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A Special Guide to DRM and Software Activation Tools: Protect Data, Enforce Licenses

Initially embodied in consumer-level digital file delivery of audio, e-book and video files, digital rights management (DRM) schemes are being fastidiously adopted throughout certain enterprises. Similarly, software activation (SA) is being extended to internally developed enterprise software applications to both ensure the legitimacy of new client-side deployments and prevent the unauthorized duplication of such works. Many commercial software applications rely on software activation to enforce license agreements and provide installation and usage statistics to the software publisher. With the ubiquity of always-on Internet connectivity, Internet-based DRM and SA are rapidly becoming the norm for everything from commercial operating systems such as Microsoft's Windows XP and its upcoming Vista release to third-party software tools and design applications.

While SA focuses on license management and the enforcement of End User License Agreement (EULA) terms and conditions, DRM is used to enforce and protect the owner's intellectual property rights. In the United States, both DRM and SA rely on the combination of law and technology to ensure that the end user adheres to license terms. Strong cryptography, often in the form of a Public Key Infrastructure, is at the center of competent DRM and SA solutions. Reverse-engineering such cryptography can be deemed criminal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These two barriers often provide enough deterrence to prevent casual breaches of a product's EULA.

DRM Solutions

While most people associate DRM with digital music and videos, the technology is increasingly used in the enterprise, especially in highly regulated industries such as defense and finance. In the corporate environment, DRM vendors enable their customers to digitally enforce corporate information distribution and confidentiality policies. Audit trails are captured and can be used to validate business practices and keep company secrets.

While some vendors, such as Adobe Systems, offer a targeted solution for a single document type rendered on multiple operating systems, others, such as SealedMedia, supply broader file-type protection on a single platform (Microsoft Windows). The DRM solutions featured in this guide are chiefly document-centric protection mechanisms with a monitoring server component that authorizes and controls access. For example, SealedMedia's document protection technology can be used to enforce the ISO17799 security classification, ranging from level 1 (top secret) to level 5 (public domain) clearance. It also monitors authorized individuals when accessing a document, tracking what they can or can't do with that document (print, cut and paste, forward and so on).

SA Tools

Although some DRM products offer extensible APIs for workflow and custom solutions, software activation interests both large corporations and independent developers for a variety of reasons. Although generating and protecting revenue streams for commercial software publishers is the most obvious rationale, license compliance—especially in publicly traded companies—is becoming even more important. With the heightened liability of business leaders due to Sarbanes-Oxley, surprise Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) audits and other concerns, CIOs are more focused than ever before on compliance. SA is one means of license management that can protect and inform both intellectual property owner and customer of their adherence to an agreed-upon EULA. Although most of the SA products featured here are optimized for software publishers, there's a growing recognition that corporations need more integrated tools to monitor their software license compliance.

Well-Designed DRM

Recommendations for software developers and content producers seeking effective IP protection

"In a solid DRM system, important elements should be included as part of the implementation to enhance and maintain a robust solution," says Lital Marom, product manager for Belcamp, Maryland-based SafeNet's multi-DRM solutions. "These include, for example, mutual authentication between the server- and client-side to make sure that the license is tied to a specific device."

Another element, Marom says, is to avoid saving sensitive information in the clear.

Transparency is key to success—and by transparency, DRM vendors mean invisibility: "Make sure that the user is unaware of the DRM processes that take place behind the scenes," he advises, warning that rigid, noncustomizable systems will backfire. Further, software activation schemes will probably continue to proliferate, making "playing nice" and cross-platform, device-neutral schemes even more important.

"In a market such as today's, where interoperability does not exist, a solid DRM system must support multiple DRM technologies in order to support multiple services for multiple distributors," Marom concludes.—MR

Macrovision, in particular, is working with major software publishers such as Adobe to embed its FLEXnet software into its installations, letting customers centralize this activity for more flexible software license management. "Until the release of FLEXnet II, the control was much more in the hands of software publishers," says Macrovision's Director of ProjectManagement Suresh Balasubramanian. "With this release, the enterprises have a significantly increased amount of control in terms of how they deploy the licensed application." As for the technology itself, many SA vendors allow for granular identification and locking-down of software licenses to various hardware keys (hard drive serial numbers, BIOS signature, OS product identifier, MAC address) in addition to the vendor's own hidden cryptographic hashes. They also offer flexible operation models such as fixed expiration dates or a set number of program executions before the software has to be reactivated or permanently disabled. Others combine their software libraries with hosted application services to allow the customer's customers to call or e-mail their product activation hashes to the service. This is especially nice for companies seeking a one-stop solution.

The Future of DRM and SA

The debates rage on, but copyright and license enforcement technologies are here to stay. The question remains: How pervasive will they be in the future, and how rigid will the boundary be between open and closed access? The battle lines are already being drawn between free and open on the Linux platform and proprietary and closed on the Windows platform, with Unix OS vendors such as Apple and Sun taking the diplomatic midpoint by mixing free open source tools with proprietary protection measures. (Apple's Fairplay DRM in its iTunes product and the upcoming lockdown of its OS on authorized Intel-based chipsets are two examples.)

Another key question arises: When will these technologies be embedded at the operating system level—if at all? With the Trusted Computing Initiative already underway and the past instances of Apple and Microsoft embedding popular digital routines into their standard APIs, it's logical to assume that future operating systems will boast these technologies baked-in.

Ultimately, as it is today, the employment of DRM and SA will be based on commercial intent. Those seeking to commercialize their code and content will require SA and DRM; those who give away their binary assets in order to sell value-added services will not. Both of these strategies will coexist and evolve over time.

Evaluation Criteria

Note that many of the vendors I polled refused to disclose intimate details about how their products work, adhering to the questionable—but widely practiced—"security through obscurity" policy. While this approach is frowned upon by security experts and perpetuates distrust in DRM and SA products in general, these vendors follow it to protect their own intellectual property as well as that of their customers.

A significant factor to consider with any DRM or SA product is ease of use. "The universal rule is to make it secure and user friendly," says Jon Gillespie-Brown, CEO of security software company Nalpeiron. "Without the balance between the two, uptake will be resisted and the savings on piracy will be radically eroded by lost sales, increased operational costs and bad PR."

Features and Claims. I've included the marketed capabilities the products provide, as well as the functionality that sets each solution apart from its competitors. As with previous special guides, a selection of podcasts with some of these vendors is available at www.sdmagazine.com/podcasts/.

Market Buzz. This somewhat subjective category highlights what makes the product so attractive to prospective customers, as well as the interest and enthusiasm generated by reviewers, software advocates and actual customers. Deficiencies are sometimes mentioned, as well.

Cost. Pricing continues to remain an elusive measurement due to the context in which it is applied. For example, some vendors charge for software activations based on a per-click fee, while others offer a fixed cost regardless of usage, and still others combine activation and rights management with a hybrid application solution provider approach.

Selected Digital Rights Management Products

The ProductFeatures and ClaimsThe BuzzThe Cost
Adobe LiveCycle Policy Server
A multiplatform PDF encryption server that provides centralized user access-level assignments that can be tracked and enforced online and offline as well as inside and outside a corporate firewall, throughout the protected document's life span. Intuitive user management can be tied into Active-Directory, LDAP servers or activated through an e-mail invitation. This J2EE app can be integrated into popular Java middleware servers including IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic, or deployed via the bundled JBoss-Tomcat configuration. LiveCycle is targeted at large organizations that distill office documents into PDF files for security purposes. Drawbacks? It integrates with only the latest release of Adobe Acrobat and can be used only to protect Acrobat PDFs. Starts at $50,000
Microsoft Windows Rights Management Server
This rights-management protection server enforces communication policies on Micro-soft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, aswell as Outlook e-mail transactions. Granular permissions for print, copy, paste, forward and other rights can be embedded within Office documents. Rights policy templates, revocation lists, exclusion policies and logging are some of the available services. ContentGuard's XrML issues certificates used bythe server to validate trusted entities and requires a public key from an organization's root RMS server signed by the Microsoft Enrollment Service. The RMS SDK offers additional system and work-flow integration possibilities via SOAP calls and client APIs. RMS is best suited for companies that use Microsoft Office for most of their communication. Starts at $18,000
SafeNet DRM Fusion
Provides server-side Microsoft Windows Media 9 and 10 and Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) DRM protection of compiled and streamed video on demand and IP-TV media content. Other functionality includes batch encryption and automation, and advanced rights management support for complex business processes. It's bundled with the OMA DRM Toolkit to support the OMA 1.0 and 2.0 DRM specifications. SafeNet is the preferred DRM partner for Micro-soft Windows Media, making it the default providerfor companies seeking DRM protection for file-based or streaming audiovisual content. Contact SafeNet for details
SealedMedia 4.0
SealedMedia's proprietary E-DRM and Enterprise Desktop client seals and unseals office documents, using a fine-grained administrative rights model to control doc-ument access. Other features include SyncManager for offline rights caching, PDFwatermarking and SDKs for components, Java, scanning and Windows file sealing. Taking a broader approach to document protection, SealedMedia's Enterprise Desktop installs extensions into the Windows shell that are used by associated protected document file extensions to launch host applications such as Excel, Word or Acrobat, with appropriate restrictions. Access can require timed interval check-ins with the server, which may be a problem for offline users(unless that's the content owner's intent). Base system starts at $49,000

Selected Software Activation Products

The ProductFeatures and ClaimsThe BuzzThe Cost
Agilis Software Orion
Orion offers automatic, secure, connected or disconnected software activation for trial, perpetual, subscription, usage-based, upgrade feature and/or weighted licensing. It enables automatic node-locking of selected features with "Fuzzy Fingerprinting," has an automated, browser-based self-service for offline activation and integrated software asset reports. Java-based server runs on all Java-capable platforms. Orion provides a healthy range of flexibility and client language support, as it can be engineered for use as an Internet-based Product Activation, License Key Distribution or Floating License Server and can interact with any networking-capable languages, including C/C++, C#, Java, Visual Basic and VB.NET. Starts at $15,000
Aladdin HASP
Providing both hardware and software-based license authorization solutions via the company's HASP HL and SL products respectively, Aladdin HL employs a 128-bit AES on-chip encryption engine within its cross-platform USB dongle and a cross-platform HASP Factory API that can be extended into CRM and ERP systems to protect them from probing debugging and memory dump hack attempts that can compromise other software-based security solutions. The industry leader, Aladdin has been in the hardware dongle key business since the approach was commercially employed more than 20 years ago. Its intuitive, easy-to-use developer kit includes both the hardware and software necessary to wrap hardware-based security into a wide variety of Windows, Macintosh or Linux-based file formats. Hardware-based USB dongle security (HASP HL) starts at $34/device; annual software-based activation (HASP SL) starts at $5,000 for up to 3,500 activations
Byssus Hydra
The Byssus C-based API works with Micro- soft Visual C++, Borland C++ Builder and GNU C/C++, and its static library must be compiled directly into the program's application. The API provides functions for optional purchase, activation demand, Microsoft SMS integration, error reporting and multi-currency pricing. Hydra is optimized for the developer who wants control of every aspect of the software activation and license purchasing within his custom application. The solution is ideally suited for small organizations and shareware authors distributing C/C++ applications seeking an integrated license management and e-commerce software solution. $4 for the first 1,000 activations/ application for Hydra Online (hosted managed services); $995 for the software-only Hydra Server option
CrypKey SDK
Lets users embed activation and protection through a simple six-tab process, customizing such options as message, interface and security type (limited to application executions or number of days for trial). For additional fees, CrypKey can also provide managed online services support via its Casper eCommerce solution, which adds a credit card/serial number authorization service. For developers seeking a simple solution to protect their Win32 or .NET apps, CrypKey offers a straightforward interface to quickly wrap software executables. The next version will allow clients to check in/out and transfer licenses, with a new True Client-Server Network Licensing (TCSNL) scheme to manage licenses. Starts at $1,745/ title, depending on support level
Macrovision FLEXnet Publisher
Highly flexible software license activation and management solutions offering secure, media-independent digital distribution of products with a wide variety of model support, including metered use, rental, subscription and super-distribution. Modular extensions for customer experience, enhanced security, licensing, promotion, update service, utility pricing and others are also available. Macrovision offers one of the most comprehensive—and expensive—software activation and license management solutions. Used by large software publishers like Adobe Systems, FLEXnet Publisher supports a broad number of client and server platforms, and offers detailed license usage reports that can also be integrated into customer CRM and ERP platforms. Starts at $15,000
Nalpeiron PRO-Tector SDK
The PRO-Tector SDK supplies over 50 license management functions to Win32 and .NET developers. Supports time-trial and usage-metered demos as well as limits on the number of client-requested Internet activations. Employs a patent-pending "Protect-n-Forget" approach that lets the license remain intact even after hardware replacements, OS reinstallations and hard drive reformats. Like other products in this guide, Nalpeiron offers an additional online hosting service to manage license activation. Visit www.nalpeiron.com/products/demo.asp for Flash demos of its software protection solutions. Starts at $799
SafeNet Sentinel RMS
Sentinel offers both an application wrapper for preexisting applications as well as a set of libraries for making custom API calls from a compiled application. It supports several different license models, including evaluation (via a fixed expiration date), concurrent network, stand-alone (or named user), pay-per-use perpetual and time-based trial. In addition to software-based security, SafeNet also provides hardware-based encryption keys, which the company claims are "the most secure hardware tokens in the world." Visit www.sdmagazine.com for a podcast with Jam Kahn, SafeNet's product manager for rights manage- ment solutions. Pricing ranges from $25K/year to more than $500K, depending on implementation, number of copies in use and the protected software's value.
Sofpro PC Guard
This royalty-free, Win32-based protection library offers application encryption, password protection and hardware-locking ID support for BIOS, CPU, hard drive network cards and others. Other features include license transfer, removal, extension and network licensing, as well as fully customizable UI options. Sofpro offers its Activation Suite as an additional product to generate activation codes for Win32 form-based applications and COM server components limited to executing Internet activations via Microsoft's Internet Information Server. Starts at 399 EUR ($470 U.S.)
Pingram Marketing
ActivateSoft.NET www.activatesoft.ne
Strictly used for software activation, ActivateSoft.NET can work with other software copy protection and encryption products such as ASProtect and Armadillo. Pingram offers a freely downloadable SDK with C, Visual C++ and Delphi sample projects. Pingram provides an inexpensive activation solution for small to midsized companies seeking no-hassle SA security. Developers can select the ActivateSoft hosted service or purchase the Microsoft SQL Server-based product key server. Product demonstrations using a proprietary player called DemoForge are available at www.activate soft.net/developer-tutorials.asp. Monthly plans start at $10 for 25 keys.
SoftwareKey Protection Plus Internet Edition
SoftwareKey's top-of-the-line Internet edition includes a site license for LFEdit to generate software activation codes on multiple computers, Electronic License Management to administer your application, an Automation Client used to automate communication between a Web server and the target application, a nonvisual ActiveX control Trigger code generator and royalty- free component distribution. One of the most economical, yet feature-rich choices for Internet-based software activation and license monitoring, SoftwareKey's Protection Plus works via a generated license key file that can be consumed and a callable library usable by Windows-based Windows DLLs, ActiveX controls, .NET Components or C/C++ static libraries. Visit www.softwarekey.com/downloads.asp#tutorials for a series of Flash product tutorials. Starts at $799

Mike Riley is a Naperville, Illinois-based advanced computing professional specializing in emerging technologies and new development trends. Contact him at [email protected].

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