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VRPC users on anti-piracy system mischief

By Chris Williams. Published: 12th May 2005, 20:09:56 | Permalink | Printable

Who you gonna call?

Virtual Acorn logoUsers have this week revealed their struggles against the anti-piracy system in emulator VirtualRiscPC. Its publisher, VirtualAcorn say they are only a phone call away if a problem develops.

The copy protection mechanism in VirtualRiscPC works like this: Once installed onto a computer, VirtualRiscPC requires an unlock code to run. These codes are obtained by contacting VirtualAcorn with details of your VirtualRiscPC copy, and after entering a valid code into your copy of the RiscPC emulator, the software locks itself down to the machine running VirtualRiscPC. If the software believes it has been copied to a different machine, it refuses to run unless a valid unlock code is provided. As some users have discovered, minor changes to the hardware setup of the computer, such as using a wireless network card, can accidentally trigger this protection mechanism - much to their frustration. Similarly, if the emulator needs reinstalling, the user must provide the unlock code.

Implanting such an anti-piracy scheme into your software is understandable, from the publisher's point of view, seeing as 29 percent of software in Britain is believed to have been pirated, totaling £1 billion in lost revenue. Software piracy is not unknown in the tiny, cosy world of RISC OS, either. However, similar anti-piracy systems, such as that used in Cerilica's Vantage although later removed, have back fired and caused no end of pain for the end user. In Vantage's case, the software was rendered all unlock codes invalid after a point in time and punters found they couldn't reach Cerilica to issue them new access codes - raising the question of what can users possibly do if the company issuing unlock codes goes bust or AWOL.

"My opinion of software developers using poorly developed 'release codes' which stop legitimate uses from continuing to use their purchased product, is not a high one," commented Phil Spiegelhalter, a VirtualRiscPC user recently stung by the anti-piracy protection system.

Is anybody home?
Charles Hope owns a Microdigital Alpha, the first laptop to feature VirtualRiscPC - launched 2 years ago at a Wakefield show. Earlier this week, his Microsoft Windows laptop crashed, taking out VirtualRiscPC with it, which required him to reinstall it. Disaster struck when Charles couldn't find his unlock code, or even remember if he'd been given one as he claims his laptop had been supplied unlocked. On contacting VirtualAcorn, he was told that his machine wasn't on their records and that he'd have to contact Microdigital for a copy of the unlock code.

As far as we're aware at time of writing, Charles claims that he has been unable to reach anyone at Microdigital. He told us that VirtualAcorn boss Aaron Timbrell "has been very helpful so I have no wish to criticise him.

"'Upset' certainly applies to Microdigital. They seem impossible to contact when you need them. I had read that Omega deposit payers had found the same, but didn't expect to get caught myself", Charles added. He says he'll have to reinvest in a new copy of VirtualRiscPC at the Wakefield show.

Aaron explained to us: "MicroDigital has records of all the Alpha customers, along with the machine serial numbers, unlock codes etc. We don't have this information. I've done my best to help the customer, but unfortunately he can't find where he put the unlock code he was given.

"I have been through the records we do have, the customer isn't on our database. I have also been through the few Alpha unlock codes that we do have recorded looking for the Alpha serial number but I can't find a match."

Another Alpha user who had problems with VirtualRiscPC some time ago was advised by Microdigital's David Atkins to reinstall the software. The user told us: "At that point I asked for the unlock code and [David] gave it to me over the phone." Another Alpha user confirmed that he was handed an unlock code from Microdigital after he had to reinstall the emulator, and made a safe written note of the code afterwards.

The delay in installing the emulator and receiving an unlock code for the software can be vital for people relying on their laptops for professional work, especially if a system fails or changes its hardware configuration at a crucial moment. In March this year, VirtualAcorn were unable to provide unlock codes for almost a fortnight, due to an office move.

Richard Nevill, a user who has demonstrated VirtualRiscPC to numerous other punters, commented: "I don't think that the registration system for VirtualRiscPC-SE or Adjust is user friendly, especially for those of us who use external WiFi cards, or change networking hardware on a regular basis, for instance. People have not been impressed with my promised demonstrations which aborted as I had forgotten to bring along my networking card - most embarrasing."

We asked Aaron of VirtualAcorn if he felt his company had a fast turnaround on providing unlock codes to end users. He replied: "Does it mean do we provide codes over the phone? If so, yes. Does it mean do we check our e-mail on a regular basis for codes? If so, yes. Does it mean we have records of all complete (i.e. non OEM) copies of VRPC along with the unlock codes and serial numbers (and customer details if purchased directly from us, or if the registration card has been returned). If so then again, yes."

Adding that customers should call him if a problem arises, Aaron continued: "If a customer has a problem then they need to speak to me so I can try and sort it out. However in the case of early Alphas where MicroDigital supplied the OS and bundled the lot together we don't have the details, I can do my best to help a customer out but they will need to contact MicroDigital."

VirtualRiscPC was first seen at Wakefield 2003, officially running RISC OS 4 for the first time under emulation on a Microdigital supplied Windows laptop. In July 2003, punters witnessed the emulator running on a desktop machine, and a standalone version was eventually released in September later that year. Now, the software is bundled by various dealers on a range of PC kit and can match a StrongARM RiscPC on a typical 1.6GHz PC processor. The emulator has been credited for bringing ex-users back to the RISC OS platform and encouraging ex-developers to re-release their software.

Microdigital were unavailable for comment.

Links

VirtualAcorn website

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Discussion

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I use VirtualRiscPC SE with Select on my laptop, and have been satisfied with it, although it was annoying that I couldn't use it out of the box, but had to ring up VRPC the next day. :| It's a lot easier to use than lugging my Risc PC around ;)

 is a RISC OS UserAndrewDuffell on 12/5/05 9:26PM
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The problem with such copy protection systems is that they just p*** users off, and the users who know how to just bypass it. It seems to defeat the whole object. I know many IT professionals who routinely use cracked copies of Windows XP (although with a valid licence for each) simply because it's easier and less faff in the long run. I've not looked, but I bet if there's not a cracked copy of VRPC floating around the internet, there will be soon.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 12/5/05 9:34PM
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On a related note, why on earth doesn't VRPC support activation across the internet?

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 12/5/05 9:35PM
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Exactly, when trying to get people to pay to use your product it's a good idea to make it better than the illegal version they could also choose to get, same applies to downloading digital media with DRM. Luckily for VA even an emulator for RISC OS doesn't seem popular enough for anyone to crack. With the references to network cards I assume it's locked to a mac address, which is easy enough to change

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 12/5/05 10:54PM
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I bought a new laptop last week, rather than pay silly money to repair my 2.25year old laptop. I emailed VA for a unlock code around midnight on the 4th and they replied with an unlock code by 10:30 on the following day.

While Aaron is processing requests as quickly as that I've no complaint. :-)

Alex.

 is a RISC OS Useralex on 13/5/05 12:31AM
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I can understand that VirtualAcorn uses a copy protection, but the way it is done was the main reason for me to NOT buy this product. Since I publishin the German RISC OS magazine GAG-News I was inclinde to buy it (in addition to my IYONIX pc) but thanks to VirtualAcorn's copy protection policy I saved quite some money. If at least VirtualRPC would run for some 14 days after installation so that I can use it if I run into one of the aforementioned problems on a week end, get it for x-mas ... it would make things better but by now it's for sure that I'll not buy and product needing that kind of registration before being able to use it.

For registration lots of more user friendly solutions are out there. And if you want to force it linked to hardware then do it like it is for some product I have on Windows: Installation works and then I have a 3 week free use. In that period I register online and get an online-key which I put into the software to remove the time limit. The software expects to be able to connect for key validation every so often (with inernet access there no problem, for other users offline-keys are offered). When I move to different hardware my key is invalid ... but I can install, have the 3 weeks again and can reregister online at ease (or ask for a new offline-key).

I don't want to say that VirtualAcorn is't trying to be quick in furnishing activation keys - the problem is due to the fact that the chance that no one is in at VirtualAcorn (week end, holidays, ...) coupled with the fact that unregistered VirtualRPC won't run at all.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 13/5/05 5:57AM
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In response to hzn:

You can no longer activate Windows via the internet, you have to ring them to activate it and it also is locked to the main hardware, but allows IIRC upto three changes. Before it locks again.

Part of the reason for the lock codes is to do with the licence for RISC OS IIRC, as laid doen by Pace orginally.

Its MicroDigital at fault here not 3QD/Virtual Acorn, or the product for that matter.

response to Drobe:

As to the comment Virtual Acorn were closed for two weeks in March while they moved, indeed they were closed and obviously could not take phone calls, but they still responded to email unlock code requests I believe.

Of course everyone answers or has a phone while they are in the middle of moving house!

I really wonder why I now bother to stay in the RISC OS world.

 is a RISC OS UserWakeman on 13/5/05 7:35AM
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I also found that VRPC refused to run after I added a wireless card to my Alpha laptop. After much discussion with David Atkins, who was unable to issue a new code for the revised 'configuration' of my machine, I discovered that the problem resulted from the fact that XP automatically added a software gateway between the network interfaces. Once I unconfigured this gateway, VRPC started working once more, still using the original unlock code, and with both network interfaces active.

BTW, for anyone who doesn't have a record of their VRPC unlock code, it can be found in the windows registry (IIRC).

 is a RISC OS Userpeterb on 13/5/05 7:45AM
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Sorry - it's a software bridge, not a full gateway.

 is a RISC OS Userpeterb on 13/5/05 7:47AM
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This "VRPC failure to run" if a wireless card was added to the machine did not seem to affect me, although I could no longer use the VRPC's networking facilities. If it did stop my machine working, then it took a few weeks to do so. What did affect my VRPC was McAfee virus checker which interrupted anything I was trying to do. My total machine crash happened when the machine was in stand-alone mode. On starting the machine, VRPC's boot stalled, being unable to find the hard disc image. On VA's advice I re-installed VA and then found I needed to unlock. That was on Sunday morning - it's now Friday and I have had to contact - by phone of email from MD.

 is a RISC OS Usercharles on 13/5/05 8:14AM
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sorry - should read "No contact"

 is a RISC OS Usercharles on 13/5/05 8:15AM
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"The copy protection mechanism in VirtualRiscPC works like this: Once installed onto a computer, VirtualRiscPC requires an unlock code to run."

How 1980s!

"seeing as 29 percent of software in Britain is believed to have been pirated, totaling 1 billion in lost revenue"

First of all, you lose credibility by quoting statistics from BSA - an organisation which advocates draconian measures and racketeering (raids, seizures, speculative court orders), and which is more or less allied with other interests (MPAA, RIAA) who advocate an erosion of consumer rights. Moreover, 1 billion is most likely an artificial figure plucked out of thin air and inflated with statistics related to the legitimate distribution of open source software. (Searching for "BSA draconian" on Google provides such information surprisingly readily.)

Secondly, the term piracy is inappropriate although widely misused. I'm against licence violation through the unauthorised redistribution of software, but such activities are not piracy in the proper sense of the word.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 13/5/05 10:15AM
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1) I don't understand how this copy protection works? If I want to copy it on to a second computer, or a mates computer, (not that I will), I'd just ring up and get a second unlock code saying I'd changed computer. How do they know any different? Also, if VRPC gets in the PD, surely anyone could ring and get unlock codes pretending to be people who really own VRPC?

2) If I change the MAC address of my cable Network Card, VRPC still works, so I can't see it is tied to that.

 is a RISC OS UserAndrewDuffell on 13/5/05 10:29AM
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guestx: 1) Whatever you think of the source of the numbers, 29% does not sound like an unrealistic number.

2) Ah, that one again. No, of course it isn't the same as boarding a ship with a parrot on your shoulder and shoving people off a plank, and no-one has ever tried to claim it is. It's just adpating a word. Words change and gain or lose meanings all the time. One you use is "consumer" - surely the "proper sense" of that word is someone who's eating something?

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 13/5/05 10:48AM
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I wonder if the number of pirated copies saved outweighs the number of sales lost due to copy protection.

I don't buy copy protected software. Partly for the reasons of inconvenience and partly because copy protection is an implicit distrust of the customer.

Copy protection was the deciding factor in why I didn't upgrade VA5000 to VRPC (my own copy used at work).

If however they had produced a product such as a USB pendrive that could just be plugged into a machine with a supported OS, and run VRPC from there, then I most likely would have bought it.

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 13/5/05 11:04AM
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Jess: There's a thought - pendrives might not go down well, but how about a LiveCD type thing, in which it runs from CD and optionally creates a hard-disc directory for its stuff?

 is a RISC OS Userjohnpettigrew on 13/5/05 11:09AM
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I suppose you then run into the problem of people produced pirated CD's.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 13/5/05 11:37AM
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I think the ideal would be a pen drive which had a ROM drive (for the software) and a RAM drive (for configuration and user files), however unless a suitable device exists at a suitable price off the shelf, I don't see it would be an option.

It would then be a for-real version of pocket risc os.

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 13/5/05 3:41PM
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In reply to Jess and Johnpettigrew.

About 2 years ago I asked AARon about pen drives (because I have a contact in Hungary that writes encrypted drives like this) and they said it was not possible to do so.

cheers bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 13/5/05 4:13PM
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I assume that was for contractual reasons, rather than technical ones. I can run VA5000 quite happily over a network share, so a pen drive would certainly work.

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 13/5/05 5:31PM
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Yes Jess. There is no reason why VA cannot run off a pen drive as far as I can see. Cheers Bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 13/5/05 9:15PM
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VRPC-SE stopped working when I bridged two network cards. To be fair Aaron did give me a new unlock code but something else seems to have changed so I have had to remove the bridge.

What happens if you install it on a machine without networking? (and then add a card?)

 is a RISC OS Usermurkle on 14/5/05 8:34AM
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I imagine installing VMware and adding a new VM to it would most likely make it complain, too.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 14/5/05 12:51PM
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I have just installed VA and having problems getting it to talk to my real PC. making changes on the PC and running VA for the third time it refused to run and I have had to get a new unlock code. What happens when Arron is not available either temporarly or permentally.

 is a RISC OS Useralleyene on 16/5/05 10:39PM
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