A product key, also known as a software key, is a specific software-based key for a computer program. It certifies that the copy of the program is original. Activation is sometimes done offline by entering the key, or with software like Windows 8.1, online activation is required to prevent multiple people using the same key. Not all software has a product key, as some publishers may choose to use a different method to protect their copyright, or in some cases, such as free or open source software, copyright protection is not used.
Computer games use product keys to verify that the game has not been copied without authorization. Likewise, one is not allowed to play online with two identical product keys at the same time.
Product keys consist of a series of numbers and/or letters. This sequence is typically entered by the user during the installation of computer software, and is then passed to a verification function in the program. This function manipulates the key sequence according to a mathematical algorithm and attempts to match the results to a set of valid solutions. A good example is the product keys for Microsoft products; there is no information available anywhere which gives any insights into how these keys actually work. They use alphabetical and numerical characters, with the absence of AEIOULNSZ150 which leaves 24 characters. Those left out appear to be mainly ones likely to be confused with other characters. Having no vowels makes it impossible for a product key to inadvertently spell out words, which could have unintended consequences. So, what we appear to have is a 25-digit base-24 number, which is a very large number indeed; on the order of 4.15 ^180. That is probably larger than the number of atoms in the universe. It is remarkable that Microsoft has managed to never leak any information about how this number is used in this context, since these product keys were introduced with Windows XP.
Standard key generation, where product keys are generated mathematically, is not completely effective in stopping copyright infringement of software, as these keys can be distributed. The overall effectiveness of product keys in enforcing software copyrights requires further study. In addition, with improved communication from the rise of the Internet, more sophisticated attacks on keys such as cracks (removing the need for a key) and product key generators have become common.
Because of this, software publishers are increasingly turning to alternative methods of verifying that keys are both valid and uncompromised. One method, product validation, assigns a product key based on a unique feature of the purchaser's computer hardware (such as its MAC address), which cannot be as easily duplicated since it depends on the user's hardware. Other newer methods may involve requiring periodical validation of the CD key with an internet server (for games with an online component, this is done whenever the user signs in). The validation can then be performed on the server side, preventing cracks tampering with it (as they do on the client side). The server can also keep a blacklist of all CD keys known to be invalid or which have explicitly been banned, and deny them access.
Some of the most effective CD key protection is very controversial, due to inconvenience, strict enforcement, harsh penalties and, in some cases, false positives. CD key protection has been likened to Digital Rights Management, in that it uses uncompromising digital procedures to enforce the license agreement.
Product keys are somewhat inconvenient for end users. Not only do they need to be entered whenever a program is installed, but the user must also be sure not to lose them. Loss of a product key usually means the software is useless once uninstalled.
Product keys also present new ways for distribution to go wrong. If a product is shipped with missing or invalid keys, then the CD itself is useless. For example, all copies of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow originally shipped to Australia without CD keys.
Enforcement and penalties
There are many cases of permanent bans enforced by companies detecting usage violations. It is common for an online system to immediately blacklist a CD key caught running cracks or, in some cases, cheats. This results in a permanent ban. Players who wish to continue use of the software must repurchase it. This has inevitably led to criticism over the motivations of enforcing permanent bans.
Particularly controversial is the situation which arises when multiple products' keys are bound together. If products have dependencies on other products (as is the case with expansion packs), it is common for companies to ban all bound products. For example, if a fake CD key is used with an expansion pack, the server may ban legitimate CD keys from the original game. Similarly, with Valve's Steam service, all products the user has purchased are bound into the one account. If this account is banned, every product will be banned from online play.
This "multi-ban" is highly controversial, since it bans users from products which they have legitimately purchased and used.
Bans are enforced by servers immediately upon detection of cracks or cheats, usually without human intervention. Sometimes, legitimate users are wrongly deemed in violation of the license, and banned. In large cases of false positives, they are sometimes corrected (as happened in World of Warcraft.) However, individual cases may not be given any attention.
A common cause of false positives (as with the World of Warcraft case above) is users of unsupported platforms. For example, users of Linux can run Windows applications through compatibility layers such as Wine and Cedega. This software combination sometimes triggers the game's server anti-cheating software, resulting in a ban due to Wine or Cedega being a Windows API compatibility layer for Linux, so it is considered third party (cheating) software by the game's server.
Recovery of keys
A key recovery program is a program that is designed to read and decrypt and/or de-obfuscate the key to its original state. When the key is returned to its original state, it may be used to reinstall its corresponding software.
- Biometric passport
- Cryptographic hash function
- Intel Upgrade Service
- License manager
- Product activation
- Serial number
- Software license server
- Volume license key
- Australian Pandora Tomorrow CD-Key Problems Shack News
- "Valve suspends 20,000 Steam accounts". GameSpot. Retrieved 2013-05-15.
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