Product Activation is Neither Cure Nor Disease

There’s a flurry of activity on the macsb mailing list regarding product activation for software as a result of this post. It seems the purchaser of an RSS reader was denied the ability to re-install the program on his computer because he had done so too many times.

Product activation is one technique some software publishers use to reduce the theft of their products. Other techniques have been hardware-based, such as the dongle, and software-based, such as serial numbers, entering data from the printed documentation, etc.

And the problem, insofar as Charles Miller relates, is when legitimate users are penalized because the publisher or his server is afraid one legally purchased copy of the product has become thousands of stolen copies. It is always at the discretion of a businessman to decide what person he would like to do business with. It is also at the discretion of a person to decide what type of company will get his business. Some things you accept as a cost of the relationship, be they qualities of the software, customer support or payments.

A software publisher must decide a multitude of issues that relate to his customers: the features in his software, technical support, sales and distribution channels and how to combat product tampering and theft.

Anti-theft measures, such as serial numbers and product activation, generally operate by disabling functionality unless proof of ownership is demonstrated. For an RSS reader, which requires Internet access to begin with, it’s reasonable for the program to require validation with the publisher’s database of purchasers. However, it’s also reasonable for a purchaser to be able to re-install the software on at least the same machine as often as his needs dictate.

Now, given the choices between entering a serial number and your email address to activate a program, it seems to me to be easier to remember your email address. But then it’s also easier for a thief to guess at as well. And figuring out who holds a license for your products versus who’s broken into them requires additional manpower and overhead. Is the amount of sales that are protected worth the cost of one-upping the determined thief and degrading my customer’s experience, albeit slightly?

This was one of the bigger issues I’ve wrestled with as my own product nears completion, and when I began writing this entry I was determined to ship it with a product activation scheme as a theft deterrent. However, given its product category, the resources and delays associated with incorporating and maintaining some anti-theft scheme I’ve decided to forego adding one.

Not only do I want to remove every impediment to my customers’ enjoyment of the software, I want to reduce the friction and suspiciousness which every customer touchpoint sustains as a result of the “proof” dance. It makes for a better experience for my customers and myself.

Purchasers will be able to download a copy of the product they licensed, and the updates, as often as they need to, whenever they need to and whereever they need to without having to activate or register the software to use it. (After all, they’ve already purchased a license so I should know they’re registered, right?)

The only requirement for running the software is to have a copy of it. It won’t be keyed to a particular machine and it won’t report a customer’s activities back to HQ. The only mechanism that will be in place, and I’m explaining my planned implementation now in the interest of privacy advocacy, is licensees will need to use a licensed email address to download the initial purchased version or an update. The program will only submit the email address (as well as machine type and MOX version) when checking for updates, and the default setting for automatic checking is off.

In addition, customers will be able to track their downloads and, if they so desire, create an optional password to restrict access to downloads

What about the thieves? Well, the determined thief will have stolen regardless of company policy. The casual thief won’t find it as tough to steal from me as he would from others, but I hope my software is considered so valuable to potential customers that they would still consider it a bargain at several times its price.

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