NOTE: This article first appeared in the American Music Teacher column called "Random Access" in the August/September 2002 Issue. It has been updated for TI:ME's website. The author is a musician, teacher, music industry consultant, software developer, and a legally licensed user of hundreds of software applications.

Imagine that your day starts like this:

The alarm goes off at the usual time. You stumble out of bed, head to the bathroom and decide to freshen up by brushing your teeth. You insert the electric toothbrush into your mouth and flip the switch. However, it refuses to run. Why? Because it was not authorized to operate in your mouth!

Yesterday, your spouse "authorized" the electric toothbrush for his/her mouth. Even though you are using your own, personal brush attachment, the device refuses to run.

After reverting to the old-fashioned, manual toothbrush, you head downstairs to the kitchen and throw a couple of Poptarts into the toaster. The toaster refuses to warm up. Why? Its internal sensors note that you have not inserted specially constituted bread (marketed by the toaster company) for which the toaster was designed and authorized.

Trying to avoid frustration, you decide that you should eat something more sensible anyway and approach the refrigerator. Of course, the door won't open until you punch in your 16-digit serial number that proves that you actually purchased the refrigerator from an authorized dealer.

Fortunately, you had the foresight to attach that number in big print to the front of the fridge. It is a little tricky to enter the code correctly this early in the morning. After the third try, the door opens. At last, something is going right!

Fact or Fiction?
The foregoing scenario may seem a bit absurd, but it actually represents a logical beginning to what a typical day would be like in the 21st century if most companies followed the same policies and procedures that are commonplace in the technology field.

When I purchase and start to use a new piece of music technology, I am often amazed to find that my new purchase both empowers and limits me! Worse, I often find that the limitations are not limitations of the technology itself but are the result of deliberate attempts by the manufacturer to cramp my use of its product.

Let's look at a few examples and then talk about solutions.

My Personal Experiences with the Dark Side of Music Technology
With borrowed money and great enthusiasm, I purchased my first computer in 1984. Although it enabled me to do little more than type, edit, and work with simple, black & white graphics, I felt empowered! Given my poor typing skills, word processing, alone, provided a huge boost to my productivity. And, I even found a way to render musical examples for my college piano class using an early graphics program called MacPaint.

As each new business or music software program became available, I felt that my professional activities had been given new wings. Then, one day, I ran into the first of many technology companies that tried to limit my use of its product. In this particular case, I felt as though this company was actually trying to shoot me down from the sky.

The time was the late 1980s. Apple Computer had introduced the LaserWriter printer. As a result, word processing had finally reached near professional levels for the average person. Shortly after the introduction of the LaserWriter, a company that specialized in high-resolution text fonts created a high-quality font that consisted of music symbols. The introduction of this font marked the beginning of the new era in personal, desktop publishing for music.

I was excited and quickly acquired a copy. Then, to my horror, I discovered that there was a catch: You could only use your copy of this font with a single printer! Believe it or not, the creators of this font had actually come up with a scheme that locked your use of this font to the first printer with which you used it!

The moment that I realized this, I became incredulous. As best I can recall, the LaserWriter printer cost well over $4,000 and very few people in my situation could afford to purchase their own. Most of us had to rely on laser printers to which we had access at schools or service bureaus. In many cases, people like me would end up printing on different printers from one day to the next. How could we afford to use this new music font if we had to purchase a new copy each time we printed to a different printer?

Shortly after discovering this dilemma, I came up with a successful scheme for defeating the built-in copy protection that came with the font. It worked like this:

The font came on a copy-protected floppy disk. At the time that you downloaded the font to the printer for the first time, the downloading program required you to insert the floppy disk that contained the font into the computer in an unlocked condition. Then, the downloader program wrote an invisible piece of information to the disk that forever tied one's use of the disk to that particular printer.

Although I could make a copy of my original, uncorrupted disk, the font downloading program was smart enough to know that the duplicate disk on which the font resided was actually a copy and refused to use it if I started the process from the duplicate. However, I discovered that there were many steps to the download process and that I could start with the original disk, remove it from the disk drive at a crucial moment, and then substitute my copy without this obnoxious program realizing what I was doing. At that point, the downloader program wrote its invisible information to the copy and left my original disk in its pristine condition.

At the moment that I defeated this little copy-protection scheme, I experienced an incredible technology rush! I felt as though the human had triumphed over technology! In truth, the human had merely triumphed over another human who, in turn, had tried to limit the first human's activities unreasonably.

Fortunately, this stupid copy-protection idea did not last. The company that made the font discovered that it could not build its business by so severely crippling its customers and abandoned this scheme within the next year. In fact, the entire computer industry subsequently began moving away from copy-protection schemes--except the music companies and many of the game companies!

My next, nasty encounter with a company that tried to limit my legitimate use of its product actually resulted in public embarrassment for the company. The company in question made a sequencing program for the computer. In order to run the program, you had to use the original floppy disk to install the program and an invisible key file onto your hard drive. Once you installed the program and key file, you could not install either on another computer without uninstalling the key file from the first computer. Alternatively, you could run the program from the floppy disk using any computer if you kept the floppy disk unlocked and inserted into the disk drive.

On the day of this particular escapade, I was out of town doing a technology demonstration for a group that included the editor of a music magazine and a number of piano teachers. Since this event took place before the days of portable computers, I had to use a borrowed computer.
One option that I had was to uninstall the sequencing program from my home computer, install it onto the borrowed computer, uninstall it when I was done, and then reinstall it at home. My other option was to run the program from the floppy disk without ever installing it onto the hard drive of the borrowed computer. I chose the latter option.

In the morning, I did the smart thing: I tested all of my technology in order to make sure that things were working properly for the afternoon presentation. Little did I know that there was a bug in the copy-protection scheme of the sequencing program. When I ran the program in the morning, the sequencer seemed to work fine, but it mistakenly over-wrote the invisible key file on the floppy disk. Therefore, when it came time to run the program again in the afternoon, the program refused to load.

The publisher of the program did send me a new copy, free of charge, but the publisher has continued, to this day, to find new ways to insure that my use of this software product is limited. Over a 15-year period, that publisher sent me five new disks just for the purpose of replacing invisible hard disk key files that were lost for various reasons, including computer crashes and reformatted hard drives.

The list of absurd scenarios that I have experienced does not stop here. Once I demonstrated a new keyboard instrument to a group of flutists. The instrument was capable of playing accompaniments from floppy disk. One flute virtuoso challenged me to increase the playback tempo more than 20%. In order to do that, I had to use a particular feature of the instrument that resulted in a new tempo being written to the floppy disk. However, there was a copy-protection scheme on this particular disk that prevented me from doing so. The result was a poor public demonstration of an otherwise fine keyboard instrument.

On another trip, I planned to demonstrate a well-known music notation program. The publisher had recently adopted a new copy-protection scheme in which it occasionally asked me to insert the master CD-ROM just for the purpose of proving that it was still in my possession. I saw no point in needlessly carrying this disk across the country, so when the program refused to run in front of the audience without the insertion of the CD-ROM, we abandoned the program and went on to something else.

No End to Ridiculous Schemes
Some of the most ridiculous schemes, such as this last one, have been removed by the perpetrator, but alternative schemes never cease to plague us. Some software companies, for example, require you to plug a small piece of hardware, called a dongle, into the computer in order to run its software. If you lose or break the dongle, or purchase a new computer that does not fit the dongle, you may not be able to run the program.

Recently, I purchased and downloaded a new software program over the Internet. Unlike most programs that now come with an absurdly long string of letters and numbers that must be entered when you first run the program, this program came with no serial number at all. However, it required me to enter just such a serial number in order to use it the first time! To get one, I had to log on to a special area of the company's web site and enter more information. Shortly thereafter, I received the necessary serial number by email. Thank goodness I had Internet access!

Over the years I have owned a large number of computers. Moving my software from one computer to another has been a substantial challenge, mostly because I am repeated required by many music software publishers to authorize a new computer and deauthorize a previously used computer. This task has become particularly burdensome in my case because I travel a lot and must have the same software available on my traveling laptop that I have on my home desktop.

Fortunately, most of the publishers that limit computer authorizations allow 2 computers to be authorized at any one time. In one case, however, I ran into a very odd restriction in this regard. A publisher of softsynths informed me that if I ever deauthorized a particular computer, I could never reauthorize it again!

This latter restriction posed a real problem for me. When I am at home, it makes sense for me to use my fastest computer with my softsynths. That computer is my desktop computer. When I travel for the purpose of giving a live performance or a presentation, I use a laptop--and I bring a backup laptop just in case! Under this restriction, however, I cannot put my softsynths on the backup laptop without forever losing my authorization for my desktop computer.

Recently I had to reinstall the system software on one of my computers. It seems as though I have to do this to fix a technical problem between 1 and 3 times over the useful life of the computer. Each time I do this, I have no trouble backing up and restoring my data--except that I have the time-wasting chore of locating all of the original music install CDs and authorization codes and inputting a bunch of data that I input previously.

I suppose that I would not be so bothered by all of this if there was just one such software program that I use. However, I have spent thousands of dollars on software and actively use as many as 50 different applications. Will no one show this customer a little mercy???

Why Do they Treat us this Way?
The examples that I have cited thus far are not isolated cases of technology providers deliberately crippling the end user. Every day, thousands of person hours are lost because technology providers require end users to jump through hoops that have absolutely nothing to do with the reason for which they bought the new technology in the first place. In the worst cases, end users--particularly the less technically savvy ones--are prevented from using their products all together.

Why do they do this to us?
During the late 80s and early 90s, it became clear to the publishers of business software that the software copy-protection schemes of the day were so disturbing that they hurt business. So, one-by-one, software companies that made business software started getting rid of copy protection. In the last few years, there has been a bit of a resurgence of copy protection in the business world, but those restrictions are typically much less onerous than what one finds in the music world.

In the case of musicians and music teachers, we have long had the issue that many people choose to copy music rather than purchase it. Although it is hard to imagine that there could be very many musicians who have not been told that there are both legal and moral issues to consider with respect to copying, there still seems to be a significant number of individuals who do it anyway.

Based on this experience--I think--music technology companies often assume that end-users of music products will use every opportunity they can find to avoid making purchases of music software programs and music data files, such as MIDI files and electronic sheet music.
Music technology companies tend to be small. Each time a consumer makes or uses an illegal copy of software or a data file, the developer often takes it rather personally, and annoying copy-protection is the frequent result.

But Why Do They Take it out on Me?
Although I understand how the technology providers feel about this issue, I do wonder why they continue to come up with ways to limit my use of their products. I am not the problem, so why punish me?

Are you part of the problem? Or are you an innocent victim who has paid good money for a product that tries to limit your use of it?

If, like me, you are in the latter category, I urge you to speak out on this matter whenever you can. Tell the music technology companies how you feel. Educate your friendly, neighborhood software pirate (who may be one of your colleagues!) about the legitimate use of intellectual property.

Now that we are living in the 21st century, let's see if we achieve a situation in which we are just as free to use our keyboards, MIDI files, and music software as we are to use our toothbrushes, toasters, and refrigerators!


by George F. Litterst

George Litterst has taught in a wide variety of musical environments: university, conservatory prep school, community music school, public school, and private studio. Academic institutions where he has taught include the New England Conservatory of Music Preparatory School, Northeastern University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is a member of many professional musical and educational organizations such as Music Teachers National Association. Currently he has a high-tech home studio in Rehoboth, MA.

A primary interest in the use of computers to create new opportunities for music learning and exploration has lead Mr. Litterst to become co-developer of: Home Concert 2000, an intelligent music accompanist available from TimeWarp Technologies (; Adventures in Musicland(TM), four computer games that explore sound, pictures, and music; Music Mentor(TM), an introduction to music history and the fundamentals of music; and Perceive(R), an integrated ear training and music theory package.

Mr. Litterst's writings include educational materials, music software documentation, articles on music and computer applications in professional journals, and articles on consumer software. His publication credits include: Keyboard Companion, American Music Teacher, Electronic Musician, Piano & Keyboard, Sheet Music Magazine, JAZZIZ, Play, American Suzuki Journal, Piano Quarterly, Soundwaves, Coda Notes, Keyboard Classics, the I.S.A.M. Newsletter, and The MACazine. He is also the author of a book on music theory as well as Inside Finale: The Art and Science of Music Notation.

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