee to continue using their software. Because so much of business, and personal computing relies on proprietary software, it is inconceivable that any rational consumer would accept the idea of continual software licensing fees. Software drives innovation in hardware, which in turn changes how we live our lives. While it is clear that consumers should be required to pay for the products they use, there has yet to be a consensus as to what powers the customer should have over their purchase.

The argument is often made that it is not unreasonable that companies do not trust their customers, because so many people use "bootleg" software and media. It is sometimes suggested that Product Activation is simply a safeguard, and that the actions of a software vendor in implementing such technology is no different than locking the doors to one's house at night. In reality, there is a very large difference. Sure, everyone has locks on their doors. No, most people don't trust others not to break in, so they lock their doors. But everyone receives the keys to their house when they purchase it. Product Activation in software is much the same as a Realtor selling you a house, but keeping the keys, and making you call him up to unlock the front door each time you want to enter your house.

Twisted Lincoln, Inc. is strongly against all forms of Product Activation. We do support paying for products that one uses, however we also support the rights of the consumer to use the product they purchased in perpetuity. While it is neither reasonable, nor practical for a company to support their software indefinitely, that they might design their product in such a manner as to intentionally cripple it is equally unreasonable. There are many software products still in existence that do not contain any type of Product Activation, and are still successful. Activation is not the answer to “software piracy,” nor is it an acceptable ethical practice.

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