Avoid Dongle Disasters

Protect your software investment

Published in SOS July 2008
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When you buy music software, you're not paying for a physical object, but a licence that resides on a small plastic key. How can you protect your investment, and what happens if something goes wrong?

Martin Walker

Probably the most widely used dongle in the audio world, Pace's iLok can house over 100 separate licences from a  variety of developers.Probably the most widely used dongle in the audio world, Pace's iLok can house over 100 separate licences from a variety of developers.With software piracy so rife in today's world, many developers feel they have no choice but to protect their products with a hardware device. This usually takes the form of a dongle or 'Smart Key', which plugs into a computer port and controls access to one or more software applications. Like most copy-protection measures, dongles can make life more difficult for legitimate users, and haven't eliminated the availability of 'cracks', but they certainly have advantages over alternative systems. Unlike challenge–and–response protection, for instance, dongles allow you to install software on multiple machines, or upgrade to a new computer fairly easily. Dongles also survive intact through most computer hardware problems and failures, are immune to problems caused by by software updates, can be hot swapped between different rigs, and you can take them with you when travelling, so you can use your favourite plug-ins when working on location projects. They also allow you to demo protected commercial software for a specific time period or number of uses.

However, the single most important fact about dongles, and one which many musicians overlook, is that the product licences they contain represent the entire value of those products. Even if you've registered dongle–protected software on the developer's web site, if your dongle gets lost or stolen you'll often have to buy that software again. With that in mind, let's explore dongle management, transfer of licences, security and insurance, so that your investment is as safe as possible.Syncrosoft's dongles are very familiar to Steinberg customers, among others, but the newer, shorter version (shown here on the left) may prove more responsive in some applications than the pre-2004 version (on the right).Syncrosoft's dongles are very familiar to Steinberg customers, among others, but the newer, shorter version (shown here on the left) may prove more responsive in some applications than the pre-2004 version (on the right).

Which Dongle Have I Got?

The iLok USB smart key from California–based Pace Anti-Piracy (www.paceap.com) is probably the most widely used by audio software developers, among them Antares, Audioease, Bomb Factory, Celemony, Digidesign, DUY, EastWest, GRM Tools, Izotope, McDSP, MOTU, Muse Research, PSP Audioware, Serato, Sonnox Oxford, TC Electronic, Waves and Way Out Ware.

One reason for its popularity is that the iLok was the first dongle to support multiple licences on the same device (it can hold "over 100" cross-platform authorisations from multiple vendors). Many of the companies mentioned above use iLok as their exclusive protection method, although a few, such as PSP Audioware and Way Out Ware, provide challenge/response protection tied to a particular computer as an alternative, with iLok as an option for those who find dongles a more convenient and portable solution.

Second in the popularity stakes are Syncrosoft, whose USB dongle will be well known to Steinberg customers who run products such as Cubase, Nuendo, Halion or Wavelab, as well as to owners of software from Arturia, Eliosound, Korg, Tascam, Virsyn and VSL, among others.

Several other USB dongle formats exist (see box), but the vast majority of audio software developers seem to use either iLok or Syncrosoft dongles, so we'll concentrate on those two here. Both work on both Mac and PC and support Windows 32-bit (2000, XP 32, Vista 32), and Windows 64-bit (XP 64, Vista 64). While iLok should run on Mac OS 10.3.9 or later (excluding 10.4.4), Syncrosoft requires OS X 10.3, 10.4, or 10.5; discontinued versions are still available for OS 10.2 and Windows 98, ME and NT.

Downloading Licences

Licence management on iLok dongles is always done while logged into the www.iLok.com web site, where you can download licences and transfer them from one iLok to another.Licence management on iLok dongles is always done while logged into the www.iLok.com web site, where you can download licences and transfer them from one iLok to another.There are many common operational features to Syncrosoft and iLok dongles, but also some important operational differences that I'll discuss presently. Common to both is that each dongle contains its own unique ID number and stores one or more licences, each of which allows you to run a particular software application. When you buy most protected software, you need to register it on-line with the developer, and the corresponding licence will then be downloaded into your dongle so you can use that software. Some software ships with a pre-licensed dongle, and a few products even include a small SIM smart card holding the appropriate iLok licence that you insert into your iLok when requested by the software. Even if you have one of these, though, it's still important to register your purchase, since this places you in a stronger position if the dongle ever gets lost or stolen.

Because all licence management (downloads, transfers, and so on) happens on-line on a secure web site, the licence server logging these transactions tracks the relevant contents of each dongle. This means that the manufacturers can, in principle, replace a defective dongle by looking up the licences associated with that particular ID number, then issuing new activation codes/authorisations, so you can restore your licences to a new, empty dongle.

Syncrosoft's License Control Center utility displays the licences contained in all connected Syncrosoft dongles, and enables you to transfer them from one to another.Syncrosoft's License Control Center utility displays the licences contained in all connected Syncrosoft dongles, and enables you to transfer them from one to another.This centralised on-line logging can also help if you have several compatible dongles, transfer a licence from one to another, and something goes wrong during the process. However, you don't necessarily need an Internet connection on your music computer to authorise a dongle: you can install the dongle drivers and associated utility software on any Internet-connected computer, perform your dongle-management tasks, and then move the dongle to your music computer.

With Syncrosoft dongles, a unique Activation Code for your software is supplied by the individual software developer, either on a printed card with the product, or by email. Once on-line, you then enter this code into Syncrosoft's License Control Center utility, which communicates with Syncrosoft's secure database and downloads the new product licence into your dongle. The Control Center utility also lets you view the licences stored on all your Syncrosoft dongles at any time, without requiring an Internet connection.

Make sure you download and install the most recent Mac or Windows Syncrosoft drivers from www.syncrosoft.com/Download-78-11.html to ensure you have widest compatibility across a range of protected products from different developers. Personally, I've always found Syncrosoft dongles easy and problem-free, partly because the dongle drivers and associated utilities generally get installed alongside the protected application.

With an iLok licence, downloads are slightly more complex: there's a central Internet server at www.ilok.com that handles all the transactions, so you will need to have an account there. Occasionally a software developer using iLok protection will offer to create an account for you if you haven't already got one, but otherwise you can create one yourself fairly easily. Once you have a new iLok.com account you'll need to download the latest iLok drivers and install them on every computer that needs to access iLok-protected software. On the computer that you intend to use to handle the Internet-based licence management, you'll also need to install the iLok Client Software from www.ilok.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/iLokManager.woa/13/wa/DownloadApps.

With the Client Software installed, you can log in to your iLok account and have your unique iLok ID interrogated and registered in the database. This only has to be done once. Once your iLok is registered, you can contact individual software developers to request an iLok licence for the software you've purchased. The process varies from developer to developer: some, like Waves, provide automated Authoriser utilities that you run while on-line to register your request, while others simply ask you to type in required information on a web page. Within a short time (typically just a few minutes, but occasionally a day or more) the authorisation will be sent by the developer to iLok.com, and then you'll be able to log in and download the license to your iLok. Although delays can occasionally happen, I've yet to wait more than a few minutes for any of my licences to arrive.

Licence Transfers

Although you can't transfer software licences from a Syncrosoft dongle to an iLok, it is possible under some circumstances to move licences between dongles of the same variety. It's easy to end up in situations where you own more than one product that comes with its own dongle, and it may be convenient to move all the licences these contain into a single dongle. That way, fewer computer ports are required, and if you ever work away from home you'll only need to take that one dongle with you. However, this has implications if a Syncrosoft dongle ever becomes faulty, as we shall see shortly.

Transferring licences between several of your own dongles is normally free and easy to do (although a few developers, such as Waves, do not support transfers between iLok dongles at all), but you will have to do it while on-line to get the appropriate authorisation and update the on-line database, and you should never remove any dongle from your computer while performing transfers, until you get confirmation that the operation has completed.

Syncrosoft's License Control Center utility provides several step-by-step Wizards for License Download, License Transfer and License Removal, and I've never had any problems using these. To transfer you simply select the licence in question, then the desired destination, and finally click on the Transfer License button. If you have one of the longer Syncrosoft dongles manufactured before 2004 (see photograph at start of this article), transferring your licences to one of the newer shorter models can also improve responsiveness of some applications.

With iLoks, you need to log into your iLok.com account on-line and choose the Transfer Licenses option. You will then need to 'synchronise' your iLoks to make sure the data held on iLok.com matches what is on your iLoks, then choose the source iLok and the licences you wish to move, and then select the destination iLok using the simple step-by-step instructions.

Transferring Licences To Other People

If you want to sell your dongle-protected software to another user, you should ideally contact the relevant developer to check their policy. Some prohibit it outright, others ask for a nominal 'service fee' to amend the user details in their database, and some are happy to facilitate transfers free of charge.

If the licences for the software in question are the only ones on a particular dongle, it's probably easier to include this dongle as part of the sale, since it will ensure that the software runs correctly. However, the new owner may not be able to get technical support or future updates unless you also officially transfer ownership (assuming this is permitted). For instance, you could sell your copy of Cubase and its Syncrosoft dongle, and the buyer could run it immediately and even download and install free updates, but he or she might run into problems trying to upgrade to a newer version later on. If the licences are among many on your dongle it could be easier to transfer them to a different dongle and include that in the sale, but this still doesn't confirm that you'd be able to officially transfer ownership.

Subject to individual developer policy, iLok owners can transfer licences between accounts for a nominal $25 per licence. However, this may not guarantee full support. For instance, although you can transfer the iLok licences for Digidesign plug-ins in this way between different owners, Digidesign won't transfer plug-in registration to another owner, so the new owner won't quality for updates or support. Waves insist that you're covered by their WUP (Waves Upgrade Plan) before they will transfer ownership, and after you've faxed a signed statement to them that you've transferred all licences, materials, and iLok key to the new owner that new owner will need to pay a $150 'transfer of licence fee' in order to get continued support.

Overall, if you want continuing technical support and the ability to get future upgrades you should check thoroughly before buying any second-user protected software.

Keeping Dongles Safe

For the ultimate in dongle security, remove the backplate from a USB port-to-header adaptor, as shown here, plug the header end into a spare USB port pair on your motherboard, then firmly attach the cable/dongle assembly somewhere inside your PC with cable ties.For the ultimate in dongle security, remove the backplate from a USB port-to-header adaptor, as shown here, plug the header end into a spare USB port pair on your motherboard, then firmly attach the cable/dongle assembly somewhere inside your PC with cable ties.Although electronic components do occasionally fail, dongle breakages are most likely to occur because of physical damage. The most common cause of damage is when the dongle is plugged into a rear-panel computer port and then gets squashed against a wall, and this can easily be prevented by buying a short extender cable so that the dongle hangs down out of harm's way. This is such a common issue for iLok owners in particular (because the iLok is longer than most other dongles) that iLok themselves sell a 20cm Dongle Buddy cable extender for $5.95 (www.ilok.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/iLokManager.woa/wa/namedPage?page=ProductBrowser).

If your computer's a tower system sitting on the floor and you plug your dongle into a front-panel port you risk accidentally treading on it or snapping it off when vacuuming, and for this scenario a USB 360 Degree Adaptor may help (for example www.lindy.co.uk/usb-360-degree-adapter/70339.html), by rotating the dongle so it sticks up instead of out.

Personally, I avoid all possibility of accidental damage by mounting my dongles inside the computer case. I described how to do this using a modified USB port-to-header adaptor in PC Notes June 2006 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun06/articles/pcnotes_0606.htm), and if your dongles are always plugged into one computer then this is also a great way to prevent them being accidentally misplaced or being stolen by an opportunist.

Educational and commercial establishments sometimes suffer from casual theft of dongles because they look similar to USB memory sticks (ironically, they can end up being thrown away when the thief realises their mistake, despite being far more valuable than memory sticks!). For this reason, iLoks and Syncrosoft dongles have holes through which security cables can be threaded and attached, either to a laptop's Kensington Security slot, or a heavy object such as a desk. Even better is to mount all dongles inside a sturdy metal box bolted to a heavy object, then attach them to the computers via USB extension leads.

Dealing With Damaged Dongles

If your dongle fails or gets damaged, all software protected by the dongle will immediately refuse to run. The standard procedure for anyone with a broken or defective iLok is to follow the RMA (Return Merchandise Authority) process, as detailed in the Help section of the www.ilok.com web site, and here you're on far safer ground than with Syncrosoft, since the procedure is exactly the same whatever combination of licences from however many developers are stored on a particular dongle. You'll probably get a free replacement iLok if yours proves to be faulty, as well as a replacement set of licences to download to it, but you'll have to send your faulty iLok to them in California at your own expense, and be unable to run the licenced products in the meantime.

Even a few days of down time can result in lost business, so Pace offer a ZDT (Zero Down Time) package for $30 per year for each supported iLok. ZDT customers get temporary licences lasting several weeks for their software that are deposited into their iLok account and can then be downloaded into a spare dongle if the worst happens. Then you can carry on using your software while you send back the faulty iLok to have it validated, whereupon you'll get new full licences to download to the temporary replacement. If your original dongle was stolen or lost (see below), you can use this time to claim on your insurance, so you can replace the software or persuade the vendors to provide you with full replacement licences.

Unfortunately, a few major iLok-using developers (including Audioease, DUY Research, Grey Matter Response and Waves) do not support ZDT, so if your iLok contains their licences there's no way to avoid down time. In these cases Pace have to examine your returned iLok and inform the developers in question, who in turn will issue a new authorisation so that you can authorise a new iLok. One Sound On Sound reader was recently unfortunate enough to have two iLoks fail during a six-week period, and although they were both covered by ZDT, many of the licences covered Waves plug-ins, so despite prompt action by Pace, he was still unable to use these for some five days at a time.

If you have a faulty Syncrosoft dongle, you should contact the local distributor of the developer whose licences are stored on the device, and in most cases send back the faulty dongle to them so that they can confirm the licences stored within it before replacements are issued locally (this is yet another reason to register your software beforehand). For instance, Steinberg say that once their distributors receive your dongle, if it's found to be defective or broken they can usually ship another within 24 hours.

Some Syncrosoft developers are more helpful than others in the interim, and may issue temporary licences to you. However, the waters get very murky if you've transferred licences from several different developers into a single dongle, and you'll have to make special arrangements with each developer to return the broken dongle to you if it has other licences on it, so you can send it on to the next one in the list. Most musicians who have thought through the implications tend to maintain a different dongle for each software developer!

Loss & Theft

The biggest bone of contention in the case of any dongle is what happens if it goes missing or is stolen. Again, the situation varies from developer to developer. After a theft, iLok owners with ZDT cover will have temporary licences to tide them over for those products that are supported under the scheme, and some Syncrosoft vendors may also issue temporary licences. However, it's up to the individual developer to decide what happens about replacement licences. A few may provide you with full replacement licences that you can download to a new blank dongle on receipt of a police Incident Number or similar confirmation, while others may charge you a flat fee to issue new licences, or may offer a discount on replacement ones.

Digidesign say that they will "consider replacement of licences for Digidesign or Digidesign-distributed software on a case–by–case basis", but they strongly recommend that you obtain insurance on all software plug-ins. Other developers may well operate a similar policy in reality, even if they don't specifically say that they do. Some, however, including both Steinberg and Waves, remain adamant that you must purchase their software again after claiming on your insurance. Unfortunately, while most standard household insurance companies will cover the cost of buying a new dongle, very few will cover the value of the licences it contains. To get this cover you'll need a specialist policy with a company that specialises in musical gear insurance, such as those advertising in Sound On Sound, and you should insure a dongle containing one or more licences for the full cost of replacing that software. Just don't wait until the worst happens, or you could be seriously out of pocket!.

Other Dongle Formats

The Wibu Key dongle is used by Yellow Tools (shown here) and Algorithmix, and is very similar in both size and shape to the latest Syncrosoft device, apart from its bulbous end.The Wibu Key dongle is used by Yellow Tools (shown here) and Algorithmix, and is very similar in both size and shape to the latest Syncrosoft device, apart from its bulbous end.Wibu Systems (www.wibu.com) have been around since 1993; I had an early brush with a Wibu Key dongle on Native Instruments' Reaktor version 3 back in 2001, and both Algorithmix and Yellow Tools now use it to protect their software ranges (although Algorithmix also offer Syncrosoft as a dongle option, and even iLok for their Pro Tools Mac products!). Wibu's more sophisticated Code Meter dongle is now used by Magix to protect their Samplitude and Sequoia audio software, but few other audio developers are on board as yet.

Aladdin's HASP system (www.aladdin.com) was used by Waves, before they switched to iLok, and by IK Multimedia for their T-Racks audio mastering software, before they switched to dongle-free challenge/response protection back in 2001, but is not currently favoured by many audio developers. Yet another format is available from SafeNet (www.safenet-inc.com), whose Sentinel USB dongles are notably used by Avid for their XPress and Media Composer film and video editing applications. Apple have recently dropped the XSkey dongle from their Logic Pro 8 package.

Do I Need To Buy A Dongle?

Many of us already have two or three dongles plugged into our computers, and would rather not have any more. There's nothing more annoying than having to buy a dongle before you can use the software you've just paid for. Dongles tend to be bundled with expensive host applications, but not with plug-ins and soft synths (to make their pricing more competitive), so before you buy a dongle-protected product you should always check which dongle it uses and whether or not one is included in the package.

Some software makes the distinction very clear (the box may, for instance, display a blue 'iLok required' or red 'iLok included' sticker), but plenty of musicians have been caught out and had to place a separate order for a blank dongle. If you do need to buy a blank dongle, iLoks can be purchased for about £30, while Syncrosoft dongles typically cost £17 both from a variety of outlets.

Dongle Troubleshooting

I've yet to experience any operational problems with either my Syncrosoft or my iLok dongles during several years' use. However, other musicians have reported crashes, intermittent faults, or other malfunctions where the protection software/hardware seems to be the probable cause. The most common fault is a dongle that's either not recognised at all, or intermittently. If you suspect a dongle to be faulty, first try plugging it into different USB ports, then check that any LED on the dongle is illuminated. Sometimes, unplugging and replugging the device will reveal an intermittent plug connection rather than a broken dongle.

If possible, avoid plugging dongles into an Apple keyboard port, since some users have reported problems with their computer failing to recognise them. Similarly, if you have to plug any dongle into a USB hub, try to use an active one (with its own power supply) if possible. I've used both iLok and Syncrosoft dongles in un-powered USB hubs with no problems, but dongles can be picky about particular makes of USB hub. If your dongle lights up but you get an 'Unknown Device' error, try temporarily plugging the dongle directly into its own USB port, since this nearly always works reliably.

There are known issues with iLok synchronising and licence transfers if you connect to www.ilok.com from behind some proxy servers or firewalls, so if you experience an 'unexpected authorisation error 411' your only option is to find another machine that's connected to the Internet in a different way.

Dongle-protected software will only run on the machine that has the dongle, so if you're running several computers in a network to combine their processing power (using a utility like FX Teleport from www.fx-max.com) they will each need a separate licensed dongle. However, you could, of course, dedicate specific machines to specific plug-ins, so avoiding the need for duplicate licences.

Sometimes, power-saving features can result in dongles being switched off by the operating system. PC owners, for instance, should open Device Manager from the Control Panel, double–click on each entry labelled USB Root Hub in the Universal Serial Bus Controllers section, then click on the Power tab to see which ones currently have dongles connected. For any that do, click on the Power Management tab and un–tick the box labelled 'Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power'.

More general iLok fault-finding tips can be found at Pace's extensive FAQ page at www.ilok.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/iLokManager.woa/wa/namedPage?page=FAQPage, and for further dongle-based information, visit the web site of the developer whose product it protects. For instance, Steinberg provide a comprehensive FAQ area at http://knowledgebase.steinberg.net/96_1.html, as do Digidesign at www.digidesign.com/ilok.


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