As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, change is the only constant in life. And this expression is just as applicable to software piracy and compliance as it is anything else.

In the early days, software piracy was relatively straightforward. Someone would make a copy of a program and share it among their friends, who would then share it with their friends, and so on in a seemingly endless chain.

Criminals have diversified their methods in the years since, adding powerful new weapons to their arsenal. In this article, we explore four of the most common forms of software piracy and provide you with some basic tips to keep your intellectual property safe.


It’s like the mob. They hammered our website, our server, and were able to get a Trojan virus into our system… they were able to get in there and pull out all of our secret information and build a [license] key generator – Todd Reade, TransMagic

1. Counterfeit license keys

Using fake license keys, inputted by the end-user in order to install a piece of software, is the easiest way to break software protection – as long as license keys are the only safeguard in place.

License keys are typically generated using a mathematical algorithm, along with a serial number to permit installation. This operates in much the same way as credit card number verification on eCommerce sites. But, once the algorithm is discovered and publicized, all bets are off.

Criminals routinely use Key Generators. These small applications are available in a wide range of popular applications, from Microsoft products to high-end industry CAD design programs. Developers have recently added “tamper resistant” encryption to their algorithms in an effort to combat this, but success is limited. Some compare it to an endless game of whack-a-mole similar to Netflix’s war on VPNs.

Nevertheless, updating your software licensing system to include these new tamper resistant licensees does offer some benefits. Namely, it prevents you from becoming the kind of tempting, low-hanging fruit software pirates like to pick.

Identify unlicensed users and improve software compliance in your organization with ITCA. Get in touch with our experts to learn more.

2. Mac spoofing

MAC spoofing is the process of changing the identity of networked hardware so that it looks like an approved device. It’s relatively easy to do, which is why it poses such a threat to software companies.

A simple yet effective solution is to restrict usage to a single device, defined by the MAC address. We’ve seen companies like Microsoft take this approach in recent years with its Office software.

3. Dongle emulators

Flash drives, memory sticks, dongles – they’re easy to break and even easier to lose. Some people create software versions of their devices using a dongle emulator to get around the problem, but this same tactic can be exploited by software pirates.

With relatively little effort, they can trick your software into thinking the version they’re using is fully licensed. So, even if you check the license before every use, it’s not always easy to separate legitimate and illegitimate users.

4. Binary hacking

Binary hacking is a more advanced technique than the others mentioned in this list. It involves modifying the executable application to either remove or bypass licensing requirements. The process is complex and requires careful reverse engineering of the software – which takes time and no small amount of skill to do.

If a hacker is willing to take the time and effort to read the binary executable files, it’s because they want to discover how the program works so they can duplicate or defeat it. It goes without saying that this is against the will and without the authorization of the copyright owner. Binary hacking is effective because it can circumvent efforts to lockdown the software’s security measures.

Protecting your intellectual property from software piracy

Pirates are always coming up with new ways to bypass security measures and steal valuable software. But that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel.

If nothing else, adopting appropriate anti-circumvention measures is a vital step in creating an effective license compliance program. This demonstrates that you’ve done everything in your power to protect your intellectual property – which is critical if you plan on reporting a compliance issue and taking a case of copyright infringement to court.

Contact our experts for information and advice on protecting your software from illegal use and distribution.

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