Dongles – The Historical “Bad Rap”
When describing software protection dongles in a 2007 article appearing in PC Magazine, John C. Dvorak, a well-respected (but self-described curmudgeon) and award winning columnist said, “The dongle was a mostly failed copy-protection device that came into existence in the 1980s. It was also a point of controversy…”
The controversy mentioned by Mr. Dvorak boiled down to (1) The rights of software publishers to get paid for their efforts and (2) the rights of users to use the software they legally purchased without the inconvenience associated with plugging in a hardware dongle.
Activation Codes – The Compromise
In an effort to address the concerns of their users, software publishers rolled out a scheme of utilizing activation codes which bind a license to a PC. When companies like Microsoft and Adobe began requiring users to activate licenses, the practice became almost universal for software costing as little as $50. In essence activation codes turn the whole PC into a “dongle”.
Dongles in the Twenty-first Century
It has been over five years since Mr. Dvorak’s comment. But more tellingly, it has been over twenty-five years since the first parallel port dongle appeared on a PC protecting the first CAD/CAM programs written for DOS.
Worldwide dongle sales have increased year over year since the late 1980s and any computer technology that has been around that long must have merit. And such software copy protection technology should be seriously investigated by any software publisher tasked with protecting Intellectual Property, controlling software usage via licensing, and preventing profit erosion due to wide-spread illegal use of software titles. If you are tired of seeing “free” versions of your products posted on bit-torrent sites; read on.
Why End-Users Prefer Dongles
Considering all the technologies that have come and gone in the last twenty-five years, it’s remarkable that dongles are not only still with us but are still undergoing improvement in both function and design. There are some things that an end user can do with a dongle that cannot be done with an activation code. In a recent survey of users who had software installed protected with a dongle, the following were the top five reasons they preferred this method of license enforcement over activation codes.
- License Portability – The license is on the dongle and is easily moved from one system to another.
- License Recovery – The end user can self-restore a license to an existing or replacement dongle.
- License Borrowing – Licenses can be lent out (to travelling engineers and salespeople, for example)
- License Redundancy – Important in “Mission Critical” applications (Ex: Hot and Cold Stand-by licenses)
- License Security – Conscientious companies do not want employees or others using software illegally.
Software Activation via activation codes can offer end-users the ability to recover licenses. This usually involves communicating with the software developer and convincing them that you need to move your legally purchased software to your new PC. This can be time consuming and problematic, especially if the activation code is protecting a 25 user license on a server where the hard drive just failed.
Dongles v Activations – Why not have both?
The CodeMeter License Platform from Wibu-Systems offers an ISV the option to seamlessly protect a product with a dongle and/or activation code. Either method has its pro and cons. We leave it up to you, your sales team and your customers to choose which method is best.
John Poulson has worked in the software protection industry since 1988 and has been with Wibu-Systems since 2000. He is an expert in license authentication best practices and deep powder skiing.