How pirates fought developers and what’s wrong with pirated copies of software

You can often hear that pirated software is the cause of computer failures, data leaks, etc. In this article, we will look at what stages the struggle between pirates and developers went through, what it led to, and whether it is dangerous to install unlicensed software now.

Let’s imagine: we have a program that we have developed and want to make money on it. We placed it on optical drives, we release it in a certain edition and sell it. But here is Pasha, who took the disk with your software from Petya, copied it to his computer and uses it without paying you. Moreover, Dima appears, who copies the program to his friends. Well, to top it all off, there is Vasya, who buys discs, writes your program on them and sells them at a price lower than you sell, and takes all the profit for himself.

▍ Activation keys

Then information about this reaches you, and you think about how to prevent such copying. After some thought, you decide that in order to use the program, you must enter a key that is unique to each copy and distributed with the media. But this does not help much, because although it will introduce into a kind of stupor the user who received a copy of the program that asks to enter the key, nothing prevents using the same key many times. To top it off, Vasya comes up with a key generator that generates the keys accepted by your program. And such generators are banal and obvious, but proudly called keygen.

Now the intruder Sasha appears on the scene. The Internet has already appeared and opens up new possibilities for the exchange of information. Sasha places under the guise of copies of your program, keygens and archives with keys or along with them malicious software. Well, at the same time he creates phishing pages, with the help of which he collects information in exchange for the desire to receive the coveted “serial”, etc.

▍ Electronic keys on physical media

Meanwhile, real serial numbers and keygens are still circulating. What to do? And here a new idea comes to your mind: electronic keys on a physical medium. If such a hardware key is not inserted into the computer port or does not match the program, it cannot continue to work. For a while, this helps, but Vasya learned ways to bypass it by creating emulators of such devices. Your program perceives such a virtual device as a hardware key that is physically present on the computer.

▍ The presence of a disc in the drive

For games, the following protection method was common: when they started, they required a disc in the drive. To make copying more difficult, service information was recorded on optical media in a special way, which was not read from the disk during direct copying. And here Vasya learned to read service information from a disk and write it to discs. The defense is getting more and more complicated, but Vasya is also on the alert, and every time he bypasses it again and again. In the end, Vasya comes up with a drive emulator at all, and now the presence of a physical disk is not at all necessary. It is enough to install this emulator and mount the disk image file with all the contents of the disk, including service information. The game treats this construct as a physical media inserted into a physical drive and continues to run. But that’s not all. Vasya understands that in order to successfully launch the program, the image does not have to contain the entire contents of the disk, only service information is enough. And such a mini-image is called NoCD or NoDVD. Later, this name is assigned to the modified files. It is enough for the user to replace the original files with them, and the program no longer asks to insert a disc. Sasha picks up this topic, and now he is building his intrigues under the guise of spreading NoCD.

▍ Online and offline key authentication

The popularity of the Internet is growing, and the distribution of pirated copies of Vasya is becoming enormous. But at the same time, the worldwide web also benefits you, because now you can check the key for authenticity online. If you really issued the key, the program will be successfully activated. If you did not issue such a key (for example, it was generated), the program no longer accepts it. Also, if several activation attempts were made with the same key, you blocked the key, and it was no longer possible to activate the application using this key. Only one problem remains: the lack of an Internet connection, since the availability of this technology, although growing rapidly, is still quite low. This is where the solution is born. You add an offline activation method to your program. When using it, the program creates a special request code and asks you to enter a response code, which can be obtained on your website from a computer that has Internet access. Accordingly, you have created a special service on your site that generates a response code when you enter a request code. Finally, you create a phone bot that receives a code from the subscriber entered using the buttons on the phone and dictates a response code. The solution is ingenious, but also weakens the protection. Vasya comes up with a generator that generates the correct response code. If the generator fails to create, the user is also prompted to replace the original files with modified ones.

▍ Checking the key status on the server

This is where the Internet begins to have a very large coverage area, and you decide that your program will periodically contact your activation server and check the status of the key. But Vasya is not a blunder either: he provides copies with instructions, and often scripts that block any connections to your activation servers from the user’s computer. Sasha continues his activities, only now his crafts mimic torrent files and get into distributions.

To top it off, Dasha appears and sells cheap Windows and Office activation keys under the guise of “genuine” ones that were issued by mistake, or multiple activation keys. Such a key may turn out to be one-time for the person who bought it, and it only serves to stop the program from asking for activation.

And now let’s take a closer look at a specific example, when the software is “unlearned to ask for activation” by modifying the original files. Many people remember well the activation that “flies” after installing updates and the “blue screens of death” on “pirated” Windows. Why did this happen? At one time, activators were very common, replacing / modifying the Windows bootloader and other system files. When updating Windows, these files may have been replaced with new ones if the update affected these files. As a result, activation “flied”, and sometimes the operating system lost its functionality, because the modified files lost compatibility with the updated ones. On this basis, there are recommendations to disable operating system updates, which led to OS vulnerabilities and problems in operation, since newly emerging applications and drivers are focused on the current versions of system files.

▍ What is wrong with pirated copies of software

Now let’s summarize and find answers to the main questions.

  1. Is “pirated” software different from genuine?
  2. Is it dangerous to use “pirated” software?

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