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Copy Protection in the MIDI Market

For the majority of Macintosh users, those without copy-protected software, this article will be a minor curiosity. Lucky you. For those left, you will want to read this to save yourself the hours of aggravation that I went through installing The Latest Upgrade. Specifically, we’re dealing with professional music software.

Music software (specifically, MIDI sequencers, patch editors and librarians) has been copy-protected basically forever. I bought a copy of Mark of the Unicorn’s (MOTU) Performer in 1988, and it came on a copy-proof floppy disk which had to be "keyed" into the Mac for the program to run. The program won’t run without a key disk, and the key disks carry formatting errors to circumvent duplication. If the key floppy gets damaged for any reason, you’re lost, regardless of the number of dollars per second being burnt in a production studio, or the size of an audience. If you live in the U.S. you stand a chance of getting a replacement, but if you live outside the U.S. the support is probably such that a change of career is a better idea.

A couple of years later a new scheme came along, and was adopted both by MOTU and by Opcode who by this time had a pro-level sequencing package of their own. There were still key disks, but there was also a procedure for installing on a hard disk. An "install count" on the key floppy would decrement in exchange for a copy of the application on the hard disk. At this time, another mechanism would kick in to avoid duplication of the hard disk copy. The application’s location on the disk would be stored in a secret format in hidden key files also on the disk, preventing making a useful copy of the application from the hard disk since the copy wouldn’t have the keying information.

The advantage now is that you don’t have to mess around with floppies. But the disadvantages to legitimate users are significant. Disks cannot be optimised without destroying the install key. And of course, backups are useless; damage the disk for any reason, and you lose the key forever. If you get an update of the program, you have to go through a deinstall/reinstall procedure. You rely on the scheme working properly, and it doesn’t always. A legally installed copy will, every now and then, declare itself illegal and refuse to run.

But at least it stops piracy and keeps the software companies in business, right? Wrong. Leaving aside the arguments about whether illegal copying of software eats into sales or not, you can circumvent these protection schemes. These methods are not trivial, but are reasonably well known. So all the schemes do is inconvenience legitimate users.

Anyway, a lot of music software seems to use the same scheme. Or, I should say, "used." There is now A New Scheme, featured in Performer 4.2, the latest version of Opcode Galaxy, and on its way in Vision and MAX. It works as follows: instead of installing a copy of an application with a specific key, you attach a key to a hard disk. The application can be moved around (or upgraded, an important benefit) without wrecking the key. That’s the Major Pro. Major Con: the protection key is buried deep within the disk. I suspect a pointer within the boot blocks, but that’s only a guess. The installation process is now one of authorising a disk, rather than installing an application.

The more complicated the scheme, the more that can go wrong. The more complex the scheme, the more it has to assume about the target configuration, and the less likely the assumption is to be correct. The Performer installation blew up several times over a period of several hours. I partition my disks with Silverlining, and yet the installation instructions and scripts assume a single-partition disk. Installation has to be to the boot "disk" – so I had to resize partitions to make space. The instructions stated that any copies of the application on the disk would run. Wrong: the application is keyed from its own partition. Not a serious drawback, but the wording of the instructions shows this eventuality hadn’t been considered, which is worrying. So, I had to move the authorisation tag from one partition to another, which failed several times, due to a bug in the copy protection machinery which causes it to not always recognize a legal key.

Hopefully your experiences with these schemes won’t be as problematic as mine. But if they are, the above notes may be useful.

Floppy-based copy protection stinks, yes? Magical hard disk installation schemes stink too, yes? So why not use a hardware dongle instead? This is the course taken by Steinberg for their Cubase sequencing software. It uses an ADB dongle. And it works well… except on PowerBooks, where sleep mode causes the dongle to malfunction. Of course, we all know that copy protection schemes serve no purpose except to inconvenience legitimate users, and the pressures of the music business (studio recording and live work) make this more significant than in some other fields. So, is there any chance of such schemes being dropped? The only indication I have is from Mark of the Unicorn, and I quote, "not a chance." Let me leave you with an excerpt from Apple’s document "Antipiracy Technologies," on the subject of key floppies and hard disk installation schemes:

"Since this kind of copy protection depends on specific characteristics of the hardware, the copy protection may occasionally malfunction, thus preventing your customer from legally using the program he or she bought. Also, you have no way of knowing whether the floppy-disk copy protection that you use will work with future hardware from Apple and other companies.

"Technical reasons aside, floppy-disk copy protection is bad because it breaks the most important law governing antipiracy technologies: Thou Shalt Not Annoy the Legitimate User. Limited-use installer programs and key disks are inconvenient to use, and they often cause legitimate users problems. When this copy protection malfunctions, you suddenly have a very unhappy customer, one who sees copy protection as a useless encumbrance that doesn’t deter the software pirate but that penalizes the legitimate user for being honest."

[If you have comments about this article, please hold off on them for now. Copy protection usually beats up a storm of debate, but Adam’s book is keeping us busy and we just don’t have time to read your thoughts this week. Thanks for understanding. 🙂 -Tonya]

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