Party Like It's 1989

In which I turn my quiet, unyielding anger toward modern-day copy protection dongles.

A few years back, I plopped $300 big ones on Synthogy Ivory, one of the world’s better piano software packages. Some of my favorite pianists used Ivory; I wanted to be hip like them.

At the time, Ivory was a snap to install and authorize: enter a serial number and machine code on Synthogy’s website; get a key via email. As with all such schemes, upgrading to new hardware required interacting with Synthogy support, but things were painless enough that I considered it a fair trade: copy protection probably had a positive effect on Synthogy’s bottom line.

Enter my recent run-in with Seattle’s less savory elements: I got a new laptop and had to re-authorize. Unfortunately, in the intervening years Synthogy “upgraded” (and I use quotations to indicate the extreme dubiousness of this upgrade) to the PACE iLok hardware dongle system. After several days of back-and-forth — more perhaps than should have been necessary — Synthogy’s support staff agreed to let me re-authorize my outdated but dongle-free version of Ivory.

Dongles are silly. They make me feel like I’m in middle school using an Amiga. Nevermind that they went out of style, for good reason, in 1989: companies like PACE are still in the game. What upsets me specifically about PACE is the garbage they spew about the “benefits” of their iLok system. Let us take a moment to dismantle their main points:

  • iLok is easier to use. Easier for whom, exactly? I’ve owned countless USB flash drives in my lifetime and I’ve absentmindedly lost them all; the iLok is no different.

  • iLok keeps all your licenses in one place. Except for when it doesn’t. Of the music software that I own, Ivory is the first and only to use iLok.

  • iLok is more reliable. I have never had trouble with Synthogy’s old authorization system. There are too many tales of woe on discussion boards — crashed systems, software that suddenly says it is unauthorized, and hardware keys that stop working without warning — for me to believe that iLok is high quality or even particularly reliable.

  • iLok is more secure. A simple thought exercise — one which applies to nearly all copy protection schemes — gives the lie to this. At some point, the iLok software must necessarily answer a single question: is software X authorized? This point is always vulnerable to attack. The engineers at PACE can go to whatever lengths they desire to make attacking it hard but fundamentally their work will amount to just more security through obscurity.

About the only point I might accept from Synthogy about iLok is that it substantially reduces their support and development costs. Of course, this point has nothing to do with their customers, and everything to do with their bottom line. Better software companies (for example, Ableton) are willing to take the hit and treat their customers right.

Having to remember a USB fob so I can play the piano is beaucoup stupid. Bottom line: avoid iLok unless you’re still writing music on a PC Junior.