DRM Hell

In Burning the Ships, an open letter from then-20-year-old Bill Gates, written in 1976, is cited. In that letter, Gates says To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software.(132). He is talking about computer software in what was then a burgeoning computer industry, run mainly as a hobby. He goes on to say that the prevailing assumption that hardware must be paid for but software is something to share is not a model for the successful creation of quality hardware. As the Open Source community has proven, his statements are not quite validated, but I am not opposed to developers making money for their code.

At the beginning of this year, several people at Linux Journal and elsewhere, took a pledge to be DRM free. This pledge focuses on Digital Rights Management as applied to music, but there are a number of other areas where DRM is also applied. I used to think that it was applied for valid reasons However, after my latest episode with my laptop, I am seriously considering the headaches of DRM, especially when applied to software. Follow along for the current tale of woe.

My trusty laptop threw a rod the other day, metaphorically speaking. It stopped working. No power, no POST, no nothing. It would not even acknowledge the power brick was attached to it. This is generally a bad thing. After swapping out the brick with another machine, it became clear the problem was internal to the laptop itself. I am not a hardware guy, especially laptop hardware. I can barely solder heads on antenna cables, so I am not about to crack open a laptop and poke around in the innards. I am going to do what every other non-IT person on the planet would do in this situation – I took out the paperwork for the extended warranty and marched it back to the place of purchase and said, “Here, fix.” (In pretty much those words too). So they took it away and told me it would be ready in three weeks.

Now, for those that have not kept up, Microsoft charges for their software and not a small amount either. If you want to charge me to use your software, and I find a value in using your software, I have no problem paying you. What Microsoft and others does to control their licenses is this – they create a unique signature based on the activation key and ten or so hardware component IDs. Change a percentage of the hardware and you invalidate the key. Invalidate the key and…

My laptop came back from repair on Thursday. The problem required them to replace the motherboard. While it was away, I got thinking that I really needed to increase the size of the hard drive. You can see where this is going right? Other than the RAM and the wireless NIC, every component of the PC has been swapped out, thus invalidating the key. And this is where my problems begin.

It would seem that there are a number of programs that also use the Microsoft model, either generating their own key or tying themselves to the Microsoft key. In some cases, like Microsoft, it is a simple matter to regenerate and reverify your status with a quick trip to the web. Others do not make it so simple. I have spent two days uninstalling utilities and programs and reinstalling them and trying to get them to work correctly. I am down to two programs. One requires me to call the vendor to reset my key, a very annoying process for a very specific piece of software that cost me a very little amount of money. The other piece of software, well, I am not sure what I am going to do. It is the type that is sold through a web store, with no phone number to call to get a live body and licensing issues are not one of the six options I have to choose from when submitting a trouble report, so I am sending an email in the blind and hoping I do not get a useless response.

The key takeaway here is this. Stuff happens to hardware all the time. Stuff happens to software all the time. Good stuff and bad stuff. Hard drives fail, are upgraded, are downgraded. RAM is swapped. Motherboards fail. PCs are pretty fragile pieces of machinery. I do not mind paying for software. I do not mind that, as the developer, you feel you need to secure your code to prove I only installed it once. What I do mind is wasting several days of my life trying to make it all work again after what I consider routine repairs. And clearly, the Open Source model, without DRM, is a clear winner.


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Image Drive

Anonymous's picture

On a related note; you could have imaged your hard drive before upgrading. Once the new drive was in place; then all you need to do is image the data/os back.

The last piece of commercial software that I purchased was an imaging program for quick OS restores. The funny thing is; it is only for my XP machine and the re-registration issue outline above. My Linux machine don't get imaged; no keys, no validation, nothing.

PS: There are several imaging applications that exist in the Open Source Universe; however, those imaging programs have some issues with imaging drives and restores when the drives are of different sizes. It's been


Sandcat's picture

I made the switch about a year ago and there is no going back, I finally feel free.

Made of money?

Yonah's picture

Before becoming a teacher I spent many years working as a PC repair technician. Unless the laptop was under warranty, replacing the motherboard instead of just buying a new machine was sheer stupidity. It's simply not worth the cost of parts and labor.

Also, could you list the software programs that were giving you trouble? I have never had this same situation occur myself, which is odd considering the number of software installs I have done. That includes expensive packages like robotics controllers for General Motors and several proprietary platforms used in public schools.

wrong, replacing a

Anonymous's picture

wrong, replacing a motherboard IS cheaper than replacing a PC - it just depends on how recent the motherboard is. If the motherboard is still in use - you're stupid by replacing the whole PC because all your parts will still work with a newer motherboard. Labour? I thought you said you were a repair technician. Obviously you weren't very good if your backup was being a teacher.


Anony mouse's picture

What is wrong with being teachers?

OEM Windows License

kilgoretrout's picture

The OEM versions of windows that everyone gets on prebuilt computers are explicitly tied to the original motherboard and cpu by the windows OEM license. Change one of those components and you have to buy a new windows license. The full version of windows is much more expensive but it can be installed on any one computer, i.e. you can change any hardware you want. That being said, MS rarely enforces these OEM restrictions on the end user. If you call for an activation code, they invariably give you one, no questions asked.

No such thing as good DRM

Anonymous's picture

I have yet to see any DRM scheme that protects the IP holders rights without causing the end user too much grief to be worthwhile. I di not believe that I should ever have to re-activate software just because my hardware broke and had to be replaced. It is because of such crap from M$ and others that I now use GNU/Linux, and free and open source software. That way, I decide what to do with MY computer, not some corporation deciding for me in the form or DRM. If you know of a way for IP holders to protect their rights without compromising end users rights, and without causing problems for end users, I will be glad to have you tell me all about it.

Not only are there dishonest people, there are dishonest and overly greedy corporations. Then there are some people that use cracked versions of software (even though they have paid for it) just to avoid the extreme hastles of re-activation. Thats right, some DRM actually fosters the very activity that it was intended to prevent!

These corporations need to stop treating their customers like criminals. Its no wonder that M$ is worried about users switching to other operating systems...It's DRM and dirty business practices are driveing their customers away!

morons pay for some thing they can not see, hold and feel

Anonymous's picture

morons pay for some thing they can not see, hold and feel. all you can see is cd or dvd or media and you should only pay the cost of what you can see, hold and feel. you hold hdd or you hold software? you see lcd screen or you see software?

morons also pay for software

Anonymous's picture

morons also pay for software they'll never get the source code for.

not to mention purchasing anti-virus software.

All the software i used to

Anonymous's picture

All the software i used to use until 5-6 years ago was pirated. Everything! And you know what? I never knew Windows(or any other application) had activation. It just worked!

There is no DRM that can't be hacked, and when one hacks it, its available to everyone that is confortable using it pirated. There is just no point in DRM. It fails in its most basic role since no pirate will ever see DRM.

5 years ago i switched to Linux, but not because or DRM, viruses or BSOD.

Similar, but worse

Anonymous's picture

I had a similar issue. My reset button failed to reset, so I took it in for warranty service. When I got it back, they had replaced the mother board. This was in the days of Windows 98, and I plunked in the system restore CD, getting the message "Wrong Machine." Frustrated, I called Toshiba. Well, it goes like this, "The warranty is for the original software and hardware, since this is no longer the original hardware (remember, they replaced the hardware, I did not) the software can no longer be serviced under warranty." Well, after much fighting with them, and gnashing of teeth, I finally gave in. I went to the store, and purchased a new, retail box, full install for Win 98, for $200. I took it home, and tried to install it, getting the lovely message, halfway through the Windows install, "Sorry, but due to licensing restrictions, Windows must be installed on this computer using only the original media provided by the computer manufacturer."

Now I had a brick of a machine AND a $200 coaster.

That was the last Windows machine I owned.

I Absolutely Agree!!

Mammlouk's picture

Reading this article is like Deja Vu. I made the same decision about 6-1/2 years ago. After upgrading my desktop I was unable to get into Windows XP without calling for a new activation code. It occurred to me that I had already paid to use the software and also paid for all of my hardware, yet I was being restricted heavily by someone else's rules.

The next day after getting everything working again I began my quest for an alternative operating system(having never heard of Linux at that time). I struggled with a horribly supported old Radeon card for about 6 months with distros from Lindows to SuSe to Fedora to Mepis etc. Then I gave up because at the time Gaming was still one of my main uses and no 3D acceleration was big.

Another 6 months later I felt like I was tired of Windows again, now that I had a taste of Linux it was hard to ignore. So I bought an Nvidia card and decided to take another shot at it. What do you know, this time it actually stuck! I've now been using primarily Linux for about 5-1/2 years. I've learned alot along the way and cannot see any reason to go back to Microsoft again. Even my wife has handled it well, despite all of the early distro hopping!

I hope you make the permanent move to Linux and find it as rewarding as I have.

The winner?

lefty.crupps's picture

> And clearly, the Open Source model, without DRM, is a clear winner.
Not if you're still running a Microsoft OS, it isn't.

Any you write for LJ with that setup?

This rant is without much substance

Slav Pidgorny's picture

Reinstallation of applications required after Windows was reactivated? That's new. No wonder you don't give any technical details, preferring politicised rant.

At least you don't help those running into similar issues. At most - you help associating incompetence with Linux. Either way, 0 stars.

This is Linux Journal, not

Anonymous's picture

This is Linux Journal, not PC Journal. The author is clearly enforcing his point of why he advocates open source, and not the corporate OS's. Obviously people are not going to be logging onto this site to get help with M$ problems. Id say it is a justified rant.

Commercial software doesn't equal drm

Anonymous's picture

I'm sorry, but this is just boring. There is nothing interesting in this article that hasn't been said a hundred times over.
You agreed to the terms of the license when you purchased the software. Of course it would be nice if everything always just worked and the terms of the license never have to be informed. This is obviously the case for most people, and the reason why nobody ever pays attention to the license. But to put it bluntly, this is the same as riding your bicycle without a helmet.
There are various examples of a functioning business model out there, where you can make money with software and without this drm nonsense. QT software is just one example.

Agree to license == License to kill???

ricegf's picture

I find your attitude odd. The author agreed to a license that (presumably) included the vendor's right to install and use DRM to ensure license compliance. But that is not what the DRM is doing - instead, the DRM is preventing him from using the software he licensed!

Despite certain vendor efforts to the contrary, it is still neither legal nor ethical for a company to prevent me from using software for which I paid. That's one of the major reasons I gave up on proprietary software - so many vendors proved themselves more interested in "protecting" their income stream than in fostering happy customers.

No sale. I'm free at last.

There's a great film

Anonymous's picture

There's a great film Revolution OS that covers all this..:)

Living in a DRM-Free World?

James H's picture

I believe in the open source model of software development. I often find that the best software out there is free, built by hobbyists who are their own first user and are passionate about the software they're building. And they give back to their hobby community by releasing their software, code and all, for free to all.

However, countless many companies exist with the goal of selling their software, for a profit. These are companies that are not merely happy that someone likes their software and is using it. These are companies that want to ensure that every copy of their program out there, running on some customer's computer, was legitimately purchased. If this were a perfect world, and every customer was honest, no form of DRM would be necessary. However, not all people are honest, and because of this, all it takes is for one dishonest person to buy a program without DRM, and all the other dishonest people in the world can have it for free.

I empathize with the problems that DRM causes. And I object strenuously to the lengths that some vendors (eg, Sony) have gone to in an attempt to protect their Intellectual Property. However, the idea that existing DRM schemes fail, and in some cases badly, does not mean that IP owners don't have the right to protect their works, nor does it mean that all DRM strategies are inherently bad.

As an honest consumer, you should advocate for better DRM that can accurately enforce the vendor's licensing agreement while protecting your privacy rights and allowing appropriate interoperability. As an honest consumer, it should infuriate you that illegal copies of software are allowed to propagate, after you spent money to buy a legitimate copy of the same software.

Open source software is a great and wonderful thing, but as long as there is proprietary software, there will be DRM. The question is, will you fight against the IP owners and their need to protect their own rights, or will you fight with IP owners to ensure that DRM is done responsibly?

Responsible DRM?

Anonymous's picture

What is that? Explain exactly how this could be implemented as DRM, by definition, is designed to lessen, i.e. remove, the rights of the consumer. Its basis is found in an "us against them" paradigm where the developers are the "us" and "them" are always the consumers. As long as that paradigm exists in the minds of developers there can never be any "responsible" DRM.

Until developers/corporations begin to admit to themselves that there will always be thieves who will steal something, and that punishing their paying customers rather than humanity as whole is counterproductive to their own success, this stupidity known as DRM will always be around and it will always be adversarial.

For an example of this look at how well non-DRMed music is selling. It outsells DRM'ed music by a large margin, yet the dream inspired by greed of making the consumer buy a copy for each of their devices still exists. This says three things:

1. The majority of people will purchase rather than steal something that doesn't trample on their rights.

2. All consumers hate artificial restrictions.

3. If you want to sell more of your product quit trying to walk on the rights of others, i.e. the rights of those whom you want to buy your product.

Intersects with Cluetrain?

jmmc's picture

Your three points are well said. First thought I had was that they paraphrased/intersected well with the Cluetrain Manifesto - a rational outlook on consumers, markets and the forward-looking interactions of both we as headed into this century.


I agree that DRM benefits only the producer (who distrusts, at least, a portion of it's customers), and does indeed lessen the Freedom of the general and, most probably, honest consumer. IMHO, and at a more philisophical level, DRM subverts the conversation from the start. Does anyone believe we'll even be having discussions about DRM in five years?

Responsible DRM?

Anonymous's picture

The first line of the second paragraph should say "the thieves" rather than "humanity as whole".

IP owners protecting their rights...

fest3er8's picture

You make a fair point. However, it gets a little raggedy at the end with your final question. I don't think anyone would argue that copyright and patent holders are entitled to collect their due. IP owners need to protect their rights; it is how they do it that infuriates people.

If I had a bone in this pot, I would fight IP owners tooth and nail as long as they seek to protect their own rights by minimizing, trampling, and destroying the rights of others. On the other hand, I would gladly work with them if they desire to protect their rights whilst preserving the rights of others.

They can choose to be bullies and thugs, or they can choose to be good members of the community. It's up to them.


jmmc's picture

Good points all. I defintiely support your last paragraph. Well stated.

There seems to be some brewing undercurrents/signs we're realizing that the Patenting of software was probably a general error in the course of our industrial history, but it's going to take a new generation of lawyers to detangle that mess. Copyright would have definitely been strong enough to handle the 'written work' that is software.


Probably wishful thinking, but hopefully, this economic cycle (if we do (ever?) return to a somewhat productive economy) will produce a more saavy consumer who won't agree to corporate thuggery and/or bullying any longer.