The Copy Protection Conundrum

Thirty years ago it was pretty much universally accepted that intellectual theft was commensurate to physical property theft and that therefore companies had the right to employ copy protection methods to prevent it. Sure, people made cassette copies of their favorite songs from vinyl records and gave them to their friends, but to a handful, not potentially hundreds of thousands. Also the sound quality was not as good and people wanted the artwork, so eventually if they liked the songs, they bought the record.

Then came digital audio, and Napster, and Limewire and with it a generational change in attitude where lots of young people thought to themselves, “I want/need this and I cannot afford it so I will illegally download it. Who does it hurt?”

Here in Los Angeles, even among pros, hard drives were borrowed and copied to share sample libraries routinely. I am embarrassed to say that years ago I did so myself.

Thanks to forums where developers congregate, many of us now see that just as film and TV composers need our royalties to survive (and they are coming for us next, folks) developers need to be paid for their work or they cannot afford to continue to develop libraries. So in one form or another, there has to be copy protection.

If you do not accept that as a basic premise, then you might as well stop reading this article because I am not going to use more electricity defending it.

So then it becomes a matter of which kind of copy protection is best. In theory it is of course that method that protects the developer the best while inconveniencing the legitimate user the least. But that is where he rubber meets the road.

The most basic protection is the “challenge and response” kind where users must register a product before it works, are issued an onscreen “challenge” which they copy and paste in the website to receive a “response”, which they copy and paste into the GUI.

Companies like Native Instruments (through their Service Center) Spectrasonics and XLN audio employ this. I do not know how much of their software is pirated but I presume it is not foolproof. But one developer who employs this method has said that if it deters the majority of casual pirates, he doesn’t worry about the more determined ones who are not deterred.

Clearly, however, if it worked really well and all developers felt they could afford to be that sanguine about it, that is the method they would employ, and yet they do not all do so.

Another method is to use “watermarking.” Watermarked software embeds a unique identifier within the library/virtual instrument. It does not actually prevent software piracy but gives the developer a way to trace those who are using the software illegally and go after them. This of course creates more work and expense for the developer and in my mind is certainly less than ideal.

Kontakt based libraries btw, are perhaps the most ubiquitously cracked and since many small new developers develop for it, it has been the most disheartening.

Which brings us to “dongles” or “keys.”

As a guy who started with Notator on the Atari and transitioned to Logic to Logic Pro, dongles have been a way of life for me since 1989. Until Logic Pro 8 was released in 2007 and Apple decided that entering serial numbers was good enough, as they cared more about selling Macs than copies of Logic Pro, a dongle called the XS Key was employed. Emagic, the company that developed Logic Pro until Apple bought them out, used to brag that it was virtually un-cracked on the Mac, although PC users were sometimes able to use Logic without the XS Key.

Anyway, Apple now sells Logic Pro in the App store dirt cheap as an incentive for people to buy Macs, as Logic Pro is no longer cross platform.

I always made sure that I purchased a second key that had a license on it, so that if one failed or I lost it I could simply pop in another. It may have happened to me, but I do not have a memory of it ever happening.

Steinberg also uses a dongle for protection of their Cubase, Nuendo, and Halion products and VSL uses this same dongle for their software as well. Since I use Vienna Ensemble Pro on both my Mac and my PC slave, I have two of these keys with a third for backup. (They are inexpensive to buy, by the way, around $40 US.)

Now we come to the most controversial of all and the cause of the debacle du jour, the PACE iLok dongle.

Strong feelings about PACE is not new. Whether or not they philosophically actually liked the iLok, most ProTools users in client-based recording studios and post houses had few problems with it, as their iLoks were rarely moved from place to place and so were not frequently lost or damaged. Most paid for the “Zero Downtime” option so that if one did fail, they could get temporary licenses on a spare iLok quickly so that they could continue to service their clients. Rarely, was it cracked, although eventually it was cracked.

It took a while or PACE to come up with a new version and there was lots of grumbling, as by now EastWest had switched from Kontakt to its own Play engine and employed iLok, and lots of developers such as Avid, Cakewalk, Waves, Antares, Audio Ease, Soundtoys, Izotope, McDSP, and many, many others required it.

Many of the users of these products did go from place to place with them and as a result damaged or lost them. It did not help that PACE was not a very transparent company to deal with, not easy to contact nor receive a response from. So some people chose just not to buy any product that required an iLok, but in the professional community. These were few and far between.

Personally, as a guy who was frequently hired by other composers to help with creating music on their Logic Pro based rigs, I loved the fact that I could download software onto their computer, plug in my iLok and utilize plug-ins that I love and know well.

But the manure hit the fan last month when PACE performed an update that apparently invalidated licenses for a fair number of users, some who were quite high profile.

Like Paul Revere’s midnight ride and the “British are coming” all over the net “Do NOT synchronize your iLok(s)!” threads went viral.

The longest and most virulent perhaps can be found here:

There is a lot of mindless ranting and misinformation here, (hey, its Gearslutz :)) but it is a useful overview if you read the entire thread.

Alan Cronce of PACE started a thread to respond to the crisis.

Once again, this thread has the same flaws as the other but it is worth reading through.

The release of ProTools 11 this week has certainly forced PACE to be very busy trying to solve this and it appears that for most users they have, although some reports of unsolved issues remain. They have new software that potentially makes managing your licenses easier.

That said, the following seems obvious to me:

1.Don’t synchronize your iLok unless you have bought new products that require you to.

2.Have a spare iLok second generation on hand. Once again, like the Steinberg key, they are inexpensive.

3.Sign up for Zero Down Time (ZDT).

Moving forward, the debate about the pros and cons of companies employing iLok and to a lesser degree, other dongles like the Steinberg key, versus other means of copy protection is not going away.

My conclusions are:

1.Companies have the right to protect themselves from theft and if that means that honest customers are inconvenienced, as long as it is not massively so, it is unfortunate but necessary. I don’t like what I now have to endure at the airport to catch a flight, but terrorists made it necessary.

2.Dongles are dependable as long as you are careful with them, as you should be with all your gear. After all, you can damage or lose a hard drive and a laptop also.

3.Backup strategy, backup strategy, backup strategy…..

No developer wants to aggravate its legitimate buyers. It is not fun for them to deal with copy protection and no system is perfect and inconveniences no one. But rampant piracy is not acceptable for them either. Most are not rich and for them to continue to provide us with terrific new software, they must do what they think they must do.

Those of us who at least partly live on our royalties should be the most understanding of this and work with them.