Software Registration Keys

I read a post by Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror) on software registration keys today that reminded me that I’d been meaning to write about this.

Software is digital through and through, and yet there’s one unavoidable aspect of software installation that remains thoroughly analog: entering the registration key.

Doesn’t that seem entirely artificial? Software registration keys are like serial numbers. The concept is hopelessly tied to physical goods. It makes no sense in the digital world. It’s an attempt to treat digital goods as if they are physical in order to force the economics of physical goods onto a digital marketplace. There are better solutions.

Unless you oppose the very concept of commercial software, there has to be some kind of enforcement in place.

First of all, I believe that Jeff is misusing the term commercial to refer to non-free software. If that’s the case, I oppose the very concept of non-free software. This does not mean that I oppose commercial software though. There are many examples of free (as in freedom) commercial software companies, such as Red Hat, Canonical (Ubuntu) and MySQL. Rather than pretending that software can be treated like a physical good, these companies are making considerable amounts of cash without stamping their software with serial numbers.

Software registration keys are futile. It’s a constant uphill battle for these proprietary software developers against those who would make unauthorized copies (which most people seem to view as normal) because they’re trying to maintain an artificial business model that pretends digital goods are physical. Until digital goods become physical goods (aka never), this problem will not go away, unless, of course, you reject the idea of non-free software and embrace (or at least accept) the unique value in digital goods.

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