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"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: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, telling you how to acquire the code once you've entered the Timepod (Disk Version Only)

When a player purchases a video game, 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), video games exist as electronic data, which is quite easy to make perfect copies of.

This has been a concern for game makers 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 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). Dongles are currently usually stuck into an USB port, previously they were stuck into the serial or parallel port. Their greatest strength is being almost impossible to hack, since their construction is usually very much tamper-proof and hacking one would require extremely sophisticated equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, if the dongle fails or you ever lose it and the company has went out of business, you can kiss your software good-bye.
  • 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. This method may make many older games unplayable today even when the text from the manual is preserved word for word. In many abandonware packages, the text from the game manual is reproduced as a text file without any of the line or page formatting of the manual. However, if the manual is converted to PDF, this may make the game file playable again.
  • 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 PopCap Games' titles).
  • Account-based: An evolution of the abovementioned Activation system, especially on software-as-a-service platforms. The software is tied to your account, necessitating login to verify your purchased software. Those with limited online connection or suffering network downtimes may be able to use the software in offline mode after installing and logging in with the game or the client, usually with limited functionality. Steam (by Valve) is infamous for this for the majority of their games, as well as its follow-ups such as Ubisoft's Uplay and Epic Games' Epic Store. Likewise, Microsoft, Autodesk and Adobe offers a monthly or annual payment plan that uses account based authentication instead of activation, but the difference being that you will always have access to the latest version of the software.

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... or decide "screw it" and download a cracked, pirate version, thus leading to the exact opposite of what the publisher intended.

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 (MMORPGs in particular), 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, DRM and the useful notes page.

Examples from specific brands:

Other examples

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  • Infogrames' original Alone in the Dark series has this, and notably ratcheted it up in the second game. The first requires two objects from the game to be entered, which is already saying something given the large number of one-use clutter. The second, however, is a bit more complex. When you enter the first screen, it has a message something along the lines of "Protection Ace of Hearts over Three of Clubs First Hole". This can be disregarded, and if one tries to enter the hedge maze without inputting a code with the F keys, the game will say "YOU DIDN'T ANSWER THE QUESTION" and smite you. It turns out the manual tells 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 can you figure out the required code to get on with it.
  • The DOS game Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse features copy-protection in the form of a question whose answer you need 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 uses an answer that is 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 answer the question wrong, it will simply let you try again with a different question as many times as you want, 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 have 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 use magic words that you have to type in, and are present only in the manual and never given in the game (you will see only the 'thematic' name of the spell in-game, not the magic word used to order your characters to cast it.) This makes playing the game without the manual extremely difficult. Most ports of the games make the spells selectable by menu, eliminating this issue.
    • Also in the original game, whenever you level up, the Review Board will ask you to name a street in the city. The map that came with the game has the streets misspelled — the Grand Plaza is labeled "GRAN PLAZ", and Hawk Scabard is labeled "HAWK SCABBARD". You have to use the map's spelling to pass; if you don't have the map, you can never get past the first level.
    • The third game of the trilogy, Thief Of Fate, has dimension-hopping as a crucial plot point. In order to travel from the main world to one of the seven other dimensions, the player has to not only cast the correct spell, but then input the correct number from a three-layer card stock disc included with the game.
  • The BattleTech PC game, The Crescent Hawks' Inception, has two series of copy protection: one early on in the game, when you have 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 have 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 can 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).
  • Centurion: Defender of Rome came with a map of Ancient Rome, necessary to answer the questions that pop up after running the game. ("What is the capital in the province of [name]?")
  • In the first Civilization game, there are be two instances in the early parts of the game where you have to look up a civilization advance in the manual: you are shown a picture of a random one, then given a large set of multiple-choice answers of which two advances are its direct prerequisites. (The in-game justification is that "A usurper claims you are not the rightful king!") If you're wrong, you lose all the military units you had outside of your cities. Ironically, all the advances are also documented in the in-game "Civilopedia" (though it is, of course, inaccessible during the challenge), and even if you don't read that, the answers can 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 wants to know the words on on a page in the manual. Failing will crash you out of the game.
  • Dune II. You are asked for a piece of information (the in-game justification is that a spy is on the loose, and everyone is being interrogated to prove their innocence) that you have to look up in the game's manual, such as "What type of structure is this? [picture of a Wind Trap]" (answer: it's a Power Plant).
  • The old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons computer games by SSI require 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 a 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 Frontier, rendering those two games unplayable.
  • Earthbound (1983): You can only talk to people if you use their names. The names can only be found in the manual.
  • 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. Later on, 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 has you hunting for six keys hidden in the castle, and one is hidden in a dark passage, requiring you to have Elvira cook up "Glowing Pride" to find it. However, you can't find any recipes inside the game; all of them are in the manual. In other words, you can play most of the game on a pirate version, but to complete it you need the original version. (At least, you did until GameFAQs was invented). And to make sure you can't just head over to your local stationery store or abuse the photocopier at work to copy the manual, the manual is printed such that you also need to use the included colored lens to decode the recipe- the recipe is printed in blue text but has red patterns resembling letters overlapping that makes it extremely difficult to read without the lens.
  • In Elvira II: Jaws of Cerberus, opening the main building door and each of the studio doors requires a keypad code obtained via a code wheel. You need to line up three symbols or words and type in a code visible in the proper box. Here's an interactive online version of the codewheel.
  • The French digital encyclopedia Encyclopedia Universalis has, in addition to the set-up CD, a validation CD to be inserted every three months.
  • F/A-18 Hornet has you answer a question from its rather large flight manual before starting a mission.
  • MicroProse's F-19 Stealth Fighter: If you failed to identify the plane (from the manual) that the game shows you, the game forces you to go on a "training mission" with preset equipment instead of allowing you to choose your mission, plane or ammunition.
  • MicroProse's AH-64 Apache simulator Gunship had a double dose of feelies-based copy protection. Like with F-19 Stealth Fighter, there is a vehicle identification prompt after the title screen. However, it doesn't end there—during missions, American bases use a challenge-response system to confirm that anyone approaching is a friendly. The game comes with a physical list of the passwords and their countersigns. If you get it wrong, you'll be identified as hostile and fired upon ... which, as you might guess, makes successfully completing your mission impossible.
  • 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."
  • Infocom was extremely fond of this method for their Interactive Fiction. Examples include:
    • Ballyhoo has you finding a circus ticket near the start of the game, which you have to use to get to the circus. However, just trying to put it in the turnstile will reject it, saying you need to follow the instructions (which aren't provided in-game). The game came with a physical printout of the ticket, which had instructions written on it for how you approve it for use.
    • Bureaucracy includes Popular Paranoia magazine, which the player needs to provide information from.
    • Cutthroats requires use of information on a dive map.
    • Hollywood Hijinx includes vital information on the back of a photo of Uncle Buddy.
    • In Leather Goddesses of Phobos, the copy protection feelie is the map through the obligatory maze. This got rather irritating when the map was invariably lost, considering that the maze will kill you instantly if you don't do the right things in the right places. The comic book also includes unguessable clues (such as what actions you have to take while splashing through the maze, and the key to a cipher message).
    • The Lurking Horror deserves special mention of its copy protection. Getting anywhere in the game requires you to log into an in-game computer; the necessary information is included with the Feelies. However, while the password is clearly marked, the login is not (and, to complicate matters, is not on the same page as the password).
    • A Mind Forever Voyaging uses a code wheel authentication system.
    • A curious bit of copy protection is in their 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!
    • Sorcerer provides a book or code wheel (depending on version) with color codes for various magical animals; to get out of the intro area, the correct code must be entered on a chest.
    • Spellbreaker requires providing information off Enchanter trading cards to verify your identity.
    • Stationfall requires astrogational coordinates to get to the space station on which the adventure takes place. In addition, the game includes maps of the space station.
    • Suspended includes a map of the base and tokens for tracking the robots. Because the player has a map, the game does not always list all the exits out of a room.
    • Trinity includes a map of Trinity site, along with a comic book and sundial that combine to give a partial map of the otherworld.
    • The Witness includes a matchbook with a phone number. Notably, it was a real matchbook, which meant some users who smoked used the matches and threw away the matchbook...
    • Zork Zero contains more copy protection than actual puzzles. The manual and accompanying history are required to identify the items that need to be collected, to know what to do with them, to find multiple secret locations and to solve multiple puzzles. The most notable of these is Double Fanucci, a fully implemented graphical card game - which is actually completely random and can only be won by following a very specific sequence of moves described in the history book. When the source code leaked, it was revealed that Double Fanucci has more code than any other single part of the game!
  • The Political Strategy Game President Elect (1986) requires informations from the manual to be able to be played.
  • Several games in the 1980s - including the original release of Elite - and one or two application programs used a notoriously problematic method called "Lenslok". The program shipped with a plastic foldable lens including a series of angled prisms, different for each game (but not each copy). The program would then create an image of two letters and mix it up by rearranging vertical strips of the image. Viewing the image through the prisms would rearrange the vertical strips back again and make the letters readable, and the user would then enter them to prove that they had access to the lens and thus an original copy. That was the theory, anyway. The reality was that the user had to "calibrate" the software each time to allow for the different sizes of TV meaning that the computer could not know the actual size of the image it was displaying, compared to the fixed size of the physical lens. Not only was this time-consuming for the user and had limits that prevented it working if the TV was too large or too small, but the lens also had to be viewed at just the right distance and was partly curved and distorted the image. The whole system was very quickly abandoned.
  • At first glance, the computer game Master of Orion uses a simple "What spaceship is this?" manual copy protection. However, if the game executable is modified to remove the protection altogether, the game will 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 has some rooms that can't be completed without the game manual, unless you use a bug to skip parts of the game.
    • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake uses "P23 tap codes" at certain points in the game, and the Colonel will instruct you to look at the manual for information on how to interpret tap codes. This is a frequency you need to continue, and while brute-forcing it is possible, it's 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) doesn't 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 has a character, early in the game, who "forgets" a vital communication frequency and mentions 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 eliminates 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 is to hail every radio frequency in sequential order until they reach 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.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (PC) has Freddy stop the game and say, "It’s quiz time, kids!" once you pass a certain level. He then asks you to identify one of the words in the instruction manual. Fortunately, it’s a multiple choice question, so you could potentially guess and get it right.
  • 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 includes 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 leave this part out. But both versions have 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 have to enter a code found on a randomly given page of the manual.
  • Der Patrizier (The Patrician) has a beautiful hand-drawn map of the North Sea and Baltic Sea area surrounded by dozens of town names with corresponding arms. These are in fact the copy protection: You have 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" didn't exist yet.
  • The original Prince of Persia has manual-based copy protection which set several apparent vials of poison over which hover several different letters; a variant of the "Page/Line/Word" index. Drinking the wrong one three times in a row results in death; drinking the right one causes the door to the next level to open. The second game has you select a symbol from a certain page of the manual between levels.
  • Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box comes with a train ticket needed to find the location of where the last half of the game takes place. It requires a code to be deciphered and the answer has to be inputted into the game. The ticket is also shown in the game when it got to that puzzle. The puzzle requires folding it, so it's a bit of a pain to envision how it folds from just the picture and without the physical ticket, but by no means impossible.
    • "A true gentleman" without the physical ticket simply brings up the note drawing thing implemented in this game and carefully draws the top and bottom parts of the numbers in the ticket to figure out the answer, or just grabs a piece of paper, copies the numbers, and folds it. Which makes that puzzle even more of a puzzle.
  • The original Railroad Tycoon has you identify a railway engine (seen in the manual) at the start of the game. If you choose the wrong name, the game will 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). Railfans barely need the handbook because they already know at least some of the locomotives, and after playing the game for a while, they'll get to know the few they don't. Those who happen to be in possession of Brian Hollingsworth and Arthur Cook's Great Book of Trains have a good chance of knowing all locomotives in the game because they are all picked from this book, livery and all.
  • The 1988 Microprose game Red Storm Rising will give you the profile view of a ship and ask you to identify it; all the requisite information is in the manual. If you're big enough of a naval geek, though... guns in back, smokestack, missile pack, Krivak. Or you could just use Wikipedia nowadays.
  • Cinemaware's Rocket Ranger had a clever application of a code wheel: whenever you wanted to travel to another city, the game would ask you how much fuel you wanted to load into your jetpack. Entering a wrong value would result in you running out of fuel and crashing. The clever bit was that it didn't ask you which city you wanted to travel to: it would determine that from your current city, and which of the "correct" amounts of fuel you entered. This meant that pirates couldn't remove the copy protection check because without it, there was no way to tell the game which city you wanted to travel to. This was extremely successful at the time, and no software crack was ever made; the game was only pirated when someone actually took the time to transcribe the entire (photocopy-proof) code wheel.
  • SimCity came with a four-page code sheet with codes to enter after starting or loading a city. If you don't enter the correct code, the town will 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 contains an almanac of planetary facts that is larger than many game boxes, and the player has to look a different one of these up when starting the game.Example  The number has to be entered exactly as listed, too, making it harder to look up from other sources. (And some of these figures have changed since the game was published.)
  • The Spellcasting Series uses various methods of feelies throughout the trilogy, including inputting information from included registration forms, or maps that are required for navigation in certain areas. The most inspired method is in 201, which includes a set of sheet music you need to play the moodhorn properly.
  • An early-90s Spider-Man computer game asks 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 requires players to answer questions with the help of a copy of Professor Zorg's Guide to Alien Etiquette. The answers are located on a code wheel which shipped with the game. This code wheel requires 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 has the Starmap Trivia Quiz. The answers are located on a physical star map included with the game.
  • The Starflight series:
    • The original Starflight has a code wheel.
    • Starflight II asks you to look up a code on a code wheel every time you leave the starbase. If you enter it wrong you can still play the game, but a few hours in, your starship will be pulled over by the Space Police. They accuse you of software theft and give you one more chance to enter the right code; failing causes them to blow up your ship. The game also has a fold out star map and a viewer to isolate three-inch sections of the map. The game will then ask you the number of certain colored stars in the said section once you place the viewer at certain coordinates.
  • Star Trek 5 included a Klingon dictionary in its manual, which has to be used to advance past certain points.
  • StarTropics includes several feelies in the box, one of which happens 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 second Transylvania game, The Crimson Crown, came with a small parchment that a gryphon in the game would instruct you to open and read, then tell him the answers to the riddles printed on it. Answering them was necessary because he would relinquish an important Plot Coupon as a reward. Later releases of the game just have him ask the riddles in the game proper.
  • The Ultima games are 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 can generally only be read where the light reflects 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 is 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" is 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".
  • War in Middle-Earth asks you to type in coordinates from the manual with the message: "The Valar seek to determine your fitness to continue this tale-weaving. Please enter the map coordinates of (location)".
  • Wizardry II has a small booklet of "spells" composed of four-letter nonsense words. The player at times has 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, to prevent photocopying.
  • 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.
  • In a cruel subversion of this trope, in early 90's Poland some clever pirates would sell a supposed Atari 8-bit version of the game Rambo. Upon running the game, it would ask for a code word to start. There was no correct answer, and nothing beyond the copy protection screen; the "game" was nothing more than a scam to get money.

    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 arcade version of the game, running on PC hardware, also has a security dongle to ensure the game can't be easily bootlegged.
  • The Parallel port/USB "key". Enterprise class specialist software tends 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 to 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.
    • If you've worked in the IT department of a large manufacturing enterprise or in the oil and gas industry, chances are you'll have dealt with a type of USB key known as the Sentinel HASP/HL. Many specialist applications ranging from chemical work to asset management use 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, require a USB dongle to run. And of course, the USB dongle can hold an expiry date instead of the game, adding to the planned obsolescence method.
  • Pro Tools, an audio-editing suite currently used by the majority of the music industry, has the same issue as the biggest boon-dongle example- you can pirate the software all you want, but unless you have both the iLok and one of their MBox audio interfaces, the program is useless. The iLok dongle has always been the primary copy protection method as per the information on the iLok website, but unless you also 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 higher.
    • Starting with Pro Tools 9, Digidesign/Avid allows the usage of third-party audio interfaces (even one's own sound card, perhaps), so copy protection is primarily on the iLok as it should. They'll still recommend their own equipment, of course...
    • Later still, they have largely abandoned the iLok for an account-based system, charging up to US$80 a month for access to the software.
  • 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 is swapped out for whatever reason, then the software will cease working. And yes, this means that 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 has 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...)
  • Another “game” that requires a dongle while it's running is the FAA-Certified version of X-Plane, a very high-end flight simulator.
  • The Biggest Boon-Dongle in the World: adding a dongle for software that already requires a hugely expensive piece of hardware to begin with. Allegedly, the company in the story is Avaya, and the product in question is the world’s first Vo IP-based PABX telephony system.

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 is that it hangs 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 involves placing a deliberate error on a game disk, which, being that it's an error, cannot 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 to experience actual hardware failure.note  Yikes! Once the copy programs got better (and could easily duplicate the errors), replacement protections that didn't destroy your drive were developed.
  • The Sega Dreamcast used a proprietary disc format called GD-ROM, which is a higher-density (1 GB) version of the CD-ROM format; 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 can be easily copied and used on any Dreamcast.note 
  • Sony has used this on several occasions with their gaming systems:
    • The first PlayStation reads a tracking pattern pressed onto the lead-in of official CDs, which cannot be reproduced normally. It basically "waggles" in a very specific way, which any CD drive can read but will confuse for being a lopsided disc and correct it: when you reburn the disk that waggle won't be there anymore, and if the PS1 doesn't detect it then it will refuse to read the disc. Since this track correction feature is hardcoded into disk drives themselves, you can't just write special software to reproduce the tracking pattern. The PlayStation 2 uses a similar system. They will both refuse to read any disc that doesn't have a valid pattern. This makes it impossible to burn a disc that will pass the protection. However, there are points exposed where people can solder a chip in to override the attempt to read the signature and replace it with a valid one. People were able to 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 can 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 won't try to perform the security test again when the lid is opened to swap the discs), and boot discs that pass the copy protection check, then stop the disc from spinning and wait patiently until the start button is pressed (so the user can swap in another disc at their leisure). Contrary to popular belief, the black coating on original discs is more likely for cosmetic reasons (e.g. to distinguish them from audio CDs and bootlegs) and has little to do with copy protection; any consumer disc drive can and will read a PS1 game disc perfectly as it would with any media.
    • For the Playstation Portable, Sony used a proprietary media called the UMD for storing games and movies, reasoning that people wouldn'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 attack the firmware and using homebrew software that copies the disc onto a Memory Stick instead of tackling the issue of the physical media, taking advantage of the fact that the PSP can 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 industry 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), or files were made larger than 1.44MB so that they couldn't fit onto floppies if that wasn't sufficient. 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.
    • Because of this the first round of CD based consoles that were released from 1989-1993 (Sega CD, TurboGrafix CD, Philips CD-i, Amiga CD32, etc...) had no copy protection built in - the fact that the technology needed to make those copies was far out of reach of the consumer was enough, and the idea of transferring a 650 MB size file over the internet back then would have been ludicrous. It mostly worked too, by the time people figured out all you had to do was burn the disc image onto a CD-R (see below) and the average person could feasibly do this all those systems were long out of production.
    • Needless to say, the game industry was caught off-guard when the CD-R was introduced, because it meant pirating games had never been easier. It's fair to mention that early CD-Rs were expensive and the drives cost well over a thousand dollars when they were introduced (and that’s before the required supporting hardware and software taking the price further up), but the media itself was still much cheaper than games—meaning that to some, the ability to copy countless games borrowed from friends or the local library/rental place justified the drive's exorbitant price tag. The prices of both the media and drives dropped over just a few years.
  • Robopon has 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 is cited as the main reason Nintendo chose to stick with cartridges until long after their rivals have switched to CDs (and eventually *ahem* switched back with the Nintendo Switch). However, showing that pirates are not easily deterred, a company called Bung 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 Bung Enterprises in several countries. This blew up in their face when dozens of companies making similar devices sprung up in Bung's place upon its defeat.
  • Flexplay was a means of DVD film distribution and rental that was supposedly intended to reduce the need for the consumer to bring back the disk at all and allowed the distributor to sell it at a cheaper price. It did this by using a chemical reaction baked into the disk that would darken it, and thus render it unreadable, upon exposure to air and sunlight. The reaction would occur the second you removed the disk from the package. However, over time, Flexplay disks that were never opened would also often degrade due to natural chemical processes. The real reason for Flexplay was to prevent pirated copies of the film from being made - something it really didn't do very well, since the disks lasted a maximum of 48 hours out of the package anyway. Plus, if you wanted to watch the film again, you had to buy another Flexplay disk, or more likely, just go buy the full DVD to own it. In reality, all Flexplay really did was create a lot of unnecessary plastic waste and be a much less useful way to distribute home video releases.
  • ED-Contrive's ProRing copy protection, which is pretty common on Japanese CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, and also sometimes on Western ones. The protection basically creates a thin blank ring that does not reflect the laser beam in the middle of the disc and various dummy file entries in the file allocation table point to the sector the ring is in. Sorta like a version of SafeDisc that warns users that the software on the disc is protected by means of a ominous-looking ring on the media.

    Software Methods 
  • Armored Warfare, a free-to-play tank battle online game that was developed by Obsidian (though Illfonic and then took over over time as Obsidian left for another projects), uses a variant of the infamous StarForce as the protection method. Whether it's meant to protect against cheaters is unclear as of now.
  • Many AAA developers such as Electronic Arts, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Square Enix, Sega, and Ubisoft (the last adding extra layers such as the universally despised VM Protect and their own UPlay) depend on Denuvo Anti-Tamper, designed specifically for x64 games and by the same team of the infamously despised Securom (which was disabled by Microsoft come 2015) after the team left Sony. It works by encrypting, interleaving, overlapping, and combining multiple checksums over blocks of data that wasn't used yet, and decrypting it as the data is called for use in-game, by having the unused system process or processor cores decrypting it in real-time or as the game enters loading screen. For a while, it was boasted as being "nigh-impossible" to crack, with cracks coming as late as three to six months after the game's release.
    • The problem of cracks taking an egregious amount of time to come out, has been exacerbated in recent years due to the effort required, to the point that as of November 8th, 2023, the only person actively cracking Denuvo is the controversial Empress.
    • Several, usually earlier, (as of 2015-2016) games protected by Denuvo have little to no noticeable impacts on game performance. Some others, however, infamously affect performance.
    • In response, several companies like id Software, Playdead, Tequila Works and Two Point Studios who initially used it to protect their games (Doom (2016), INSIDE (2016), RiME, and Two Point Hospital, respectively) eventually dropped it, while most AAA developers chose to stick to it.
    • In fact, when id Software announced that they were putting a new version of Denuvo into newer versions of Doom Eternal as an anticheat, they got major flak for it, with many people ending up refusing to update or even pirating the game to downgrade. Even worse? The version of Denuvo deployed was incompatible with Proton, punishing those who legitimately bought the game but are playing it on Linux. To say it severely pissed off Linux gamers is an understatement. All these factors led to disgruntled owners of the game review-bombing the Steam store page. Not only was Denuvo gone by the update after that, id personally apologized to Linux gamers and promised that they will consider the possibility of players using Proton in the future. The devs of Denuvo themselves were also extremely shaken by the whole ordeal and promised to make future versions of the Windows version of Denuvo Proton-aware note  so protected Windows games will still work within Proton.
    • Since August 24, 2022, Denuvo has unveiled their own protection for the Nintendo Switch games in order to prevent said games from being emulated.
  • 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 unofficial 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, but at the same time succeeded in introducing an exploit that allowed users to unlock their PSPs without any game whatsoever. This got worse once the signing keys to the PSP were discovered, allowing homebrew developers to make their software look like it was officially licensed by Sony. This let homebrew applications run on completely unmodified PSPs and is impossible to patch without a new hardware revision that would be incompatible with all existing PSP games. Once this happened, Sony just gave up trying to stop homebrew.
  • Some games on the original PlayStation, such as The Legend of Dragoon and Vandal Hearts 2, will detect if you have a mod-chip (which lets you play imported or copied games) in your system, and then the game will not play and a message to call a place to report the problem would come up on screen. What it boils down to is that people who had modchips and could pirate the games but didn't couldn't play the games they bought legitimately. It was probably an attempt to get people to abandon their modchip consoles - they just abandoned the unmodded consoles instead.
  • The PC version of Batman: Arkham Asylum has one of these in the form of a deliberate glitch which disables 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 compatibility, such as Quiz Magic 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.
    • It was found that Konami actually made versions of these 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.
  • If you're playing a copied version of the second Captain Comic, 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 requires you to identify a random enemy by name before you can play it. The enemies are never identified in-game, requiring you to have an instruction manual on-hand.
  • Crime and Punishment, a 1983 legal simulation game where you could play as a judge trying several cases and giving punishments. On pirated editions, the only cases tried were software piracy and the sole penalty was death.
  • 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. But since no one ever reads the Terms of Service...
  • Darkstar One features an extra protection. In improperly cracked versions, the star map will "shiver" making it hard as hell to read or select anything. The price of items and upgrades are also multiplied by 100 and the sale price of everything is dropped to 0, making it impossible to make money. As a result, the player is effectively stuck in the first system forever.
  • Demoniak (which was reissued as a double with Dark Seed II) has a spot early in the game when you are 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's a .textfile transcript which loses all of the line format and pagination of the original manual. Trial and error is useless since the word changes every time the game is restarted. This, in effect, makes 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 is almost as bad, as the copy protection check is 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.
  • Deus Ex has 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 / The Dark Eye) has at least three instances of copy protection, and you are punished for then buying the original because you have to start anew, as the problems are saved in the save games. First, you have 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 leads 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 encryption and the fact that the computer clock must be set to Japanese Standard Time, a Japanese version of Windows XP or above is required to even get the game to run at all. When the 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 is 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 and before Steam, one of the way to purchase DLC (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 has since ceased operation, causing unpatched versions issues ranging from not being able to load a save game to failing to run at all. Since then though, workaround exists to disable GFWL integration in the game.
    • Fallout 3 was then released in GOG with the GFWL integration being removed out of the box, along with making the game Large Address Aware for greater stability with mods, something must be added manually for the Steam version. Though, downloading the game via Steam is still highly discouraged (Steam will still force you to install GFWL, which at best it'll spit error about ordinal, indicating incompatibility, and refusing to run, or at worst, brick Windows 10's network stack, forcing restore operations, regardless when you try to run the game). This also means those who had already bought the Steam version, had uninstall it, then upgraded to Windows 10, and now want to reinstall it are practically forced to buy it again.
  • Games For Windows Live was an account manager and sometimes a DRM for several PC games from around 2006 to 2014. It was defunct in around 2014. While some games thankfully patched out GFWL, some others due to various reasons such as developer folding or the game is no longer available for sale digitally, still keep in GFWL. A workaround exists here.
  • Starship sim sequel Frontier: Elite II has an interesting version of this. Periodically, the player is 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 gives 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".
  • 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 are 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.
  • 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. 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 Windows version of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was discovered to have implemented an EarthBound-esque form of crack-deterrent which aimed to frustrate those who pirated the game. Merely bypassing copy protection causes the other failsafes to kick in, such as permanently stormy weather (which has a 25 percent chance of happening in the base game) and removing pedestrians & most vehicles, making carjackings significantly harder as the player would have to find a parked car in the city. You can still play the game, but good luck trying to save it after forty minutes — the game will crash due to an unhandled exception, and your saved games will have the permanent rain and other nasties intact. To top it all off, sniper rifles would no longer dish out damage on targets, garages are disabled, and the radar is screwed, rendering the game difficult if not impossible to complete.
    • Rockstar continued this practice with Grand Theft Auto IV, whose protection is more publicized. Besides having a release date check on installation, cracked copies end up with a so-called "drunk camera" where the camera goes wobbly as if the player is intoxicated, and cars have their engines break down and sometimes accelerate without warning. however... . Fortunately Rockstar did revisit the game long after it's demise and offered one final patch that made it play nice with Windows 10 machines out of the box... along with removing a metric ton of music that was in the game.
  • 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.
  • During the 2000s, 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 will run in single player as with legitimate copies, but will not allow the player to connect at all if the serial is 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.
    • After the rise of Steam, serial keys were abolished in exchange for identifying client ID associated with the store (in this case, usually Steam) client. Since around 2009, most retail PC games are the launch version of the game files, the CD key to add the game to your account, and a Steam installer (or the associated launcher at the publisher's whim).
  • The first Happiness Visual Novel (not the sequel Happiness! Re:Lucks) uses a variant of StarForce that requires entering an encryption key. It is 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. 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 alters the system timing during bootup. The broken copy does not alter the timing, resulting in a game that becomes Unwinnable without removing the "timer".
  • One of Cyan's earliest games, Spelunx, has 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.
  • La Abadía del Crimen, a 1987 adventure game by Spanish publisher Opera Soft, based on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, requires the player to assist the daily matins. In the original game, a recorded version of Ave María would will play during these sequences. However, if the game detects a pirate copy is running, the song is replaced by an echoing, growling voice saying "Pirata, Pirata, Pirata..." and locking up the computer.
  • Lemmings 2 has a sly example; when installed off non-original floppies, all seems to proceed okay, but you won't be able to advance past the first level for any of the tribes.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth contains a rather unique form of anti-piracy. About ten minutes in, if the game decides your copy is pirated, your entire army will self destruct, resulting in a game over. This caused some problems because bugs resulted in the game doing this to even legal copies sometimes.
  • Love Plus+ makes 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 (an Elite Beat Agents clone), 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...
  • On the topic of Android, many Kairosoft games require an internet connection to check its 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, and that priority outweighs the risk of being pirated (edutainment games are by no means excluded).
  • Later stages in the Mac puzzle game Oxyd have blocks bearing numbers referring to the location of codes in the "Oxyd Book" which must be typed in to clear them away.
  • It is not enough that Persona 3 Reload is DRM'd with Denuvo (see "Denuvo Anti-Tamper" above), but Atlus/Sega made the baffling decision of locking the downloadable soundtrack for those that bought them digitally behind an EXE file which is actually just another "game" (it is a music player made in Unreal Engine, also DRM'd of course). Because it is treated as another game, opening any other application (or just unfocusing its window) will pause it, losing the point of having the soundtrack in the first place. There is also the obvious fact that it is not compatible on any platform other than PC, so fans that wanted to listen on the go would be better off ripping the soundtrack from the game itself or grab the fan uploads from YouTube.
  • 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. 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 from Popcap's own online store 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) to the serial number. 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!
      • It is possible to work around this through freeware tools which allow the MAC address to be changed. In addition to this, certain third-party LAN drivers such as those used on Hackintoshed PCs have an option for MAC address spoofing without any additional software. However, chances are if you've already been struck by lightning and had not copied down the MAC address beforehand, it's already too late.
      • Versions purchased on Steam instead uses Steam's authentication mechanism instead of the default method.
    • 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 arcade version of Primal Rage causes the game to not work properly if it detects to be an illegitimate copy. Unlike other examples where the measures have been overcome with hacked copy protection or digital recreations of Feelies, this method was so good that it hasn't been cracked to this day. Unfortunately the team who made the encryption refused to help when it came to home console ports, so all the versions of Primal Rage found on arcade compilations have been corrupted. It's still playable, but it remains to be a case of Porting Disaster.
  • 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.
  • The Political Strategy Game Realpolitiks Mobile will refuse to load the game after the logo of the developer company appears as the game starts if you haven't purchased the app and downloaded the cracked version.
  • 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.
  • If someone attempts to play a pirated copy of Croteam's Serious Sam 3, 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. Worse still, those who use a SSD and need the game installed to a second (mechanical) drive due to space constraints or to prolong the lifespan of the drive- SSDs are not cheap.
  • 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.
  • SiN (1998) 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.
  • Pirated copies of Spyro: Year of the Dragon will have Zoe the Fairy appear at the latter part of Sunrise Spring telling players that the copy is hacked and as such will lead to "problems" you would not experience on a legal copy. Continuing to play led to bizarre effects that got worse over time, and were designed to make the game incredibly frustrating to play. The main problem was that the player's progress would be deleted behind the scenes, requiring them to replay certain levels over and over. Other effects included gems disappearing from levels, random crashes, Cash Gates reactivating, level portals leading to the wrong place, the pause button refusing to work, the language changing at random, maximum health being lowered, AI being set to maximum difficulty, and more.
    • 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. There is also a "software terminated" Kill Screen which is triggered by anti-mod detection, that is if you're playing it on a modified console or attempting to use a Gameshark add-on, but it's much more overt: right before you get the chance to press start at the title screen it will cut to the kill screen instead.
    • The reason for this subtle method of crack protection rather than something more obvious was to delay the release of a working crack, in order to maximise sales directly after the game's release. The idea was that hackers would simply check if the game booted correctly and then assume that they had produced a successful crack, without playing the game through. This would delay the creation of an actual complete crack. This worked well, as it took a month after the game's release for a working crack to be released, compared to the couple of days it took to produce an incomplete crack. However, as a side effect it was considerably easy to trigger both the anti-piracy or anti-mod protection even on legitimate copies and unmodified consoles if the disk is a little scratched, the lens is a bit dirty, or even seemingly at random. Ironically, after the game has been successfully cracked, it became a lot easier for hackers to bypass the protection than legitimate buyers.
  • 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. This doesn't make these problems any less serious — it just illustrates why companies can afford not to care.
    • In a bizarre amalgamation of Bad Export For Russians, most 2000-2010 retail disc DRM for the Russian market is StarForce, even if the original release didn't use it for protection. The proliferation of Steam alleviated this and turned it into a non-issue.
  • 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 only downside to Steam is that offline mode needs to be entered at least once while you still have Internet access (if you try to go into offline mode for the first time after you lose internet connection, it won’t work), and offline mode only works for two weeks at a time- you’ll need to find an internet connection once your two weeks are up to allow Steam to refresh or you can’t use Steam or your games after the two weeks are up.
    • 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 things like Team Fortress 2 and its unlockables is another story entirely.
    • As a form of DRM, the service also naturally has some checks to ensure any attempt to access its servers is being done with legitimate licenses; if you attempt to launch the executable for a Steam-based game you don't own, the client will redirect you to the corresponding store page. However, pirates have subverted these checks for years now by rewiring connections to an unlisted free-to-play "game" (more accurately a debug tool for testing Steam services) called Spacewar.
  • Origin Systems' Strike Commander came with instructions to copy the disks and put them in the cupboard in case something happened to your originals.
  • 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 led to a lot of people hitting the fourm complaining about bugs only they could experience.
  • 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. The players and the developers both hated it, and it was removed with the 2.0 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, Tagès, but it was also ditched in a patch. Egosoft's position is they hate copy protection, but their publishing contract with Deep Silver required them to use it, and it was one of the main reasons Egosoft broke up with their former publisher for their latest games.
  • 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 will cause a Error screen to show up saying it is a serious crime to copy video games.
  • The original Print Shop by Broderbund 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 while the backup program will destroy itself on the original disk once it's run, the program will still exist on the backup copy's disk. Additionally, the backup program is just a batch file, so it can be easily defanged such that it 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 coasternote  unless the destination disc is rewritable, in which case it can be erased. 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... Similar schemes have been used in certain games of the era. Commandos for one relied on this, but as stated earlier this has since become a non-issue once larger-capacity media became popular and CD copying tools are able to detect such protection methods.
  • 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 (e.g. 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. On the flipside, the design is also flawed as identical computers are always flagged as the same PC- allowing certain establishments like cybercafes and small businesses who buy identical systems to get away with piracy.
    • Microsoft made activation universal with Windows XP and Office XP (they had previously used it for Office 2000, but only for copies sold in certain geographic regions, and even those versions supposedly stopped requiring activation on 15 April 2003). 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.
      • OEM computers starting with those that came bundled with Windows 7 and later did away with authentication stickers that contain the product key, instead embedding the serial into the BIOS itself, to which Windows or the installer looks up to activate the system as a legitimate copy. This made it a pain for those who would like to take a written record of the serial in a pinch, as you need to view it through special software like ProduKey but at least you wouldn't lose it as easily as having the said sticker fade away or get torn off over time due to rough handling.
      • Activation has become less and less necessary with each successive version of Windows since its introduction:
      • Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 become completely unusable if not activated within 30 days (the system boots directly to the activation wizard, which must be completed successfully in order to access the rest of the operating system). Fortunately, this is almost trivially easy to defeat, as doing so merely involves changing the permissions applied to a specific Windows registry key (this trick no longer works with newer versions of Windows, as the activation timer has been moved to a different part of the registry and made impossible to modify from within Windows).
      • The original release of Windows Vista would still boot if not successfully activated within 30 days, but only into a reduced-functionality mode where some of the "premium" features of the OS (such as the built-in games) would be disabled. The additional effects of being in reduced-functionality mode came in two versions: if Vista had merely been installed for more than 30 days without being activated, the system would begin rebooting every hour, while if the user had tried but failed to activate it, they would be blocked from receiving non-critical updates (thus making it potentially more of an inconvenience for people who simply ''forgot'' to activate Windows, and thus providing an incentive to try activating Windows with a cracked product key, even if the attempt would ultimately fail).
      • Vista SP1 and onwards and all versions of Windows 7, Server 2008, and Server 2008 R2 are no longer restricted to reduced-functionality mode once the grace period expires; instead, a watermark stating "This copy of Windows is not genuine" appears in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, Windows updates are blocked except for critical security patches (Microsoft's interest in keeping malware from spreading via out-of-date Windows systems apparently outweighs their interest in making people pay for their software), and the operating system will periodically set the desktop background to black and display pop-ups reminding the user to activate Windows (these last two can be disabled by going into the System32 folder in Windows and deleting the "slui.exe" file, although you should keep a copy around somewhere if you plan on possibly activating Windows sometime in the future, as the normal Windows activation mechanism doesn't work if slui.exe is absent).
      • With Windows 8 and 10, there is no grace period following installation (the functionality is still present, but must be manually triggered using the slmgr /rearm command; the grace period no longer starts upon installation), but the only consequence of not activating is that the built-in personalisation features are disabled (as in the system only allows default wallpaper and window color or theme) and the system displays a watermark similar to the aforementioned one used for the Vista/7 family (Though now it's simply "Activate Windows. Go to settings to activate Windows" and due to the borderless nature of Windows 8 and 10 system rendering, it can be seen through full screen videos and apps).
    • The Microsoft Office series kept the heavy handed activation method where failure to activate or improper ones will make the Office works in a limited functionality mode (usually view document only) or not at all... unless a specific version of Office 2007 Enterprise, which only needs a CD key during installation and nothing else.
  • Adobe started using activation fully with the introduction of the CS versions of their software. Certain tools like Adobe 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.
  • Playing a 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 Encore 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.
  • If Garry's Mod detects it's pirated, it will pretend to crash and display the nonexistent error "Unable to shade polygon normals" with an "error code" that is actually the user's Steam ID, in order to trick pirates into posting about it on the forums and getting themselves banned.
  • Speaking of GMod, Datae's Beatrun add-on is region-locked against Russia (or other countries within vicinity) due to requiring Patreon to access, which is not available in Russia. There is no other legitimate method either, and the creator made it clear that this was done because Digital Piracy Is Evil and Russia is well-known for piracy. After several angry comments from frustrated users, he finally released a free version, but it was a trap. Running this compromised add-on would leak the unwitting user's IP address alongside their Steam username, and all this info was posted on a public list.
  • 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. The game still works (unless if the game is natively incompatible, which is very rare) if the executable is cracked, 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. Unfortunately, if you go the GOG route, you need to buy the game all over again.
    • An update released at the same time of Windows 10 release also blocks access for Windows Vista, 7 and 8, for the same reasons. 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" Linden.
  • Wolfenstein 3-D threatens 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. It's an empty threat (as noted in the disclaimer at the bottom of the message), but it does effectively get its message across.
  • Reports circulated around 2015 stating that Microsoft had the right to disable counterfeit games off your "Microsoft Services". (Microsoft is very capable of doing that with pirated apps in its Store.) They just didn't read the license agreement correctly, as the aforementioned Services refer to online services such as Xbox Live, Windows Store, or OneDrive. Hosts of torrent sites, however, thought "better safe than sorry" and for a short time banned users running Windows 10.
  • CD Projekt RED is conspicuously famous for outspokenly shunning DRM and as a result not even using a single piece of DRM at all in their games. You can just snarf an installed instance of The Witcher 3 or Cyberpunk 2077, transfer it to another computer, and it will run with absolutely no problems whatsoever. One of the selling points of their video game store,, is "we do not use DRM". This stance is rooted on the owners and executives of the company having a firm belief that people will eventually pay for games they like, and that pirated games nowadays have inherent disadvantages anyway such as no official multiplayer, no automatic updates and no official seasonal events.
  • Many paid apps published on Google Play combat piracy by keeping their own database of accepted hardware ID, meaning that no matter the workaround, the user will not be able to access it without paying due to its need to "phone home."

    Non-software examples 
  • 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 in hearing it for yourself.)
  • Most commercially released VHS tapes, and Betamax tapes (since 1983) are copy-protected by Macrovision. It prevents the tape on making bootleg copies. Copying it to a blank VHS or blank Betamax would cause the tape to act like it's damaged (just as well, because Macrovision was nothing more than an artificial video error). Transferring a commercially released VHS or Betamax to DVD will also not work either. The DVD recorder will stop the tape and generate an error. However, some capture cards do ignore it.
    • The first movie that to have a home video released to be copy-protected by Macrovision is The Cotton Club.
    • Even RCA's failed CED format also jumped into Macrovision in its later years, with new content on the format releasing up until 1987. Even without Macrovision though, the unreliability of the format was enough of a deterrent from trying to copy a CED disc to VHS or Beta since a CED disk that begins to skip is already unwatchable in itself.
  • Most commercially released Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray discs are copy-protected by Macrovision. It prevents the disc on making bootleg copies.
    • For LaserDisc players, there was a VideoCD modchip released by a Hong Kong company to enable LaserDisc players to be able to also handle the Philips-developed digital VideoCD format. However, there are players that are incompatible with the chip, and installing the chip on such a player caused Macrovision to trigger on protected discs and show color bands on the screen.
    • Actually, older commercial DVDs are copy-protected using a copy-protection routine called CSS. When a DVD player detects that a DVD is protected by CSS, it switches on a circuit built into the player that generates the Macrovision signal over all its analog outputs. Needless to say, CSS was one of the first things hackers set out to crack when the format was released. Later DVDs combine CSS with Sony's ARccOS and/or Cinevia to make life more difficult for people who back up their DVDs. It should be noted, however, that a number of cheap region-free DVD players also lack the Macrovision generator module. CSS is now obsolete, not least because it can be easily brute-forced within seconds by even the lowest-end PCs available nowadays, the only reason it's still used is to coax the DVD players to activate the Macrovision generator modules.
    • Likewise, the oldest Blu-Ray discs only include AACS copy protection, the Blu-Ray player houses the Macrovision signal generator and HDCP lock module, and will switch them on upon detecting an AACS-protected disc being played. Again, it was the first thing hackers sought out to crack. Later in the life of the player, BD+ scrabling was introduced, which introduced corruption into the disc, with a special encrypted BD+ program that presents an overlay that fixes the bad sectors has to be run by the player to fix the disc. Later still, Cinavia was introduced. So far all three can be bypassed with varying levels of success.
  • The dreaded Macrovision protection is also often present on analog Pay TV signals. 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, who pointed their finger back at the provider, both sides playing the blame game and nothing gets fixed). And to make things worse, it's illegal to circumvent thanks to the DMCA. This has carried on to the digital age via HDCP.
  • Map publishers often include fictional features in their maps for this purpose. For city maps, there are trap streets, which most often are non-existent streets though sometimes the map maker will take a real street and change its features (e.g. add a few bends, identify a major avenue as a narrow lane, etc.) to fictionalize it. For state and national maps, there are phantom settlements (a.k.a. paper towns; famous examples include Agloe, NY, Beatosu and Goblu and Argleton) or fictional land features (e.g. Gousha's state map of Michigan included a huge bay along the north shore of Lake Superior with Highway 61 skirting along its coastline; the real Highway 61 goes straight over the fake bay's opening). The theory is that while facts cannot be copyrighted, fiction can, so rival map publishers who copy the maps technically break copyright and thus can be sued. However, in the U.S. at least it's been ruled that such features cannot be copyrighted, the argument being that it would make it impossible to distribute information without constantly risking copyright infringement.
  • Google inserted 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.
    • In the same vein, the author of a trivia compilation once sued the publisher of Trivial Pursuit for including a fake fact they lifted from his book to use in the game.
  • Many professional photography companies that take pictures for occasions like weddings or school pictures employ a similar anti-Xerox measure to map makers where invisible text that reads "Copy protected-DO NOT COPY!" or a similar message appears on the image and is invisible to the eye on a genuine copy but appears as a white text over the copied image because it can be seen by the copier's light.
  • Legal notes from many countries such as paper currency and legal ownership titles make used of a pattern called the EURion Constellation which is a pattern of rings arranged in a specific pattern (The Orion Constellation to be exact) which modern photocopiers and printers can detect and then either refuse to copy the image, or deliberately destroy a produced copy. Some photocopiers can also log information that someone has attempted to copy currency and alert a technician to then inform proper authorities.
  • Hasbro's VideoNow Personal Video Disc format was an offshoot of standard audio CDs the store video on the left stereo channel and audio on the right stereo channel. The discs used by the format were a proprietary 10cm disc which could not easily be read by a standard CD player that accepted either 8 cm CD singles or 12 cm full-size CDs. Likewise the VideoNow players were not compatible with 8 cm or 12 cm CDs. Despite those protections it did not take long for unofficial hardware and software came out that could read the 10cm discs and were also able to encode content in the proper format needed for the VideoNow Player and a 12 cm disc could easily be trimmed down to the 10 cm size needed for the players. The lack of good copy protection helped the format be discontinued very quickly after better alternatives came along.
    • Similarly, Mattel's competing Juice Box simply lacked any kind of A/V output but also had a very lowsy resolution with mono-only sound once again making for unappealing viewing is seen on anything but the player's six-inch screen.
  • The Gameboy Advance Video cartridges used the same authentication factor as games that were compatible with the Gameboy Player to lock out and refuse to play if they were being used on a Gameboy Player. Games that had extra features like controller rumble if they were used on the Gameboy Player used an authentication process that allowed those features to be activated if the games were running on the Gameboy Player. If the same process detected that a Gameboy Advance Video cart was running on the Gameboy Player the cart would freeze with the Gameboy Player logo on the screen and add extra text creating a screen that said "Not compatible with Gameboy Player". The was done because the GameCube did not output Macrovision and without copy protection on the video cartridges someone could copy the cartridges onto VHS or DVD. However thanks to the low resolution and mono sound both with very heavy compression, even just watching the cartridges on TV would not be appealing. More humiliatingly however, was that while this stopped the GBA Player, it does not stop the countless mods released that allowed a GBA to be connected to the TV, nor does it stop GBA clones that outputs to a TV.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • One of the early cases of broadcast copy protection would be channel scrambling. This method once was around to prevent unauthorized users from being able to access premium channels, as back before this was done, a skilled user could potentially be able to access them without having to pay the monthly fee based on old methods. In worse cases, a non-cable customer also had the potential to use cable TV without a subscription. This is what slowly led to the development of the oft-maligned set top boxes that have become unanimous today in cable television. Nowadays, scrambling and encryption of cable signals have become so ubiquitous that most cable companies won't even let you use your service without a set-top box anymore, even the free over-the-air channels; some of this is due to the fact that scrambled signals happen to take up less bandwidth as a side-effect, and in the world of ever-increasing amounts of channels that have to be squeezed in, this is actually a bit of a genuine concern.
    • In one case where it actually led to protest, back before the satellite TV industry turned into what we know of it today as (effectively an equivalent to cable but with a satellite dish the size of a plate on your roof as opposed to an underground cable), the giant C-band satellite dishes were an industry all of their own. One of the major perks to them before the mid-80s was that, despite the high upfront cost, you could get channels that were otherwise premium cable channels such as HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel for free. However, this wasn't the intention; HBO had always intended their service to be the monthly payment type. When they caught on, they eventually began scrambling their signal and required satellite customers to buy a descrambler at a high upfront cost, on top of adding the monthly fee requirement now. The owner of a satellite dealership in Florida was furious at the hit his business took (especially since he already was struggling financially) and protested, leading to the now well known Captain Midnight broadcast intrusion.
  • 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 Cinavia 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 Cinavia-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 have a Cinavia-enabled Blu-Ray disc or DVD 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.

    In-universe examples 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mario Party DS Anti Piracy, a series of videos documenting the (fictional) copy protection measures of Mario Party DS. The videos all end with an image of the characters in a cage (from the game's intro) with the message "POWER OFF NOW" on the bottom screen, an anti-piracy message on the top screen ("PIRACY IS NO PARTY!"), and some unique music not found in the real game, sometimes preceded by having characters calling out the player and attacking their character. One video shows the system connecting to Wi-Fi to call 911 and orders the player to read a confession. A Bilingual Bonus reveals that these measures were being added without Hudson Soft's approval.
  • 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.
  • In Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2's remake, Re;Birth 2, one of the usual people on Chirper, Evil Kid, comes up upon these with things like his save game being deleted before the final boss. Intentional, considering he pirated his game from ASIC.
  • There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension shows a copy protection screen in the middle of a evil monologue in act two. Conveniently, the required code wheel is fixed to the in game monitor. Less conveniently, there are only the digits one to four in the onscreen keyboard, with all codes requiring the use of higher digits.note  Oh, and the shown symbols never have a matching code that can be entered.note 
  • Parodied in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in a particular quest, where Geralt is hired to investigate a mysterious tower that appeared out of nowhere and brought with it a constant storm. In the tower he finds a wizard trapped behind a magical barrier. Apparently the wizard bought the tower at an auction but didn't realize it came with a "Defensive Regulatory Magicon" or DRM for short. When he entered the tower mistook him for an intruder and trapped the hapless mage. He then tasks the player with finding "Gottfried's Omni-opening Grimoire" note  in order to deactivate the DRM.
  • Lumpy Touch's "Pokémon Red Anti-Piracy Screen", an fictional anti-piracy measure, is claimed to have planted by Nintendo to reduce piracy. At the very beginning of the game (as the player is about to start the game after setting up names for the main character and the rival character Gary), Professor Oak started to suspect the player has been acting kind of "sus" lately. When Oak brings the player to his laboratory, he refuses to give the player the Pokéball, and the real player's character is revealed to be tied up in his basement (according to Officer Jenny), and Oak makes Among Us references while speaking about an impostor among them, revealing the player's character to be a Ditto in disguise all along, who tied up the real person. Angered by this, Oak then says that stealing the identity of a human is an unforgivable crime and brings out a special Pokéball (with a keyhole and the word "JAIL" on it) to seal Ditto permanently, as he thinks that this is the only thing he can do with naughty Pokémons (like the disguised Ditto). Then the game soft-locks as a message says the usual "It's a serious crime" and "report the stolen software immediately" message but not before announcing that the player's Pokémon adventure ends and tells the player that he's a fake rather than a real Pokémon trainer.


Video Example(s):


Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals

In order to progress, the player needs to type in a pass from a page in the manual. Failure to do so results in a game over.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (13 votes)

Example of:

Main / CopyProtection

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