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Copy protection on Whistler easily cracked

The merest of twiddles, and off scamper the happy hackers again...

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Whistler's copy protection is by no means uncrackable, according to various of The Register's shady sources. The hardware-locked key system currently shipping with the Whistler beta seems to be fairly easy to get around, and the inconvenience of the system - if it ships with the production Whistler - will be likely to encourage the widespread use of cracks, and even of doctored installation disks that are entirely unlocked.

As we said the other month, the greater the inconvenience for the user that comes with anti-piracy measures, the more likely the users are going to feel morally justified in ripping the protection off. Whistler protection sounds like one of Microsoft's most inconvenient methods ever, so go figure.

Whistler (along with Office 10) uses a combination of a CD key and a code generated from the specific machine's hardware to generate another code, which is then validated by Microsoft by phone or over the Web, and you get another key which unlocks the software. You can't use it on two different machines,* and if you change your hardware and need to reinstall the key you have isn't valid. It's aggravating for ordinary users, and likely to be crippling for systems admins who want to be able to do multiple installs simply.

But the protection isn't rocket science, and we're told the following method works (as we don't yet have the version of Whistler with the protection, we can't verify it):

1. Disconnect from any network.
2. Start the install, but don't use dynamic update (which wants to connect, right?)
3. After installation and on first boot, don't set up your Internet connection when it asks. Click next or skip - the wizard will crash when you click next.
4. Click Start/Run and type:
regsvr32.exe -u regwizc.dll
Close the confirmation window that appears.
5. Start/run: regedit
6. Under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\WindowsNT\CurrentVersion change RegDone value to 1
7. Open up Internet Explorer. Open the Tools/Internet Properties and change your home page to something that isn't Microsoft or MSN.
8. Reboot and before windows starts up, plug your network connection back in.

Basically, the protection is circumventable with just a little bit of detouring and a regedit. Microsoft no doubt knows this, but is presumably banking on most users going along with the process, as they've tended to do in the past. But as we say, the inconvenience factor may well change the ratios.

And another thing worth considering - granted ordinary users who've paid for the software will tend to just go through the process as specified by Microsoft, but who are the people most motivated not to? That's right, it's the pirates the system is supposed to be tackling. Pirates will make it their business to know how to rip off the protection and burn the software onto modified install CDs, which they'll then sell cheap. If the protection isn't very good - which it isn't - then they don't have any more trouble with it than before, so Microsoft hits the honest punters, misses the target entirely, and maybe co-opts the people in the middle into the twilight zone of legality.

So friends, is this system really intended to tackle piracy at all? Isn't it perhaps more plausible to think of the objective as being to enforce universal registration of Microsoft products with Microsoft?

* On this subject, we're not sure where this leaves the legendary 'two machine' Microsoft licence agreement. According to the Microsoft site some licences allow to run the software on two machines, say, office and portable, but just not at the same time. We don't know who gets these licences, we know all ours say just the one machine, so it may be an academic question anyway. ®

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