4 Hours Left to Support a Troper-Created Project : Personal Space (discuss)

Copy Protection

Code wheel? ...But I downloaded the game! DAMN IT!

"Okay, here's the dumb copy protection. In your documentation find the X/Y coordinates (letters) for each of the two displayed symbols."
Space Quest IV, telling you how to acquire the code for piloting a spaceship

When a player purchases a videogame, how does the developer prevent them from simply making an illicit copy of the software and giving it away to a friend? Unlike physical merchandise (such as books), videogames exist as electronic data, which is quite easy to make perfect copies of.

This has been a concern for gamemakers even from the start, so throughout the years they've come up with a variety of ways to verify that whoever is playing their game has fronted the proper cash for that privilege. A few examples:

  • "Key disc" method: The game prompts the user to insert their authentic installation or game disc, checking for some kind of identifying signature that they've carefully hidden in the disc format itself, in a way that would not (generally) be preserved when the player simply makes an electronic copy of the software code and files.
    • "The Dongle": A variant of the "Key Disc" method mostly found on professional and enterprise level software, although it's starting to see use in consumer games as well (e.g. Steel Beasts Pro PE and the DJMax Trilogy). Software that uses this method will only run if said dongle (either USB or parallel port) is present, and presents an error message followed by immediately quitting if the dongle is absent. Another variant of this is that the software is tied down to a particular piece of hardware and will not run if the hardware is absent (e.g. copies of Nero Burning ROM Professional bundled with certain CD writers).
  • Passphrase method: The game prompts a user to input a word or phrase from a specified page of the game's manual, trusting that only legal owners have a copy of that. Another form is a "code wheel": a set of physical cardboard or plastic wheels that have to be dialed to the specified settings (somewhat like a combination lock or a decoder ring) to reveal the answer that the game wants.
  • Puzzle method: As a more subtle, elaborate version of the above, the player encounters an in-game puzzle that is generally not solvable without supplementary clues and information included either in the game's manual or its Feelies.
  • Activation: The software key is registered and paired with your computer's hardware somehow. On first install, information about your computer is sent back to the developers, and on subsequent installs the information is checked and you're blocked from proceeding if the information doesn't add up. Privacy concerns aside, this method is gaining ground on every single piece of software in the market, from Operating Systems (infamously, Windows' activation) to productivity (much of Adobe's, AutoDesk's and Microsoft's wares use it) to even consumer games (the download version of all of Pop Cap's titles).

Unfortunately, all of the above methods are beatable (sometimes trivially), slightly intrusive on the end user, and if they malfunction they can even lock a legitimate player out of their own game. Instruction manuals can be photocopied (despite efforts to make this difficult) or just plain lost, physical game discs age and eventually go bad (making perfectly-legal archival/personal backup copies won't help if the game uses a key-disc method), and so on. Sometimes, a method becomes viewed as so intrusive that the player may simply choose to avoid running the game at all.

This has resulted in something of a vicious cycle between game publishers and unlicensed copying ("piracy"), where when one copy-protection system is cracked or beaten, the publisher must switch to (or create) another, stronger method, which is itself beaten (sometimes quickly), and so on. Where does it end?

In the early days, the physical game media itself (game cartridges, CD-ROM) was sufficient to ensure that it was a legal copy, on the grounds that the equipment to produce them was difficult (if not impossible) for the general public to obtain. This is no longer the case these days, especially with the Internet where it's fairly easy to find not just downloadable copies (legal or otherwise) of the software itself, but any and all of the pass phrases, manual clues, or the entire solution to a copy-protection puzzle.

The Internet itself has brought the latest version of copy protection: Client-server verification, where the player is the "client" and their legal right to play the game is recorded on a central server database. The server is the central authority on who is (and by extension, is not) allowed to play the game, and can easily verify this with any given client, either during the game's initial installation or first time startup, or sometimes every time the game is run. While this comes naturally to certain genres (i.e. MMORPG), it can be a problem for others; for example, even if the game doesn't have any online features, it may still refuse to run without an Internet connection or if the central servers are down. It also has the issue of possibly leaving legitimate users with an unplayable legal copy if the parent company closes or decides to discontinue support on their end and hasn't planned for anyone else to take over. And again leading to vicious cycles, this can lead to instances where the protection is so restrictive to legitimate users that they might decide to pirate the game even when they intended to buy in the first place just to play a version that bypasses the whole thing.

See also Digital Piracy Is Evil and DRM.


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  • Infogrames' original Alone in the Dark series had this, and notably ratcheted it up in the second game. The first required two objects from the game to be entered, which was already saying something given the large number of one-use clutter. The second, however, was a bit more complex. When you entered the first screen, it had a message something along the lines of "Protection Ace of Hearts over Three of Clubs First Hole". This could be disregarded, and if one tried to enter the hedge maze without inputting a code with the F keys, the game would say "YOU DIDN'T ANSWER THE QUESTION" and smite you. It turned out the manual told what the question is, and the game came with a number of hole-punched playing cards. Only by correctly laying the cards over each other and examining a hole could you figure out the required code to get on with it.
  • The DOS game Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse featured copy-protection in the form of a question whose answer you needed to look up on a page in the manual in order to start playing. Not only does it give you the page of the manual and what number word it is, it also gives you the heading of that section of the manual and the first letter of the word. Unfortunately, one of the copy-protection questions used an answer that was directly related to the heading and extremely easy to guess: "On page 19, under the heading Sound, enter the ninth word: (first letter is m)" (unsurprisingly, the answer is "music"). If you answered the question wrong, it would simply let you try again with a different question as many times as you wanted, so even if you lost the manual it was easy to just cycle through the questions until you got one you knew or could figure out the answer to (not to mention having the first letter of the words made brute force guesswork much easier).
    • Interplay games also has this form of copy protection, albeit less forgiving (it only bluntly tells you to look at the manual page and word number, with no other hints, and you only get three tries before it drops you back to the DOS command prompt). Interplay's DOS port of The Lion King and Aladdin are among the offenders.
  • In The Bard's Tale Trilogy:
    • In the original game, the actual spells you cast used magic words that you had to type in, and were present only in the manual and never given in the game (you would see only the 'thematic' name of the spell in-game, not the magic word used to order your characters to cast it.) This made playing the game without the manual extremely difficult. Most ports of the games made the spells selectable by menu, eliminating this issue.
    • Also in the original game, whenever you leveled up, the Review Board would ask you to name a street in the city. The map that came with the game had the streets misspelled - the Grand Plaza was labeled "GRAN PLAZ", and Hawk Scabard was labeled "HAWK SCABBARD". You had to use the map's spelling to pass; if you didn't have the map, you could never get past the first level.
    • The third game of the trilogy, Thief Of Fate, had dimension-hopping as a crucial plot point. In order to travel from the main world to one of the seven other dimensions, the player had to not only cast the correct spell (see above), but then input the correct number from a three-layer card stock disc included with the game, similar to the Disney example given in this trope's description.
  • The BattleTech PC game, The Crescent Hawks' Inception, had two series of copy protection: one early on in the game, when you had to look up (or memorize) different Battlemech components to continue training at the Academy in your ersatz Doomed Hometown, and one very near the end, where you had to look up some stuff on a star chart in order to get your father's Phoenix Hawk Land-Air Mech (AKA VF-1J Valkyrie, but that's another trope). Woe betide you if you lost the physical copy of the star chart.
  • The Carmen Sandiego games each shipped with a large tome: a copy of that year's World Almanac and Book of Facts, a history book or Fodor's guide, from which information could be requested. Several problems occurred with this: although it was intended to get kids interested in using an almanac, it wouldn't help if the book was lost at school, or if some schools used a newer edition of Fodor's (which meant that none of the hints corresponded to the correct pages, meaning going up in rank was impossible).
  • In the first Civilization game, there would be two instances in the early parts of the game where you had to look up a civilization advance in the manual: you were shown a picture of a random one, then given a large set of multiple-choice answers of which two advances were its direct prerequisites. (The in-game justification was that "A usurper claims you are not the rightful king!") If you were wrong, you lost all the military units you had outside of your cities.
    • Ironically, all the advances were also documented in the in-game "Civilopedia" (though it was, of course, inaccessible during the challenge), and even if you didn't read that, the answers could often be worked out logically anyway.
  • Dark Sun Shattered Lands has your party accosted at the end of the first dungeon (the Absurdly Spacious Sewer) by the mental projection of a dragon, who wanted to know the words on on a page in the manual. Failing would crash you out of the game.
  • Dune II. You were asked for a piece of information that you had to look up in the game's manual, such as "What type of structure is a Wind Trap?" (answer: it's a Power Plant).
  • The old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons computer games by SSI requires the use of the included a thick manual not only to log into the game ("In the manual section on page 45, paragraph 2, line 10 - what is word 6?"), but also to understand the plot (you have to refer to the journal part). In the brilliant move by the company for its Anniversary set, they included the spin wheels for some of the games' copy-protection, but forgot to put in the manuals for Gateway and Treasure of the Savage Frontieer, rendering those two games unplayable.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Arena, the first game of the series, requires you to answer questions about spells in the known Spellbook part of the manual before leaving the first dungeon. Recently, Bethesda allowed the game to be downloaded for free, and while they did not remove the copy protection, the official download includes all the required information in a text file.
  • The Amiga game Elvira: Mistress of the Dark had you hunting for six keys hidden in the castle, and one was hidden in a dark passage, requiring you to have Elvira cook up "Glowing Pride" to find it. However, you couldn't find any recipes inside the game; all of them were in the manual. In other words, you could play most of the game on a pirate version, but to complete it you needed the original version. (At least, until GameFAQs was invented.)
  • F/A-18 Hornet had you answer a question from its rather large flight manual before starting a mission.
  • F-19 Stealth Fighter: if you failed to identify the plane (from the manual) that the game showed you, the game forced you to go on a "training mission" with preset equipment instead of allowing you to choose your mission, plane or ammunition.
  • Hired Guns for the Amiga. The programmer responsible summed it up best himself: "One week I came up with a cunning plan. I figured anyone who cracked the game would take out the manual protection, play the game a bit and leave it at that. But I included a routine that detects if the game has been altered, it then does nothing until you make a certain amount of saves at which point it messes up your save files, just when you're getting into the game."
  • In the classic adventure game adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Marcus would ask Indy to translate some symbols for him, which would need to be looked up in the manual. Failing to do so would let the game continue as normal - until a crucial point where Indy, at Donovan's place, would fail to translate a tablet concerning the Holy Grail (Indy mistakenly translates it as "Holy Grain"), prompting Donovan to say "Seems you're just an illegitimate copy of the man I thought you were."
  • In Leather Goddesses of Phobos, the copy protection feelie was the map through the obligatory maze. Considering that the maze was pretty much instantly deadly if you didn't do the right things in the right places, this was rather irritating when the map invariably got lost. Also, the comic book included unguessable clues (such as what actions you had to take while splashing through the maze, and the key to a cipher message).
  • Several Level 9 games used a method called "Lenslok". Using a graphical pattern, a passphrase was rendered unreadable. A color filter provided with the game, similar to those in the Milton Bradley Jeopardy! games, could be placed against the screen to render the text legible, but this failed with exceptionally small or large monitors.
  • The Interactive Fiction game The Lurking Horror deserves special mention of its copy protection. Getting anywhere in the game required you to log into an in-game computer; the necessary information was included with the Feelies. However, while the password was clearly marked, the login was not (and, to complicate matters, was not on the same page as the password).
  • At first glance, the computer game Master of Orion used a simple "What spaceship is this?" manual copy protection. However, if the game executable was modified to remove the protection altogether, the game would detect the alteration of its code and become so difficult as to be virtually unplayable!
  • Metal Gear has always featured copy protection measures:
    • The NES Metal Gear also had some rooms that couldn't be completed without the game manual, unless you used abug to skip parts of the game.
    • Metal Gear 2 used "P23 tap codes" at certain points in the game, and the Colonel would instruct you to look at the manual for information on how to interpret tap codes. This was a frequency you needed to continue, and while brute-forcing it was possible, it was far more annoying than brute-forcing Meryl's frequency in the sequel due to the MSX's criminal slowdown and Snake's insistence on starting every conversation with "THIS IS SOLID SNAKE. YOUR REPLY, PLEASE...". Even more annoyingly, the version included in Metal Gear Solid 3 Subsistence (the first release of the game in English) did not come with tap codes in the manual. Konami eventually provided a downloadable online manual with the tap code chart in. The European version of the Subsistence manual also omits the tap code chart, but does tell you the frequency, albeit without any context as to when it's required.
    • Metal Gear Solid had a character, early in the game, who "forgot" a vital communication frequency and mention that "it's on the back of the CD case," referring to one of the images on the back of the game's plastic case. If you rented the game, moving beyond that point was impossible. Better yet, Snake has a CD case in his in-game inventory. Many, many gamers tried to figure out how they were supposed to look at the back of that case. When they couldn't figure out the solution to the "puzzle", they turned to GameFAQs. However, this ends up being negated when the player can still receive the frequency by contacting Campbell enough times - even though he still ends up telling you to check the non-existent case, the frequency ends up added to the list either way. The remake The Twin Snakes eliminated this altogether by having the character say that the code is on the back of "the package", since there's no package item. The only other option for players was to try every radio frequency in sequential order until they reached the correct one.
    • It's well worth mentioning that, although these serve as copy protection, it's entirely possible they were also added by Hideo Kojima to add more fourth wall shenanigans to the series, especially considering how non-chalantly Snake is told to check the back of the CD case.
  • Ni no Kuni comes with the spellbook the character uses in the game, which it makes you use to get through the challenges.
  • Nippon Safes Inc is particularly sneaky, since it lets you play normally until halfway through the adventure, when suddenly a student pops up from nowhere and asks you questions about Japan. The answers can be found in the part of the manual dedicated to Japanese culture and geography. One can even think that the game is somewhat an exploration of a foreign culture, when actually it's anything but.
  • Pathways into Darkness included some copy protection near the very end of the game. Your mission is to detonate a nuclear device at the bottom of an ancient temple that will bury an Elder God in debris for a few thousand years. When you can finally arm the device, it asks for a launch code - which can only be found in the manual containing your briefing. Future distributions of the game left this part out. But both versions left in your fellow squadmates changing part of the launch code because they thought you'd been compromised - if you don't ask them for the new code, you're still screwed! To start the game, at least in older versions, you also had to enter a code found on a randomly given page of the manual.
  • Der Patrizier (The Patrician) had a beautiful hand-drawn map of the North Sea and Baltic Sea area surrounded by dozens of town names with corresponding arms. These were in fact the copy protection: You had to enter the name of the town to which the displayed city arms belong. The catch: Not only were color copying machines hard to come by and color facsimiles outrageously expensive back then, but the sheet was simply too big to be copied (larger than DIN A3). And no, you could not simply look the town or the arms up online because "online" pretty much didn't exist yet.
  • A curious bit of copy protection was in Infocom's only romance game: Plundered Hearts. The feelies in the game consist of facsimiles of the heroine's starting equipment, one of which is a banknote. The note shows the game's villain posing dramatically... but would you believe he's showing the solution to a puzzle? Grab his hat, try to grab the book he's carrying and press on the same part of the globe where he is and presto! Secret door!
  • The original Prince of Persia had manual-based copy protection which set several apparent vials of poison over which hovered several different letters; a variant of the "Page/Line/Word" index. Drinking the wrong one three times in a row would result in death; drinking the right one caused the door to the next level to open. The second game had you select a symbol from a certain page of the manual between levels.
  • Professor Layton and Pandora's Box (or the Diabolical Box in some countries) came with a train ticket needed to find the location of where the last half of the game takes place. It required a code to be deciphered and the answer had to be inputted into the game. The ticket was also shown in the game when it got to that puzzle. The puzzle required folding it, so it was a bit of a pain to envision how it folded from just the picture and without the physical ticket, but by no means impossible.
  • The original Railroad Tycoon had you identify a railway engine (seen in the manual) at the start of the game. If you chose the wrong name, the game would confiscate all but two of your trains and make you unable to run more normally (though - perhaps due to a bug - clicking at the bottom of the train list actually allows you to view the lost train and buy it back by replacing its engine).
    • Of course, railfans barely needed the handbook because they already knew at least some of the locomotives, and after playing the game for a while, they got to know the few they didn't. Those who happened to be in possession of Brian Hollingsworth and Arthur Cook's Great Book of Trains had a good chance of knowing all locomotives in the game because they were all picked from this book, livery and all.
  • The 1988 Microprose game Red Storm Rising would give you the profile view of a ship and ask you to identify it; all the requisite information was in the manual. Of course, if you're as big enough of a naval geek... guns in back, smokestack, missile pack, Krivak. Or you could just use Wikipedia nowadays.
  • SimCity came with a four-page code sheet with codes to enter after starting or loading a city. If you didn't enter the correct code, the town would be destroyed by permanent disasters. The sheet was dark red paper with a darker red print; back in those days, it was near-impossible to duplicate it because drawing all the codes by hand was tedious as they were so many (although it didn't stop some people from trying anyway), and the old black-and-white facsimile machines failed at copying dark-red-on-dark-red. Mind you this was before easy access to scanners and color printers.
  • SimEarth took the manual bit a step further: it contained an almanac of planetary facts that was larger than many game boxes, and the player had to look a different one of these up when starting the game.Example  The number had to be entered exactly as listed, too, making it harder to look up from other sources. (Not to mention that some of these figures have changed since the game was published.)
  • The Spellcasting Series used various methods of feelies throughout the trilogy, including inputting information from included registration forms, or maps that were required for navigation in certain areas. The most inspired method was in 201, which included a set of sheet music you needed to play the moodhorn properly.
  • An early-90's Spider-Man computer game asked the player several trivia questions before starting. The answers were supposed to be looked up in the manual, but they were also available in any of the Spidey comics of the time.
  • The original Star Control required players to answer questions with the help of a copy of Professor Zorg's Guide to Alien Etiquette. The answers were located on a code wheel which shipped with the game. This code wheel required the alignment of three alien words, some of which became actual alien races in the sequel. Subsequent software releases have disabled this copy protection, but only if played with the CD in the drive.
    • Star Control II had the Starmap Trivia Quiz. The answers were located on a physical star map included with the game.
  • The Starflight series:
    • The original Starflight had a code wheel.
    • Starflight II asked you to look up a code on a code wheel every time you left the starbase. If you entered it wrong you could still play the game, but a few hours in, your starship would be pulled over by the Space Police. The accused you of software theft and gave you one more chance to enter the right code; failing caused them to blow up your ship. The game also had a fold out star map and a viewer to isolate 3 inch sections of the map. The game would then ask you the number of certain colored stars in the 3 in section once you placed the viewer at certain coordinates.
  • Star Trek 5 included a Klingon dictionary in its manual, which had to be used to advance past certain points.
  • StarTropics included several feelies in the box, one of which happened to be important. About halfway through the game, you are asked a question about a letter which is actually a physical prop included in the box with the game. You are asked to dip it in water in order to find a code to use in the game itself. Nonetheless, it is only a three-digit decimal code; the most bored of NES players could eventually brute-force it even if they didn't know how to look it up.
  • The Ultima games were particularly prone to this, forcing players to look up the Feelies for information from "Beyond the Portal" before being granted the right to save, leave the starting town, and so on.
  • Introversion Software's Uplink featured a code table printed in glossy black ink on black card, which could generally only be read where the light reflected off the ink. However, this was also turned on its head when the developers later admitted it was designed to be a nostalgic nod to old-school games, and it was admittedly useless as copy protection (seeing as the game was massively profitable anyway). They later posted a PDF containing the entire table on their site, saying it was not intended as a means of copy protection.
    • In a bit of a twist, the "copy protection" was designed to protect something else: on the game CD, there is a zip file that is ominously labeled and password protected. The readme provides a cryptic hint as to the password. As it turns out, entering the codes on the copy protection sheet as hexadecimal and then converting to normal provides the password to the zip file (TOOMANYSECRETS), which is the dev diary for the game.
  • In Vette, you are a given a question whose answer is in the manual. If you incorrectly answer three times, the game allows you to play, but with severely crippled gameplay (e.g. you can't go above 80 mph), and after a certain time, it ends with the message "You are driving a stolen Vette".
  • Wizardry II had a small booklet of "spells" composed of four-letter nonsense words. The player at times had to consult this booklet and enter the third word of a spell. Unfortunately, the booklet was black text on dark red paper, making it difficult even for those with proper eyesight to read.
  • Worms came with a code sheet printed in glossy black ink on matte black paper.
  • The otherwise freeware Oxyd has "magic tokens" start showing up at Level 11, for which you need to purchase a code book.
  • Done particularly elegantly by Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. Whenever it's time to go to warp, you're told quite clearly what system you need to go to. However, your navigational map is unlabeled. The manual has a copy of the map, with the labels added this time.
    • Amusingly, warping to the wrong system gets you attacked by Romulans, Klingons, or pirates — but it's a fair fight. Players who want to ignore the plot and just keep on having starship battles have been known to intentionally warp wrong.

    Hardware Methods 
Dongles and keys
  • DJMAX Trilogy came with a USB dongle that must be plugged into your computer to run the game. It also contains your profile, which has your usernames, unlocks, etc., so a fortunate side effect is that you can carry your unlocks across multiple machines. On the downside, lose the dongle (or accidentally damage it) and you're screwed.
  • The Parallel port/USB "key". Enterprise class specialist software tend to be the most common type of software to use this, although many arcade cabinets as well as certain home release of games do use it as well. The dongle typically holds the license, ensuring that the software only works on the computers which the key is attached.
    • The most well-known key to date is the Parallel port key that ships with most earlier versions of AutoCAD.
    • KeySIGN, a traffic-management software that creates road signs, has a dongle attached to ensure the licence is installed on a particular machine. (AFAIK, this is based on info from the link).
    • If you've worked in the IT department of a large manufacturing enterprise, chances are you'd have dealt with a type of key known as the HASP. Many specialist applications ranging from chemical work to asset management uses one of these for DRM.
    • Some arcade games also required "Licensing modules", which are a separate ROM board that holds only the decryption key of the game. Many newer games, since they're run on machines based on PC hardware, requires a USB dongle to run. And of course the USB dongle could hold an expiry date instead of the game, adding to the planned obsolescence method mentioned below.
  • Pro Tools, an audio-editing suite currently used by the majority of the music industry, has gone back to the "piece of hardware" method. You can pirate the software all you like... But unless you have an "MBox" plugged into your computer, the program will start to load, put up an error window that says something on the order of "ha ha ha", and close again. Used versions of the MBox 1 go for something like $200 on the secondary market; MBox 3s are worse. Oh, and, let's not even start on the "iLok" dongle.
    • Starting with Pro Tools 9, Digidesign/Avid allowed the usage of third-party audio interfaces (even one's own sound card, perhaps), so copy protection was shifted to the iLok. They'll still recommend their own equipment, of course...
  • Likewise, certain CD, DVD and Blu-Ray burners ship with special, customized versions of Nero Burning ROM that is locked to hardware. If the drive was swapped out for whatever reason, then the software will cease working. And yes, this means even if the new drive also comes with Nero Burning ROM, you're still put through the effort of uninstalling the old bundled version and installing the new bundled (and possibly an older version) one.
  • Steel Beasts Pro PE had protection in the form of a USB key. This key must be plugged in while running the simulation! (And it's not the only example...)
  • The Biggest Boon-Dongle in the World: adding a dongle for software that already requires a huge expensive piece of hardware to begin with.

Proprietary media and other media-based protections
  • Cactus Data Shield uses slight quirks on the disk designed to disrupt some speakers or cause read errors. The result was that it hung on some CD players, or caused other players to repeatedly play a given track.
  • The Commodore 64 had a truly nefarious form of protection instigated by several publishers. It involved placing a deliberate error on a game disk, which, being that it was an error, could not be reproduced by the copy software. However, this also caused the head of the system's disk drive to knock repeatedly against a stopper every time it tried to load the program. Over time, this would cause the head to become misaligned and be unable to read anything anymore until the drive was repaired. That's right, a copy protection scheme that caused legitimate customers (and legitimate customers only, as this required pirates to hack the software and eliminate the need to read the error — hardly unlike today's cracks that remove pesky DRM) to experience actual hardware failure. Yikes.
  • The Sega Dreamcast could use a proprietary disc format called GD-ROM, which was essentially a dual-layer (1.3 GB) version of the CD-ROM format (multiple-layer discs would not become common until DVD); the system could load games off CDs, too, though, and many games could be fit on a standard CD or the game itself compressed to fit. Dreamcast piracy involved first ripping the GD-ROM using special hardware (often the Dreamcast itself via hardware plugged into the modem slot), then some tricky work involving a boot track and multiple burn sessions for the CD-R. Once created, though, that CD-R could be easily copied and used on any Dreamcast.
    • It wasn't meant to be able to load games off of CDs, they just screwed up royally while implementing the code for "multimedia enhanced CDs" in their music CD player firmware. The result: a no-mod-required method of playing copied discs.
    • Adding to the inanity, the copy protection that was pressed into the official CDs was on the outer edge of the discs. As in, the most heavily touched and, as a result, the most easily damaged part of any optical disc format. So even if you have a legitimate copy, if you play it a lot, you could damage it through no fault of your own and not be able to play it.
  • Sony has used this on several occassions with their gaming systems:
    • The first PlayStation read a tracking pattern pressed onto the lead-in of official CDs, which cannot be reproduced normally. The PlayStation 2 uses a similar system. They will both refuse to read any disc that doesn't have a valid pattern. This made it impossible to burn a disc that would pass the protection. However, there were points exposed where people could solder a chip in to override the attempt to read the signature and replace it with a valid one. People could press pirated discs once they figured out how the protection really worked, though, yielding the boot disc. Worse yet, it turned out that by using a single valid Playstation game and some quick swapping of the burned disc any reasonably dexterous person could play burned discs on a completely unmodded console. It takes some practice, but it's not that difficult. The final evolution of this "swap trick" was the production of kits containing stickers to hold down the "lid open" sensors (so the console would not try to perform the security test again when the lid was opened to swap the discs), and boot discs that would pass the copy protection check, then stop the disc from spinning and wait patiently until the start button was pressed (so the user could swap in another disc at their leisure). Sony also tried to combat piracy for the PS1 by making the discs' undersides black, causing them to be transparent only to the infrared laser used in CD drives, and more difficult to copy correctly since at the time of the console's release, consumers could not buy CD-Rs like this. Unfortunately for Sony, pretty soon blank discs with black undersides became available, and this part of their copy-protection scheme failed.
    • For the Playstation Portable, Sony used a proprietary media called the UMD for storing games and movies, reasoning that people won't be able to just pop the disc into a PC and copy it, among other forms of protection present on the game. Unfortunately for them, pirates tackled the PSP like they did with the Dreamcast- by writing exploits that attacked the firmware and using homebrew software that copied the disc onto a Memory Stick instead of tackling the issue of the physical media, taking advantage of the fact that the PSP could also run games from the Memory Stick. This laid out the precedent of a long war between Sony, homebrewers and pirates.
    • Before the PS3s dropped backward compatibility altogether, this bit Sony on the ass - they had a hell of a time trying to read PS2 discs, to the point where most of the last-gen library was bugged out or failed entirely while playing on a PS3.
  • The CD-ROM itself. When it was introduced in the early-nineties, it was considered by the game industriy to be the be-all-end-all copy protection for one simple reason: It was nigh-impossible to copy. That is, the CD itself was impossible to copy. Furthermore, the installers on the CDs were either written without any "swap the floppy" mechanism (legitimately as they didn't run off of floppies in the first place), files were made larger than 1.44MB so that they couldn't fit onto floppies, and if that wasn't sufficient, and in case someone would use the old MS Backup trick, the game installer took up so much space on the CD that it would have taken dozens of floppies to copy it and ginormous hard drives to transfer it to — CD-ROMs have a higher capacity than most hard drives available (let alone affordable) back then. In those days, games were simply blown out of proportion for copy protection, and no actual copy protection was deemed necessary because whatever hardware would have been able to duplicate a CD-ROM was too expensive to use it for game piracy.
    • Needless to say that the game industry was caught off-guard when the CD-R was introduced because pirating games had never been easier. It's fair to mention that early CD-Rs were expensive and the drives costs well over a thousand dollars when they were introduced, but the media itself were still much cheaper than games- meaning that to some, the ability to copy countless games borrowed from friends or the local library/rental place justifies the drive's exorbitant price tag. Also, the prices of both the media and drives dropped over just a few years.
  • Robopon had an unintentional example. Since emulators can't emulate the TV remote interface and IR signals, opening all of the game's treasure chests and saving Princess Darcy become impossible.
  • This was cited as the main reason Nintendo chose to stick with cartridges until long after their rivals have switched to CDs. However, showing that pirates are not easily deterred, a company called Bong Enterprises came up with cart copiers and flash carts. And thus began the war between Nintendo and companies that support piracy, to the point where Nintendo actually tried to get injunctions to ban the devices in the US and took legal action against Bong Enterprises in several countries, only to have it blow up in the face when dozens of companies making similar devices sprung up in Bong's place upon Bong's defeat.

    Software Methods 
  • Sony fought a long-standing war against the Homebrew scene in the name of copy protection on the PSP. The Homebrew scene found an exploit to allow un-official software, Sony released yet another patch (that they made mandatory in order to play the newest games) to fix it, and the cycle continued for several years. One particular patch that was designed solely to fix an exploit required a user to load a specific game in order to "unlock" their PSP, succeeded in introducing an exploit that allowed users to unlock their PSPs without any game whatsoever.
  • The Xbox 360 has a removable hard drive and a variety of memory cards available, meaning there is a potential problem of people copying (paid) downloaded games and giving them for free to their friends. To remedy this, Microsoft decided that to play something you purchased, you must be signed in online with the purchasing account, or be playing the content on the machine that downloaded it in the first place. The problem with the second option is that Xbox hardware failures are notoriously common, meaning the only way to play your downloaded games from any other console is to be signed online. If you ever lose internet access after owning a replacement console, you were completely screwed out of everything you bought online, although (several years down the line...) they made a website to transfer the licenses to your new console without having to be signed into your gamertag online.
    • On the subject of the 360, the chief form of copy protection besides watermarking the disc code is the verification process afforded to Microsoft by Xbox Live's client/server model. Detection of circumvention perma-bans the offender from playing online on that console. This doesn't stop people from staying off Live and just skipping the standard disc check by modding.
  • Some games on the original PlayStation, such as The Legend of Dragoon and Vandal Hearts 2, would detect if you had a mod-chip (which lets you play imported or copied games) in your system, and then the game would not play and a message to call a place to report the problem would come up on screen. What it boiled down to was that people who had mod chips and could pirate the games but didn't could not play the games they bought legitimately. It was probably an attempt to get people to abandon their mod chip consoles - guess what they abandoned instead?
  • The 3.56 firmware update to the PS3 attempted to fix an embarrassingly large security hole discovered not 2 months before the patch's release. How did it fare? Well, on the first release of the patch, it only succeeded in curbing (briefly) Call of Duty Modern Warfare hacks. It got cracked in under 24 hours, and that's NOT the worst news. It would not work on Slim PS3s that had an upgraded hard drive, something that you are legally allowed to do. The second release of the patch only fixed the hard drive issue.
  • The PC version of Batman: Arkham Asylum had one of these in the form of a deliberate glitch which disabled Batman's cape glide ability, rendering the game Unwinnable. A famous incident involved a user on Rocksteady's official message board complaining that he couldn't use the (pirated) game because of the aforementioned "game bug", to which the developers responded:
    "It's not a bug in the game's code, it's a bug in your moral code."
  • Beginning in late 2012, games by Konami with eAMUSEMENT compativility, such as Quiz Magical Academy and the BEMANI franchise, require that the game be connected to Konami's eAMUSEMENT network or else the game will refuse to start, in order to allow only authorized arcades to play the game. This is part of Konami's eAMUSEMENT Participaton program, in which arcades register with Konami and then rent out their machines rather than outright purchasing them; Konami then takes 30% of each player's credit. Since the games are released only in Eastern Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, this poses a problem to foreign players who want to play. Some overseas fans made a workaround in the form of private servers, but those were soon C&D'd.
    • Also, it was found that Konami actually made versions of games that didn't need a connection to the eAMUSEMENT network that were meant to be sold only in Mainland China, probably because the country's Great Firewall is blocking access to Konami's eAM servers, and to fight off the ripoffs like Magic Cube and eMagic. Needless to say, grey market sales sprung up around these machines instead, never mind that this version is usually censored to meet the Chinese government's tastes. Also, the same idiocy caused ripoffs to come out of virtually unknown companies in China and Taiwan, which are snapped up by arcades who're hoping that their patrons aren't the wiser.
  • The launch of BioShock was screwed up, plain and simple, when the single-player offline game shipped with SecuROM copy protection that allowed installation twice, ever, before the customer had to contact support. In its wake came crashing authentication servers, the customer support of the publisher and of its parent company each referring people to the other, said support demanding photos of the CD and the manual, people in smaller countries being asked to phone the same support (i.e. to make international calls in a foreign language), PR representatives assuaging the public by falsely stating that properly uninstalling the game would give the right to another installation, finding out that installing on another account or making what SecuROM deems to be a significant hardware change counts, the protection disrupting other programs if they looked like the sort that might be used for cracking and the demo coming with SecuROM - without activation - when it acknowledgedly has no reason to do so. It would've been nice to tell about the limit beforehand, too. All of this extra security didn't stop a pirated version of the game appearing three weeks after the game was released.
  • Blizzard Entertainment requires players to sign in to Battle.net before they can play their games where some newer titles are concerned. On the plus side, it also allows you to have multiple installations of the game across many computers and even go cross-platform. On the minus side, well, have fun searching for a wireless hotspot while on vacation somewhere where getting an internet connection is very difficult even if all you wanted to do is to play the single-player campaigns!
    • In the latest turn of events, Blizzard has decided to play Follow the Leader with Valve and EA, and released a Battle.Net desktop client- with integrated shop, game downloader and launcher. The client only supports six games (including the upcoming Overwatch), but its a start.
    • Blizzard eventually admitted that Diablo III's "always online" requirement was partially due to copy protection. While the game sold well, the game got a huge amount of negative publicity. Many people could not play the game when it came out due to server overload, leading to the infamous "error 37" Memetic Mutation. It's been announced that the game's console ports will have some kind of offline play.
  • Bonetown, an H-Game by western gamers, was noted for being "Uncrackable" despite using only Secu ROM. The big problem? The Secu ROM was rather archaic and was quietly removed once the retail Version was released (aka the physical copy) rather than the Direct Download version.
  • A famous example from Captain Comic. If you're playing a copied version of the second game, at one point (quite some time into the game) when you try teleporting to the next level you instead end up in an unescapable room where a native chides you with the following: "Captain, I'm afraid you have made a terrible mistake. You failed to obtain a certain object you should have had from the start of your adventure. Since this object is not very expensive, you should go and obtain it before you venture any further."
  • The Starforce copy protection on Cold Fear was so bad that it locked up a large percentage of legitimate copies, and Ubisoft had to distribute a scene no-cd crack for paying customers to be able to play the game. They released their own no-cd patch later, but it was essentially the same as the scene patch.
  • Commander Keen 6: Aliens Ate My Babysitter required you to identify a random enemy by name before you could play it. The enemies were never identified in-game, requiring you to have an instruction manual on-hand.
  • The Japanese Dating Sim Cross Days. Shortly after its release, fake pirated copies began circulating on the Internet. Playing one of these copies would prompt an online questionnaire, and if the player filled it out, it would be posted online, publicly exposing them as a pervert. The funny thing about this one is that in the Terms of Service for the fake pirated copies, it specifically states that it is not a real copy of the game. Basically, it tells you that you're playing a fake. But since no one ever reads the Terms of Service...
  • Darkstar One featured an extra protection. In improperly cracked versions, the star map would "shiver" making it hard as hell to read or select anything. The price of items and upgrades would also be multiplied by 100. And reduce the sale price of everthing to 0, making it impossible to make money, and get the player stuck in the first system.
  • Demoniak (which was reissued as a double with Dark Seed II) had a spot early in the game when you were required to enter a specific word on a specific line on a specific page in the manual. While a copy of the manual's text was included on the disk, it was a .textfile transcript which lost all of the line format and pagination of the original manual. Trial and error was useless since the word changed everytime the game was re-started. This, in effect, made the game unplayable without either having or knowing someone with the original Demoniak release (unlikely if you weren't in the U.K) or some sort of hack.
    • The original release was almost as bad, as the copy protection check was programmed based on an initial pre-layout draft of the manual. Don't know if a header counts as a line? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Asked for the first word on a line that doesn't exist? It's the last word of the previous line from before the text was reflowed. Ugh.
  • Deus Ex had unintentional copy protection caused by a scene transition triggered by a certain audio clip. Pirated versions would often leave out much of the audio to save space, making the scene transition never take place, and making it impossible to continue the game. Additionally, there was also a batch of defective disks with corrupted audio files. Thanks, Ion Storm!
  • The Doctor Who adventure games are free via the BBC website to UK residents. Everybody else is required to pay. In order to prevent unauthorized users, they use two forms of "protection". First, the BBC website will check whether your IP is local before allowing you to download the game - and even if you manage to get around this via a proxy (or have someone else send you the game), it will "phone home" when you attempt to install it to check it again.
  • The German game Drakensang (Das Schwarze Auge/ Black Eye) had at least three instances of copy protection and you were punished for then buying the original because you had to start anew, as the problems were saved in the savegames. First, you had to go to a NPC that doesn't spawn. This can be corrected by using an SQL editor. Then there is a vital door, that's just not clickable. And last but not least, there is supposed to be a door that usually leads to another vital part of the game, but in the case of a pirated version, it led into a cell with no exit.
  • The ef - a fairy tale of the two. duology from Minori is one of the few visual novels with any sort of copy protection. The game uses a serial key encryption, but also begins extracting files to the user's computer while encrypting them at the same time. The copy protection was supposed to prevent people outside of Japan from being able to play either of the games. In addition to the above encryption and the fact that the computer clock must be set to Japanese Standard Time, a Japanese version of Windows XP or above was required to even get the game to run at all. When Fan Translation group No Name Losers was working on an English localization of both games, they decided to do a combined stand-alone release that was run using a modified version of the demo's exe.
  • In the Macintosh game Enchanted Scepters, if you're playing a pirated copy, the game will randomly teleport you to the Arena, where you have to fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and will probably die. It also displays the message "The pirates laugh 'Har, har, har!'"
  • Bethesda were forced to include CD keys with copies of Fallout 3. However, the copy protection only denies you from running the Fallout Launcher; you can still launch the game from the game's directory.
    • Fallout 3 also uses Games For Windows Live as a secondary copy protection method (the key is checked against GFWL to ensure that it is being used with the account that is registered with the key). Games For Windows Live recently ceased operation. Guess what's going to happen next. Also, it has been found that installing GFWL on Windows 10 has very severe consequences, read: it wrecks the computer's networking stack and as a result the computer can no longer connect to the internet unless the user pulls off a system restore.
  • If you played a copy of the No Export for You Final Fantasy VI on a UK machine via an adapter, it would work fine, but wouldn't show the ending. It's not known if this was deliberate or not. The only way around it back then was to get a US/Japanese console, or have your UK machine chipped to run at 60Hz instead of 50Hz.
  • Starship sim sequel Frontier: Elite II had an interesting version of this. Periodically, the player would be challenged by the in-game Space Police, and asked to find (for example) the fifth letter in the third word in line 17 on page 158 of his spaceship's manual. Three wrong responses in a row and you're arrested by Chief Inspector Braben, who would give you a lecture on how stolen starships are a major disincentive for starship manufacturers to make new starships; your ship is confiscated, you're sent to prison and "with luck, you'll get a job cleaning the toilets when you get out".
  • Galactic Civilizations 2 by Stardock Systems featured "No CD copy protection"; once you installed the game, you never had to verify it again. They felt that ease of use was worth the increased risk. The trick is that Stardock provides lots of free patches and content updates; If they find out your copy is being pirated, you don't get those anymore. StarForce, mentioned above, was so impressed by this system that they posted a link to a webpage where one could download pirated versions of Galactic Civilizations 2. The backlash from gamers was so intense that they quickly removed the link.
  • The developers of Game Dev Tycoon purposely released a cracked version of their game via torrent in addition to a "legal" paid version. Both versions of the game were the same, except the cracked version has virtual pirates ruin the player's company financially after playing for a while. Cue those players asking how to prevent their company from going under and the developer noting the irony. You can read more about their findings here.
    • Bonus irony: Game Dev Tycoon isn't even that original itself. It heavily borrows from the earlier iOS game Game Dev Story.
  • In the PC version of Ghostbusters: The Video Game, the developers chose an interesting method of copy-protection, by making the Candleabra Crawler monsters, destroyable ghosts in the very first level, invincible. Since the Crawlers come at the player in swarms and will follow you relentlessly. If the player does defeat the Death Crawlers - which you have to be pretty pro to do and practically playing on Easy - the very last level glitches so that Ray stands there slimegunning a wall and refuses to follow you, rendering you unable to continue. That's right. It lets you play the whole game, except the ending. The game is Unwinnable if you have a pirate copy or a false-positive legit copy.
  • The Interactive Fiction game Guess the Verb parodies Copy Protection. During the "SCRUTINIZE" scenario, the player has to find the exact button out of thousands for a coffeemaker that will make the coffee required to calm the nerves of a mad scientist. When the coffeemaker is examined, the game sarcastically mentions how the correct button is located on an included feelie, and any player who bought the game can go through with ease while people who downloaded it illegally off the Internet will die to the mad scientist's scheme. However, this is pure parody: this is a Freeware game and no such feelie really exists. The warning phrase is a Red Herring and the puzzle is solvable regularly.
  • Most games with multiplayer, or at least some form of online component that use serial keys, like for instance Halo, Need for Speed games back in the mid to late 2000s, and The Sims 3, scan for the game's CD/DVD key whenever the player tries to access the game's online mode. The game would run in single player as with legitimate copies, but would not allow the player to connect at all if the serial was found to be illegally generated.
    • It is however possible to connect to a server that bypasses the serial requirement, but such servers are quite rare, so good luck with trying to find a suitable Unreal Tournament server that works on your pirated copy.
  • The first Happiness! Visual Novel (not the sequel Happiness! Re:Lucks) used a variant of StarForce that required entering an encryption key. It was the only Visual Novel to use StarForce to date.
  • The Journeyman Project, at three points in the game, asks you to enter a code from the "Temporal Protectorate Handbook" (aka manual). Unfortunately, if you got the game bundled with a new computer, it most likely didn't come with the manual, and unless you were clever and looked up the codes on the Internet, you would have to brute-force the code to continue. Fortunately, if you remember what type of code it is (a numeric sequence), it's actually pretty easy to brute-force, since the game automatically stops you the moment you input an incorrect character, meaning you only have to go through around 90 sequences (tops) before getting at the correct code, as opposed to over a million.
    • On pack-in editions of the game, the necessary codes are actually printed on the disc's artwork. Of course, they're printed just as small as the boilerplate copyright notice, with no indicator of their importance, and you're going to have to copy them down before you begin playing, unless you have a glass-topped external CD-ROM drive and can either read a spinning disc or have enough patience to wait for the drive to spin down to save power...
    • Fortunately, the remake Pegasus Prime removed the Copy Protection entirely.
  • The Amiga game The Killing Game Show. This game was broken and copied early in its life, but the original protected disk would alter the system timing during bootup. The broken copy did not alter the timing, resulting in a game that became Unwinnable without removing the "timer". (It is not known if any cracked version ever fixed this.)
  • One of Cyan's earliest games, Spelunx, had a hidden section of the game where you can reshape the Spelunx caves in any way you like. But it requires a three-letter code consulted from a "paper key". And no, the pictures corresponding to the letters do not start with the letters you need. But lately, the game is pretty much abandonware, and this key is a just a text file that comes with it.
  • La Abadía del Crimen, a 1987 adventure game by Spanish publisher Opera Soft, based on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, required the player to assist the daily matins. In the original game, a recorded version of Ave María would play during these sequences. However, if the game detected a pirate copy was running, the song would be replaced by an echoing, growling voice saying "Pirata, Pirata, Pirata..." and locking up the computer.
  • Lemmings 2 had a sly example; when installed off non-original floppies, all would seem to proceed okay, but you wouldn't be able to advance past the first level for any of the tribes.
  • Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth contained a rather unique form of anti-piracy. About ten minutes in, if the game decided your copy was pirated, your entire army would self destruct, resulting in a game over. Caused some problems because bugs resulted in the game doing this to even legal copies sometimes.
  • Love Plus+ made it impossible to get past the first part of the game IN ADDITION to making it impossible to gain hearts in the main part of the game, effectively making the game unplayable on flashcarts. Apparently, if you're too cheap to pay for your virtual girlfriends, they will dump you.
  • The first Mafia, used the FADE system : The farther you got in an illegal copy of the game, the more choppy it ran, forcing the player to continually lower the graphics quality. It didn't stop some people from beating the game, though.
  • On pirated copies of Michael Jackson: The Experience for the Nintendo DS (which is basically an Elite Beat Agents clone, by the way), the notes don't appear, and it plays vuvuzelas over the music.
  • Microsoft Reader's activation scheme lets you read the same book on five machines. The problem is that it doesn't realize when you have reformatted the drive or gotten rid of the machine. When you run out your activations, you're screwed. Luckily, the encryption is easy to break.
  • Might and Magic fans had a bit of a fun time, too, with Might and Magic Heroes VI. Ubisoft's copy protection came in the form of the Dynasty system, which rewarded players with leveling items and buffs as they progressed through the game. The kicker: Dynasty progress is stored in the online "Conflux". There's an offline mode, but games saved to the Conflux obviously can't be loaded offline. Players with a steady internet connection naturally figured they might as well take advantage of the Dynasty bonuses... and were treated to a series of Conflux outages during prime play-times (including a few weekends and the week after Christmas) for a while after the game's release.
  • Mortal Kombat: Armageddon had copy protection which caused the game to boot up and then go into Cabela's Big Game Hunter.
  • Myst III: Exile's copy protection system (SafeDisc) required the player to insert Disc One at least once per run (either when starting a new game, or loading an old one), then pressed an error right into the disc that made that disc uncopyable. Unfortunately, all the forcing of the drive to read a bad sector can't be good for the lens...
  • Some smartphone games on Android, such as Love Live School Idol Festival and those by Naver (i.e. LINE Bubble and LINE POP) will refuse to run if you are playing on an Android device that is rooted. Fridge Logic kicks in when you consider that isn't actually necessary to root the device in order to play a pirated Android game, and pirated software will continue to run on the device after you un-root it, making this form of copy protection rather ineffective. To twist the knife in for the copy protection further, workarounds such as RootCloak will easily allow the user to simply trick the software into mistaking the device as unrooted. In the case of iOS devices, however, a jailbroken device would be needed for an unauthorised copy to be installed.
    • Subverted with Pokémon Shuffle Mobile: you are very much able to play the game if your device is rooted—you just can't access the game's ranked events.
  • On the topic of Android, many Kairosoft games require an internet connection to check it's legitimacy with Google Play and/or Amazon App Store if it was terminated and was last launched over 24 hours ago. Many of the game doesn't require an internet connection otherwise. However, as long as you do not terminate the game (or as long as it has not been 24 hours yet when you terminated it), it will still continue to run.
  • The Dreamcast game Ooga Booga had an interesting copy protection mechanism: If it detected that you were playing a burned copy, instead of starting the game it would show an in-game pirate character that would dance when you pressed any button on the controller. The group who released the pirated ISO left this in, but made it continue to the actual game when the player pressed Start.
  • Operation Flashpoint was notable for being the first game to use the FADE copyright system, which slowly degraded the quality of gameplay (for example, decreasing the accuracy of the player's weapons) if piracy was detected. The same applied to ARMA : Armed Assault, its spiritual successor. The best copy protection for ARMA was of course the fact that it didn't run under Vista.
  • The Oregon Trail II activates by loading the oregon.dat file from the CD drive, but this can be easily circumvented by copying the file to the hard drive and instructing the INI to load it from there.
    • In some cases, editing the registry and copying certain files besides the main assets was required to bypass the CD requirement.
    • This is actually true for most if not all Edutainment Games. Their reasoning being the customer base (mostly schools and libraries, as well as parents, who're buying the game for students) needs a way to make a backup of the game, seeing that the media will be mostly handled by kids. Additionally, few pirates would consider edutainment titles for release.
      • There have been piracy groups releasing children's titles (i.e. the International Network of Crackers who at one point released kids games back in 1993), and there are sometimes even groups dedicated to the genre, but the reason for the scheme appears to have more to do with saving on installation footprint than on actual copy protection. While it's possible to stuff in all the data on a hard drive and run it from there (as with games for older audiences, who would typically invest in a more capable rig), back in the 1990s disk space, especially on low-end systems, is at a premium, and the only way to have a diverse multimedia experience was to store assets on a CD, install a small client on the hard drive, and stream said assets from the disc.
      • Also, let's not forget that CD writers (and the required software to run them) were ungodly expensive back in the days. Very few households then had a CD writer, and the common writable medium was the floppy disk.
      • Also, the possible reason for children's games to be somewhat less attractive to piracy was the lack of a "fun factor" for releasing them. Pirates tend to be more than willing to take on a game with stronger copy protection like SecuROM or GameShield, than to just release something that lacks one.
  • Pirates! Gold would ask the player to identify a famous pirate you encountered by his flag. Answer wrong and your ship loses all cannons. It was still possible to win the ensuing battle if you had enough crew to board the enemy ship, though. Also, since the copy-protection scheme only kicked in sometimes and other times the game would tell you the name rather than ask for it, with patience it was possible to reconstruct the list from scratch.
  • Pop Cap games for the PC have two different methods, according to how you purchased the game:
    • Downloaded versions will only work on the particular PC on which they were purchased. This is done by locking the PC's network card's unchangeable hardware address (aka the MAC address). The downside of this is, if your network card (or motherboard) gets fried by lightning, you're SOL. Thankfully, Pop Cap gives you 5 activations, meaning you lose the game only if you changed your network card for the 6th time. Buy a lightning protection box!
    • CD versions periodically ask the user to insert the original CD for verification — rather unfortunate if the game is installed on a netbook which doesn't have an internal CD drive, and the drive or CD or both are in storage somewhere.
  • The Sega Genesis game Puggsy allowed pirated copies to be played all the way through, but significantly deleveled the final boss (via SRAM copy protection) and ended with a message for players to stop wasting their time playing pirated games and go buy a copy of the real thing.
  • Robot Odyssey, an Electrical-Engineering-based adventure game by the Learning Company, utilized copy protection by checking the 5.25" disk for a "flaky bit". If the bit was not found, the player's ability to solder connections in the robots of the main game was disabled, rendering the game unwinnable. However, the copy protection was never disclosed in the manual and the flaky bit had a tendency to "settle" over time, meaning that many users found their legitimate games impossible to play past the third level.
  • Rogue: If you're playing a pirated copy, the monsters do six times more damage than normal, and when you die (as you almost certainly will before the third level), the tombstone says "Rest in Peace: Software Pirate, killed by Copy Protection Mafia". This can even happen on legal copies, possibly due to bit rot. Or if you copied the game from the 5.25-inch floppy disk to your hard drive. That floppy would succumb to bit rot fairly quickly.
  • Legitimate copies of Rogue Trooper used Starforce protection, which made the game absurdly prone to false positives, but the publishers/developers never bothered to fix the problem because not enough people bought the game for them to care anyway.
  • Croteam's Serious Sam 3. If someone attempts to play a pirated copy of the game, they will (almost immediately) run into an immortal Adult Arachnoid (normally a boss monster, a giant scorpion beast with machine guns for claws) scaled down to Sam's size and moving at lightning speed. While some players may be able to continue on in the game while avoiding the Scorpion, it's near-impossible for most people. See for yourself. There was also a second layer of DRM that caused Sam to constantly look straight up while spinning if the game was installed in the wrong directory.
    • The second copy protection may produce false positives for old-fashioned gamers who'd prefer that games be installed to C:\Games rather than C:\Program Files, however.
  • Sid Meier’s Pirates! (the original '80s version) allowed you to start the game even if you failed the manual-based question. However, winning the "intro duel" was extremely difficult. Still, even if you lost, you could still continue playing the game from a difficult starting point.
  • Si N encrypted the music files, to prevent them from being played outside of the game.
  • SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 forces you to pay 20$ to play online on pirated or second hand copies. And it didn't take long to crack it, which makes this PSP copy protection irritating as it was preceded a month before by...
  • The PC version of Sonic Adventure DX released in Europe had an absurd copy protection system which, each time you ran the game, required you to insert both of the two discs the game shipped on (you normally just have to insert the second disk), and then performed a full, intensive scan of every file on the disc. On systems that were new at the time this would take about a minute for the entire process, but if you were using a system which only just met the minimum requirements, it could take ten minutes.
  • On early pirated copies of Sonic CD, instead of booting up the game, it would instead show one of the creepy screens from the sound test.
  • Spyro: Year of the Dragon, if you are playing a cracked copy, has Zoe the Fairy appear at the latter part of Sunrise Spring telling you that your copy is hacked and may be an illegal copy, which will lead you to experience "problems" you would not experience on a legal copy. The game also featured a "save file erasure" element similar to EarthBound, although in a more subtle manner. Instead of taking you back to an empty "select your save file" screen, it just stops the boss battle against the Sorceress and then a travel-between-worlds Saving-Loading Screen appears, and after it, you return back to the Sunrise Spring Home with your hot air balloon, with the only difference being that your save file has been written with a new status - namely, a fat zero over everything you can collect. To sum it up, instead of erasing your save file, the game resets it back to the beginning.
  • The copy protection software known as "StarForce" was boycotted by some gamers due to making games it was implemented on virtually unplayable (and in some cases, making the system it was installed on unusable). Some of StarForce's nastier side-effects included reduced system security due to the way the copy-protection driver was implemented, causing CD-ROM drives to step down into a form of data access that caused undue wear and tear on the drive, and BSODs (and not of the heroic kind either). It should be noted, however, that many of these issues are unlikely to be experienced by average gamers. For example, some copy-protection software works by checking the serial number of the computer's hardware, so that changing the hardware can confuse the copy-protection system into thinking you have just copied it to a different computer. While gaming journalists routinely swap out their hardware so they can test games on different computer configurations, some gamers are unlikely to be changing hardware enough for this to be a problem. Of course, this doesn't make these problems any less serious — it just illustrates why companies can afford not to care.
  • Valve Software's Steam is its online download and updating system, used to distribute Valve's games, first-party mods and quite a few other titles they have contracted in. It's usually cited as "DRM done right" by those who believe such a thing is possible. However, at the time of its original release, late 2004, DRM was nowhere near as common as it is now, and many players, who purchased the retail boxed copy, were understandably annoyed that they would have to install a separate program that runs in the background in order to prove that they weren't thieves. In addition, initially they had to connect to the Internet every time they wished to play the single-player game. Valve eventually removed this, and by now retail sales of their games have been dwarfed by digital sales, meaning most of their players already have Steam anyway. The latest version also gives the player the option of allowing Steam to continue downloading a game in the background while another game is running in foreground, and even allow "game sharing", in which a user will have the option of sharing their game with other Steam users on the same PC. And work is in progress to allow for multiple instances running on multiple PCs, primarily to allow for game streaming from one PC to another or to a Steam Machine, but with the nice side effect of letting enthusiasts with multiple PCs update one PC while playing a game on another. It is worth noting, however, that Steam is one of a handful of DRM systems to deliberately prevent players from reselling or giving away their used games. Steam also avoids a common issue with copy protection software — the inability to install a single copy of a game on multiple computers. On a growing number of games, it even works cross-platform now. However, it still has one downside- you still need to remember to tell Steam to go into offline mode before you lose connection from the internet (although, if you do open Steam without an active internet connection, it gives you the option to load it in offline mode, but the option apparently doesn't work unless you have used "Go Offline" at least once within the last week when there was still an active internet connection). If you forgot to put Steam into Offline mode before going on vacation to somewhere without proper internet access, you'll end up searching desperately for a WiFi hotspot the next time you try to fire up the game on your laptop.
    • Valve also announced (but not contractually) that if they are in danger of going under, the last update sent out for the games on the Steam platform will include something so that they won't have to contact Steam servers in order to play the games. How this is going to work with TF2 and its unlockables is another story entirely.
  • Origin's Strike Commander came with instructions to copy the disks and put them in the cupboard in case something happened to your originals.
  • Parodied in Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: 8-Bit Is Enough. One puzzle involves Strong Bad opening the way to the world of the adventure game Peasant's Quest using a giant code wheel, to satisfy the voice of the "copy protector" who wants him to use the manual and special red cellophane glasses with said wheel in order to solve his "riddle" (a random trivia question). Strong Bad has neither, so he's forced to solve the problem in a slightly different fashion.
  • Both Supreme Commander and its expansion came with a disk-check function. The copy protection was required by the publisher, THQ, during the short period in between the European and North American launches. Neither the developers nor the community liked the mere presence of the DRM, and it was promptly patched out (in the first patch after the release of the expansion).
  • The diskette version of the original System Shock stored more data on disk number one than normal copying tools would allow it to hold; attempting a basic clone would fail. It was still quite easy to copy once you worked it out.
  • Titan Quest has "mysterious" crashes on bootleg copies due to properly working sneaky copy protection, which of course caused a lot of bad press and consequently dropped sales more surely than "pirates" could do on their own.
  • Touhou games always avert this, and most fangames follow suit. However, the fangame Touhou Unreal Mahjong requires a serial key for online multiplayer, which supposedly allows one user account per serial key as opposed to the usual one computer per serial key, so that the same key can be used as many times as you want as long as you still play on the same user account. The game is completely playable in single-player mode without a serial key.
  • X3: Reunion shipped with StarForce, along with a lot of bugs. The players and developers both hated it, and it was removed in a later patch (along with instructions on how to completely eradicate StarForce from one's system). The standalone expansion X3: Terran Conflict shipped with a different DRM package, Tages, but it was also ditched in a patch. Egosoft's position is they hate copy protection, but publishing contracts require them to use it.
  • The XCP copy protection software for music CDs involved making the data initially read by a PC (but, theoretically, not a CD player) intentionally corrupted, which would prevent a PC from copying or even playing the CD. Which would have been brilliant, if not for the fact that you could use a Sharpie marker to physically prevent a PC from reading the corrupted part, forcing it to start on a working part, allowing you to play your CD on the computer.
  • Trying to use a Save Data modifier Game Genie code for Super Metroid on an actual SNES would cause a Error screen to show up saying it is a serious crime to copy videogames.
  • The original Print Shop by Brřderbund for MS-DOS has a pretty silly one. If you perform a straight-on disk clone using the diskcopy command, the copy would flash a message saying that it is an unauthorized copy and refuse to proceed. However, the software comes with a backup program which can be used to make a perfect working copy of the software, and copies made using said backup program will also contain the backup program, which then could be used to copy the backup, which... you get the idea. It is also worth noting that the backup program can be used an unlimited amount of times.
    • It was later found out that one could just issue a copy *.* b: (assuming a dual-drive PC) and it would just work as well. Most likely Print Shop was writing something to a sector of the disk or a hidden file that should not be copied for cloning to work.
  • Microsoft's Office 2000 CD stores more information than a regular CD could hold (using a pressed "overburn") that any attempt to clone the CD using commercial CD-copying tools will result in a coaster. However it can be still worked around with a bit of know-how. Then DVD burners and blank DVDs appeared, completely defeating the protection. This is the reason Microsoft moved towards the "Activation" DRM with Windows XP and Office XP onwards...
  • Activation seems to be the latest craze. Any programs that do not use a hardware dongle will use this instead. The way this works is, after you install the software, the software will generate a checksum string from all existing devices in your PC and forward it along with the serial number to the developers' servers. You will be forced to let the software phone home, since until you activate the software will run in trial mode with several annoying features thrown in (ie it will become timebombed, and will lock you out of the software until it is activated). When you reinstall the software, you will be forced to reactivate. The system sends the new checksum to the servers, and the server will determine if too much has changed (i.e. if more than x amounts of part has changed, the user must be attempting to install the software on a new PC, a possible sign of piracy), and if it does determine that too much has changed, it will refuse to activate and force you to place a phone call to the developers, hoping they will allow you to clear system so you can reactivate. Unfortunately, for people who upgrade heavily at regular intervals, this becomes a major annoyance.
    • Microsoft started using Activation with Windows XP and Office XP. It was slightly altered in Windows 10 in that you do not need to provide a product key when reinstalling Windows on a previously activated system—Windows still phones home but it knows that the current hardware corresponds to an activated system, essentially providing a hardware dongle.
    • Adobe started using activation fully with the introduction of the CS versions of their software. Certain tools like Flash and DreamWeaver had it earlier.
    • Autodesk dropped the hardware dongle requirements for activation when they started naming their software by year instead of version numbers.
  • Pirated copies of Five Nights at Freddy's give the player the Jump Scare that occurs if Freddy Fazbear manages to get in your office every time they close the game. The game is otherwise fully playable though.
  • Playing an cracked copy of The Lion King that you found somewhere on some abandonware sites? Either your roar meter won't refill or the health and roar meter upgrade bugs won't do a thing.
  • A pirated version of Skullgirls is fully playable, but with the odd addition that finishing story mode would display a message box asking "What is the square root of a fish? Now I'm sad.". The intention was to confuse pirates into asking the developers what the message meant, which would expose them as pirates. It worked on at least one player.
  • Windows 10 blocks access to some older CD-ROM based games (2003-2008) using SafeDisk and SecuROM DRM, citing them as being outdated and full of security vulnerabilities. Users with games that use these will be forced to use a no-CD patch to continue playing, encouraging piracy. However, Microsoft states that there are already patches from developers for those games, and that sites like GOG contain versions of those games that work.
    • A recent update also blocks access for Windows Vista, 7 and 8. However here the driver is still present and can be reactivated.
  • People who attempted to crack Dragon's Lair: Escape From Singe's Castle on Amiga were greeted with this message:
    Once again, a small note to pirates and crackers: I thank you very much for delaying the release of DL1, but must once again ask you to please wait with Escape. We have tried to provide the Amiga community with the best possible game for your money (unlike many other companies), and hope that once again there will be enough sales into the future to support yet another game we are planning for the Amiga: TERMINATOR! Please consider delaying your release of Escape. As more and more quality companies leave the Amiga for the more profitable IBM, C64 and Nintendo markets, it is up to you, the users, to show which computer is truly Visionary. Randy "Irwin" Lindennote 

    Non-software variations 
  • In the early days of Silent Films, piracy ran rampant. Projectionists would often "lend" prints to pirates for duplication. The pirates would replace original title cards with their own title cards and claim copyright if they were caught. To combat this, studios painted stencils of the studio logo onto the scenery in every shot so they could verify that they were the legitimate copyright holders.
  • Brentalfloss uploaded an alternate version of his second album to pirating websites shortly before release. Every song on the alternate album called out the listener for stealing it. (You can purchase this alternate album from Brent's Bandcamp if you are interested of hearing it for yourself.)
  • Legend has it that paper map publishers came up with a unique solution to piracy after the introduction of commercial-grade xerographic copying:
    • On city maps, they added a fictional street with a fictional name to every four square inches of their maps.
    • Likewise, on state or national maps, they added a fictional town or land feature to every four square inches of their maps.
    • This is actually a fairly common practice among map publishers. Many map makers use trap streets to incriminate anyone who might copy their maps directly. These are single or non-existent streets with false names... which means any map that has that false street has copied their map.
      • When Gousha still made maps, the state map of Minnesota included a huge non-existent bay along the north shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Grand Marais. (It was obviously fake. Highway 61 ran over the 10-mile opening of the bay rather than skirting around its fictional shoreline.) No matter how many people complained, they never corrected the error.
    • Google did something similar, inserting specific answers to nonsense queries in their database. When the same nonsense got the same results on a Bing search, they called Microsoft out for the theft.
  • This video gives a cheesy rap song about why people shouldn't use floppies to copy games, followed up by several developers that explain how games are made and how they won't make certain games anymore if more people copy their products instead of buying them since they feel less sales = people did not like product. The boy trying to copy doesn't see why the whole thing is a big deal, saying "everyone is doing it" and "one copy won't hurt them." The girl convinces the boy to change his ways by the video's end. Of course, things have not changed since then.
  • Lampshaded in the Fictional Video Game Only You Can Save Mankind, in the novel of the same name by Terry Pratchett: "Someone in America or somewhere thought it was dead clever to make the game ask you little questions like "What's the first word on line 23 of page 19 of the manual" and then reset the machine if you didn't answer them right, so they'd obviously never heard of Wobbler's dad's office photocopier."
    • "Basically, there were two sides to the world. There was the entire computer games software industry engaged in a tremendous effort to stamp out piracy, and there was Wobbler. Currently, Wobbler was in front."
  • Fictional example: In User Unfriendly by Vivian Vande Velde, the protagonists are playing a pirated copy of Virtual Reality RPG Rasmussem. Unfortunately for them, discussing the game in front of an NPC initiates an infinite loop in the relevant AI which can only be terminated by a customer service representative.
  • Parodied in one trailer for the HD Remix of The Stanley Parable, where the Lemony Narrator claims that this version will start deleting stuff off your hard drive because there's a possibility that you downloaded the game illegally.
    • Users are claiming that Windows 10 can do that as well, stating that Microsoft can remotely remove pirated games off your hard drive. (Microsoft is very capable of doing that with pirated apps in its Store.) They just didn't read the license agreement correctly. Hosts of torrent sites, however, thought "better safe than sorry" and started banning users running Windows 10.
  • American GI cards during World War II were printed with an intentional grammatical error. It is said that some German spies were outed when their German-made GI cards had the error corrected.
  • The dreaded Macrovision protection on analog Pay TV signals and store-bought videocassettes. Some Pay TV providers have been known to erroneously apply the signal to channels that are supposed to be in the clear as well. Complaints have fallen onto deaf ears (or the blame being shifted to the contractors for the Pay TV company). And to make things worse, it's illegal to circumvent thanks to the DMCA. This has carried on to the digital age via HDCP.
  • Wolfenstein 3D makes threats to erase the user's hard drive if the user got his/her copy through illicit means in the exit message of the full registered version of the game. Subverted in that it's an empty threat (as noted in the disclaimer at the bottom of the message), but it does effectively get it's message across.
  • Nicholas Saunders, a figure in the London alternative movement in the '60s and '70s, published a book on the subject, Alternative London. On the title page of the first edition, he wrote, "In order to trace illicit reproduction of material I have included insignificant errors throughout."
  • Cinavia on newer Blu-Ray discs. Playing movies directly from the Blu-Ray disc works fine, but ripping the same movie and then playing it off from the resulting file in a Cinavia-toting player will result in muted audio around the 20-minute mark, followed by a message stating that reproduction is not authorized for this device. It's said that Cinevia works by encoding a series of imperfections into the audio (ie by speeding and slowing down the audio inconspicuously at set intervals, altering the audio pitch slightly). Understandably, people who want to watch a movie legally are complaining of the DVDs and Blu-Ray discs having sound transfers that sounded like the audio source was a broken tape player, especially on high-end amps where these kinds of subtleties become much more apparent due to enhancements applied by said equipment. And because there are now Cinevia-enabled camcorders and digital cameras on the market, camming will not work. Unfortunately, this means that if you're using a Cinavia-enabled camcorder (and you'll never know if you have one because they're only ever mentioned in the "licensing" part of the manual where no one reads) and have a Cinavia-enabled Blu-Ray disc playing in background with the volume turned up, your camera will still stop recording randomly because it's the audio that triggers it. Cinavia is a severely broken copy protection method.
  • Sony's ARccOS on newer DVDs. The protection method takes SafeDisc's method of creating a broken DVD-ROM with bad sectors and applies it to Video DVDs. DVD players are expected to just skip past the broken sectors and play the video. While that's the default behavior of many newer players and cheap region-free DVD players, many high-end and older players will attempt to correct the error instead by reading the sector over and over again like a how a computer normally would with a floppy drive, and then freeze or stop playing if they can't get past the bad sector after trying for a set interval, making the disc unwatchable for those who own such players. Later versions of ARccOS also creates a bad file system, which causes the said older DVD players to just quit playing a DVD halfway. The advice by the publisher of the disc is normally "get a newer DVD player" or "use a different DVD player", to the chagrin of videophiles.
  • The Klingon Language website, Klingonska Akademien, provides resources for Klingon language enthusiasts, but access to digital resources relating to print / audio tapes copyrighted by Paramount (such as The Klingon Dictionary or Power Klingon) requires the user to find a word or phrase in the print version of The Klingon Dictionary to validate that they have purchased it.