Software Activation, DRM, and Implications for Digital Preservation

It's time again for another installment in my ongoing audio encoding project saga. For some time now I have been on the verge of the next phase of the project, which involves encoding the remaining analog sound objects in my collection, specifically cassette tapes and vinyl records. Procrastination, combined with a serious dose of being busy with other things, has delayed my progress on this phase of the project, but one technical aspect has also proved crucial.

In order to digitize the analog sound objects I require a software platform for encoding the analog input into digital objects that is also capable of cleaning-up the analog input of analog artifacts, such as tape hiss, pops, clicks, scratches, etc. There are many software packages that are available on the market for sound recording and processing and, fortunately, I already "own" one of them: Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge.

So, what's the technical problem, you ask? Well, I purchased version 5 of the software in 2001 as part of a special introductory promotion at a very reasonable price. Unfortunately, Sonic Foundry transferred ownership of the entire Sound Forge product line, as well as a few other key products, to Sony in 2003. Normally this wouldn't mean a thing, except for the fact that professional-level software like Sound Forge is protected by an online registration/activation scheme. In a nutshell, the software will install and run just fine for a 30 day trial period. During that period, you are expected to perform one of a set of procedures to register the product with the vendor which, when completed, will eliminate the 30 day countdown and give you full, unlimited access to the program. As you can guess, the transfer to Sony complicated the process in that the online registration routine built into the original program could no longer find the registration server — these functions had been transferred to Sony while the software remained unchanged.

Not being satisfied with only 30 days of the program at a time, and unwilling to shell out the bucks to upgrade, I embarked on a search to figure out the new registration procedures. I'll spare the details, except to say that it took some Googling, several failed customer service contact attempts, numerous user forum searches, and a call to a number that I finally managed to track down, which implored me to visit a chat application on their Web site in order to get to the information I needed to reactivate "my" software.

In the end, no big deal, right? But, my experience exposes some very important digital preservation issues. Sound Forge is not itself a particularly important piece of digital information in itself. It is a toolkit used to create the artifacts in which we are interested; in this case, sound artifacts. The same could be said about Photoshop, or any of an increasing number of professional media toolkits. Perhaps the furthest extent that a person in the future might need current or past versions of these software tools would be to regenerate projects that one might have created using them, or to analyze detailed technical aspects of the software. But, again, it is the products of these programs that will most likely interest future users, archivists, and the like.

But consider this: the registration and activation process used in software like Sound Forge is conceptually identical to the license management process in Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes used to protect digital information, particularly music, movies, and other copyrighted works. Having reviewed my account above, one could imaging that instead of activating software that I purchased, that I might have been trying to access a DRM-encoded sound or video file that I had purchased in the past. The same issues with license servers, transfer of ownership/responsibility, changes in the license registration schemes and so on are just as pertinent in this new situation.

Everything managed to turn out alright for me in this case, but imagine if Sonic Foundry had simply disappeared instead of selling off it's product line? Or what if I had tried to install this software 10 or 15 years later, after the market had decided that the software no longer held enough value to justify supporting it? All discussion about ownership of digital information aside (a discussion of which would explain my liberal use of scare quotes), it seems apparent from this example that if left to the market (as governed by long copyright terms and far-reaching copyright legislation), we stand to lose not only the right to preserve digital information, but the technical ability to do so. Conveniently enough, I've treated on this situation before.

Stay tuned as I embark on the more complicated phases on my encoding project.