Just Say No... to Product Activation

I originally created this page back in 2002. Since then (I am writing this in December 2011), far too many software companies decided to incorporate Activation-style DRM into their products; keeping this list up-to-date would be a full-time exercise. In any case, the sensible thing to do these days is to assume that all software have DRM until you learn otherwise.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. In recent years, I bought a number of computer games from GOG.COM; they republish old (and not so old) titles, and do so without DRM. I am also a little bit less apprehensive about Microsoft; yes, Windows still has Activation, but it is surprisingly permissive even when no license key is ever entered. Who knows, maybe the software industry is slowly beginning to see the light much the same way as the music industry has: punishing paying customers by crippling the products they buy is not the right answer to piracy.

For the impatient: click here to jump directly to the table of Activation-protected products.

Some questions:

  • Would you buy a VHS movie that can only be viewed using the VCR on which it was first played?
  • Would you purchase a music CD that you cannot copy to tape that you use in the car, or the contents of which you cannot download to your personal MP3 player?
  • Would you buy a book that can only be read by a particular person, and not by others?
  • Would you buy a product that you cannot resell, or even give away, when you no longer need it?
  • Would you, by way of an example suggested to me by a kind reader, purchase a car if the dealer reserved the right to tell you when you can drive it, where you can drive it, or to whom (and if) you can resell it?

The answer to these questions, presumably, is no for most of us.

Then why would you buy software packages that incorporate a copy protection feature which, in essence, does all of the above and more?

This feature is called Product Activation. It has been around in various disguises over the years, but Microsoft's recent decision to add Product Activation to Windows XP suddenly legitimized this method.

Why is Product Activation wrong? For several reasons:

  1. A product that you purchased may not be installed and used without further permission from the manufacturer. If for any reason you are unable to contact the manufacturer (e.g., you're on a remote island with a portable PC), if the manufacturer no longer supports the product, or if the manufacturer has gone out of business, you are out of luck. Your costly CD is a useless coaster.
  2. A product that you purchased may not be installed on more than one computer. There are many legitimate reasons for installing a product purchased under a single-user license on multiple computers: for instance, you may have a backup computer, or you may have upgraded your computer to a newer model. Product Activation denies these "fair use" rights to legitimate users.
  3. You cannot resell a software package anymore. Because of Product Activation, the purchaser may not be able to activate a product that you already activated yourself, even if you have completely uninstalled the product from your computer, and destroyed any copies you had in your possession.
  4. A product you purchased may cease to function if you upgrade or substantially alter your computer's hardware configuration. Product Activation will view your upgraded machine as a new, different computer.
  5. If the product cannot be Activated, you'll not be able to access data stored by it using proprietary formats. This may mean a minor inconvenience if you cannot access personal documents, or a major business disaster if you're unable to access tax files, bookkeeping data, or other important information.
  6. Last but not least: no software is error-free. Many anecdotal stories are known about Product Activation suddenly disabling a legitimately purchased, and previously Activated product due to bugs in the Product Activation code.

Although manufacturers may claim that these problems are made less severe by their policies (some of the Orwellian double-talk on their Web sites trying to convince customers of the "benefits" of Product Activation is outright frightening), one basic fact remains: you are at their mercy. If you are unable to contact them for some reason, if they refuse to activate your product, or if they are simply no longer in business, there is precious little you can do. (Taking matters into your own hands is not the answer either. At least in the United States, an attempt to defeat a copy protection measure is a felony, regardless of your reasons, courtesy of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.)

I have made it a personal policy not to use products with Product Activation on any of my computers, except for test purposes. I advise others to do the same, especially on systems they consider "mission critical". Unfortunately, software manufacturers don't seem to find it necessary to advertise in advance that their product is protected by a Product Activation feature.

For example, on the day I created this Web page (February 3, 2002) I installed the Canadian version of QuickTax 2001. I have used QuickTax for several years and, I must say, I am rather fond of the program. Unfortunately when the installation was complete, the software informed me that before it can be used, it needs to be Activated. I refused to activate the program, and I removed it from my computer. To add insult to injury, during deinstallation my QuickTax 2000 license appears to have become damaged, because that program no longer ran either. Fortunately, it was possible to reinstall QuickTax 2000 and gain access to my last year's tax files. I was then able to convert the data and import it using TAXWIZ, another Canadian tax preparation program that, thankfully, is not (yet) protected by Product Activation. I am planning to return my copy of QuickTax and ask for a full refund.

Or, to quote from an e-mail I received from a stranger in December, 2002 regarding Intuit's TurboTax: "I am sure the usage pattern is: install it, do the taxes, possibly keep it on machine for a year to plan next years taxes -- remove it -- get audit notice, reinstall it in a panick to recheck all your figures and print all the supporting forms (and hope like heck that Intuit still provides activation codes for your old version of the program, hasn't gone belly up, or been bought out by somebody, or just decided not to support old software)."

Update (January 10, 2003): the 2002 version of the tax preparation product I switched to last year, TaxWiz, also comes protected with Activation. As a result, I may have to prepare my tax returns by hand, since it appears there are no Canadian tax preparation packages left on the market that do not require Activation.

Update (February 26, 2003): I guess I learned the reason for the above: Taxamatic, the manufacturer of TaxWiz, was purchased last year by Intuit, the manufacturer of the very QuickTax that I quit using because of Activation. Argh.

Update (April 18, 2003): I decided to use ExpressInfo's MyTaxExpress. Their product works well, and it represents a marginally acceptable compromise: although the software is protected by a license key, this mechanism is used only for printing or netfiling your return. Kind of like the difference between a strip search vs. antitheft tags on merchandise... in both cases they treat you like a potential thief, but one method is a great deal less offensive than the other.

Update (December 9, 2003): I just spoke with Intuit Canada, and they explained that their product requires Activation only during the tax season, and afterwards it can be installed without restriction. However, when I pressed them for further answers, it was explained to me that even at a later time, the product will still "phone home", it is just that they will waive the license restrictions. In other words, if you're trying to reinstall it on an uninhabited island with no phone lines or Internet connection, you're out of luck. Sadly, this means that their product is not for me.

Update (February 29, 2004): This year, I'm using GriffTax. Made by a local company, and protected only by a license key, not (as far as I can tell) by a machine-specific activation code; unfortunately, the license key has to be validated through an Internet connection. In other words, ET still has to phone home. I have not tried if I can move the license files after validation to another machine and use them there; the manufacturer, however, does state that the product can be installed on multiple computers. Meanwhile, I received an e-mail from a correspondent who shall remain nameless, who writes: "I called Taxwiz support because I’d inadvertently deleted the confirmation containing the activation code. They told me I was out of luck, that I’d effectively 'deleted my software.' ('Don’t you READ the stuff? It said it was important to keep.') When I started protesting and asked to speak to a supervisor (no rude language) they hung up on me."

A Thought to Manufacturers

Are you a manufacturer who uses, or plans to use, Product Activation or some other copy protection mechanism? If so, presumably you do so in the hope of increased sales: namely in the hope that many of those who presently use bootleg copies of your product will, in fact, purchase a license when casual copying no longer works.

But consider: while you gain some customers this way, you'll also lose quite a few: legitimate customers who never intended to use bootleg copies in the first place, but are offended by the "crippleware" nature of activation and protection mechanisms, and the implication that all customers are viewed as potential crooks. Will there be a net gain in sales in the end? Even if there is a gain, will it be sufficient to justify the expense of developing and subsequently supporting a license protection feature? Will the net gain be worth the loss of good will that you cause by antagonizing your good customers (i.e., those who never intended to use other than properly licensed versions of your software)?

Yet another aspect of casual copying is the fact that casual copies often represent free advertising. Many stories are heard of people whose first encounter with a software package involved a bootleg copy, but once they tried the application and found that it met their needs, decided to not only purchase a copy, but spread the word afterwards. How significant is this with respect to your bottom line? I have no idea, and to tell the truth, I was always wary of this line of reasoning as an argument against copy protection. But when you put everything together... perhaps there is a reason why the most successful software company of all times, Microsoft, reached its peak by selling software that was not protected by technological measures at the time. (The situation is different today. But have you noticed that Microsoft doesn't seem to be growing as fast lately as it used to five or ten years ago?)

Update (March 31, 2003): I used to be an avid buyer of software. I like computer games. It was not unusual for me to browse through the games section in a computer store whenever I visited for some reason, and I occasionally picked up a game that looked promising. I don't do this anymore. You guessed it: it's because of my fear that the product may be Activation-protected. Food for thought.

Update (November 23, 2010): Recently, I began buying computer games again. Online, no less. That's because of a new site, GOG.com (GOG I believe stands for Great Old Games), that sells yesterday's titles at very low prices and free of DRM. Their games catalogue contains 20-year old titles as well as some fairly recent games. I hope they stay in business for a very long time.

List of Activation-Protected Products

To help others avoid similar nasty surprises, I decided to start this Web site, listing all products I am aware of that incorporate Product Activation. It is, without a doubt, only a teeny fraction of the programs that are on the market today and are protected by an Activation-style feature; if more are not seen here, it is because I nowadays avoid purchasing software unless I know in advance that there will not be an Activation "surprise" waiting for me in the box.

The table below summarizes what I know about the Product Activation features in specific products either from first-hand experience, or from what I've been told by users of the software. Included are links to the manufacturer's Web site, the product Web site and (if available) and the relevant Web site describing the Product Activation feature. I expect that this list will grow over time, much to my regret.

The presence of a product on this list is not meant as an indicator of quality (or lack thereof.) For instance, StarNet's X-Win32 is one of my all-time favorites; thank goodness an activation-free version is available!

Please send your notes about errors or ommissions, or about any products that should be added to this list to vttoth@vttoth.com.

Disclaimer: as a software author myself, I am a strong opponent of software piracy. I use only products that I paid for, and I urge everyone to not use, or give away, unauthorized copies. My opposition to Product Activation is based on my conviction that this feature "punishes the innocent" (legitimate purchasers) and limits traditional "fair use" rights through a misuse of technology.

accesses to this Web page since February 3, 2002.