Piracy and Copy Protection in .NET

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Piracy and Copy Protection
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Developers of copy protection technologies often make huge efforts to develop robust copy protection mechanisms. The problem is that a single cracker can invalidate that entire effort by simply figuring out a way to defeat the protection mechanism and publishing the results on the Internet. Publishing such a crack not only means that the cracked program is now freely available online, but sometimes even that every program protected with the same protection technology can now be easily duplicated. As 11 demonstrates, cracking is a journey. Cracking complex protections can take a very long time. The interesting thing to realize is that if the only outcome of that long fight was that it granted the cracker access to the protected program, it really wouldn t be a problem. Few crackers can deal with the really complex protections schemes. The problem isn t catastrophic as long as most users still have to obtain the program through the legal channels. The real problem starts when malicious crackers sell or distribute their work in mass quantities.
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A copy protection mechanism is a delicate component that must be invisible to legitimate users and cope with different software and hardware configurations. The following are the most important design considerations for software copy protection schemes. Resistance to Attack It is virtually impossible to create a totally robust copy protection scheme, but the levels of effort in this area vary greatly. Some software vendors settle for simple protections that are easily crackable by professional crackers, but prevent the average users from illegally using the product. Others invest in extremely robust protections. This is usually the case in industries that greatly suffer from piracy, such as the computer gaming industry. In these industries the name of the game becomes: Who can develop a protection that will take the longest to crack That s because as soon as the first person cracks the product, the cracked copy becomes widely available. End-User Transparency A protection technology must be as transparent to the legitimate end user as possible, because one doesn t want antipiracy features to annoy legitimate users. Flexibility Software vendors frequently require flexible protections that do more than just prevent users from illegally distributing a program. For example, many software vendors employ some kind an online distribution and licensing model that provides free downloads of a limited edition of the software program. The limited edition could either be a fully functioning, time-limited version of the product, or it could just be a limited version of the full software product with somewhat restricted features.
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The Theoretically Uncrackable Model
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Let s ignore the current computing architectures and try to envision and define the perfect solution: The Uncrackable Model. Fundamentally, the Uncrackable Model is quite simple. All that s needed is for software to be properly encrypted with a long enough key, and for the decryption process and the decryption key to be properly secured. The field of encryption algorithms offers solid and reliable solutions as long as the decryption key is secure and the data is secured after it is decrypted. For the first problem there are already some solutions certain dongle-based protections can keep the decryption key secure inside the dongle (see section on hardware-based protections later in this chapter). It s the second problem that can get nasty how do you decrypt data on a computer without exposing the decrypted data to attackers. That is not possible without redesigning certain components in the typical PC s hardware, and significant progress in that direction has been made in recent years (see the section on Trusted Computing).
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Types of Protection
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Let us discuss the different approaches to software copy protection technologies and evaluate their effectiveness. The following sections introduce mediabased protections, serial-number-based protections, challenge response and online activations, hardware-based protections, and the concept of using software as a service as a means of defending against software piracy.
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