Wibu-Systems Blog

What is software piracy?

Posted by John Browne on Mar 7, 2011 12:50:00 PM

Software piracy can take a number of forms, intentional and unintentional. What normally comes to mind with you hear "software piracy" in context are hackers or crackers (more about that in a minute) doing something illegal. But it can also include people who inadvertently violate license agreements without knowing.

What are hackers and what are crackers? In discussions about piracy, you see both terms used interchangeably. People who "crack" the system an ISV uses to prevent copies are called "crackers." Hackers, on the other hand, has traditionally been a term to refer to people who break into corporate or government networks. Sometimes it easier to just say hackers to lump together all the bad guys out there who try to do digital mischief.

So how do they do it? A common approach is to take a legitimate copy of say, Windows or Photoshop, and create a cracked version by patching some DLLs so that the licensing code thinks it's running on a legal copy. Then that single version is propagated around the world courtesy of file sharing sites.

Software-based anti-piracy systems try to bind a single licensed copy of an application to a given machine. Sometimes it will allow you to install on a couple of computers. Typically this is done with fingerprinting: identifying some characteristics of the host computer that the software has to match to. For example, you can look at the MAC address, CPU serial number, hard disk serial number, and so on. When the software first installs it gathers these fingerprints; later when you start up the application it checks the machine fingerprints against the ones it originally installed on and decides if this is a legal copy or not.

Since people upgrade and replace computers this schema is flawed from the get-go. The ISV has to decide how stringent to be about matching hardware fingerprinting on program load. If you have four values and only three match, do you go ahead and run or do you throw up a dialog telling the user they have to check with the publisher before the software will run? CmAct lets you decide how many factors (out of four total) you need to match before running the application. So you can set it to be two of four; if any two match the application will start.

These methods offer protection from casual theft but have a basic issue in that the fingerprint information has to come from the operating system. Contemporary OS do not let application code address hardware directly. If you want to know the serial number of the CPU, you use an OS system call to get it. That unfortunately makes the process somewhat vulnerable to spoofing: making the app think it's talking to the OS when it's not. And in that way many applications are cracked every day. Some of these are given away while some are sold as "real"--you can find them on various ecommerce stores online.

Of course if you use a dongle it should be a lot harder to crack the protection code; in the case of applications protected correctly with CodeMeter they should be impossible to crack. You can find online sites advertising dongle "emulators" or "eliminators" and they are basically cracking sites. Some developers use their dongle in the weakest possible way, by having the application merely check for the existence of a dongle and don't use it for key generation. This is incredibly easy to crack and is never recommended!

Topics: CodeMeter, software copy protection, Anti-piracy, dongles, software piracy, FAQ, cracking, CmAct