By Brian Livingston
Microsoft always says it opposes “software pirates” who sell thousands of unauthorized copies of Windows.
But the Redmond company has made things a lot easier for pirates by adding a line to the Registry that can be changed from 0 to 1 to postpone the need to “activate” Vista indefinitely.
Activation doesn’t stop true software piracy
As most Windows users know, Microsoft has required “product activation” since the release of Windows XP in 2001. XP must be activated by communicating with servers in Redmond within 30 days of installation. By contrast, Microsoft Office XP, 2003, and 2007 require activatation before the package is used 5 to 50 times, depending on the version, according to a company FAQ. If a PC has no Internet connection, a user may activate a product by dialing a telephone number in various countries.
The activation process will complete successfully only if the software has not been previously activated, such as on a different machine. If activation isn’t completed within the trial period, Microsoft products temporarily shut down some of their features. MS Office loses the ability to edit and save files. After Vista’s activation deadline runs out, the user can do little other than use Internet Explorer to activate the operating system or buy a new license.
Microsoft describes its product activation scheme as a way to foil software pirates. However, as I previously described in an InfoWorld Magazine article on Oct. 22, 2001, activation does nothing to stop mass piracy. The Redmond company actually included in Windows XP a small file, Wpa.dbl, that makes it easy for pirates to create thousands of machines that validate perfectly.
Far from stopping software piracy, product activation has primarily been designed to prevent home users from installing one copy of Windows on a home machine and a personal-use copy on a laptop. As I explained in an article on Mar. 8, buying a copyrighted work and making another copy strictly for personal use is specifically permitted to consumers by the U.S. Copyright Act and the copyright laws of many other countries.
For example, courts have repeatedly ruled that consumers can make copies of copyrighted songs or television programs for personal use (not for distribution or resale). This principle is legally known as "fair use." The home edition of Microsoft Office 2007 reflects this principle, allowing consumers to activate three copies of a single purchased product. Microsoft Windows XP and Vista, however, allow only one activation.
Surprisingly, Microsoft has embedded into its new Vista operating system a feature that makes things easier than ever for true, mass software pirates. These tricksters will be able to produce thousands of Windows PCs machines that won’t demand activation indefinitely — at least for a year or more.
Leaving the activation barn door open
I reported in a Feb. 1 article that the upgrade version of Windows Vista allows itself to be clean-installed to a new hard drive. The new Microsoft operating system completely omits any checking for a qualifying previous version of Windows. This allows the upgrade version of Vista to successfully upgrade over a nonactivated, trial version of itself.
After my article appeared, ZDnet blogger Ed Bott summarized the secret in a post on Feb. 15. He flatly states, “You satisfied every condition of the license agreement and aren’t skating by on a technicality. The fact that you have to use a kludgey workaround to use the license you’ve purchased and are legally entitled to is Microsoft’s fault.”
In my own piece, I had speculated that clean-installing the upgrade version of Vista “probably violates the Vista EULA (End User License Agreement).” But more and more computer experts are saying that the procedure is fully compliant with the EULA and, in any event, is perfectly legal.
I wrote a follow-up story on Feb. 15. I reported that Microsoft includes in Vista a one-line command that even novices can use to postpone the product’s activation deadline three times. This can extend the deadline from its original 30 days to as much as 120 days — almost four months.
PCWorld.com posted a report on my story on Feb. 17. The magazine quotes a Microsoft spokeswoman as saying that extending Vista’s activation deadline as I described it “is not a violation of the Vista End User License Agreement.” I’m glad that’s clear.
The feature that I’ve revealing today shows that Microsoft has built into Vista a function that allows anyone to extend the operating system’s activation deadline not just three times, but many times. The same one-line command that postpones Vista’s activation deadline to 120 days can be used an indefinite number of times by first changing a Registry key from 0 to 1.
This isn’t a hacker exploit. It doesn’t require any tools or utilities whatsoever. Microsoft even documented the Registry key, although obtusely, on its Technet site.
But dishonest PC sellers could use the procedure to install thousands of copies of Vista and sell them to unsuspecting consumers or businesses as legitimately activated copies. This would certainly violate the Vista EULA, but consumers might not realize this until the PCs they bought started demanding activation — and failing — months or years later.
The following describes the Registry key that’s involved.
Step 1. While running a copy of Windows Vista that hasn’t yet been activated, click the Start button, type regedit into the Search box, then press Enter to launch the Registry Editor.
Step 2. Explore down to the following Registry key:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE SOFTWARE Microsoft Windows NT CurrentVersion SL
Step 3. Right-click the Registry key named SkipRearm and click Edit. The default is a Dword (a double word or 4 bytes) with a hex value of 00000000. Change this value to any positive integer, such as 00000001, save the change, and close the Registry Editor.
Step 4. Start a command prompt with administrative rights. The fastest way to do this is to click the Start button, enter cmd in the Search box, then press Ctrl+Shift+Enter. If you’re asked for a network username and password, provide the ones that log you into your domain. You may be asked to approve a User Account Control prompt and to provide an administrator password.
Step 5. Type one of the following two commands and press Enter:
Either command uses Vista’s built-in Software Licensing Manager (SLMGR) to push the activation deadline out to 30 days after the command is run. Changing SkipRearm from 0 to 1 allows SLMGR to do this an indefinite number of times. Running either command initializes the value of SkipRearm back to 0.
Step 6. Reboot the PC to make the postponement take effect. (After you log in, if you like, you can open a command prompt and run the command slmgr -xpr to see Vista’s new expiration date and time. I explained the slmgr command and its parameters in my Feb. 15 article.)
Step 7. To extend the activation deadline of Vista indefinitely, repeat steps 1 through 6 as necessary.
Any crooked PC seller with even the slightest technical skill could easily install a command file that would carry out steps 1 through 6 automatically. The program could run slmgr -rearm three times, 30 days apart, to postpone Vista’s activation deadline to 120 days. It could then run skip -rearm every 30 days, for a period of months if not years, by first resetting the SkipRearm key.
The program could be scheduled to check Vista’s activation deadline during every reboot, and to remind the user to reboot once a month if a deadline was nearing. The buyer of such a PC would never even see an activation reminder, much less be required to go through the activation process.
If you happen to buy a Vista PC from a little-known seller, and the price was too good to be true, use Vista’s search function to look for the string SkipRearm in files. You may discover that your "bargain" computer will mysteriously start demanding activation in a year or two — but your product key won’t be valid.
I asked Microsoft why SkipRearm is included in Vista if it can be used to create machines that appear not to need activation for long periods. A Microsoft spokewoman replied, “I connected with my colleagues and learned, unfortunately, we do not have information to share at this time.” (I can’t identify the speaker because the policy of Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s public-relations firm, prohibits the naming of p.r. spokespersons.)
In my testing of Microsoft’s back-door loophole, I’ve found that the technique can be used to postpone the activation deadline one year or longer. It may or may not, however, work forever, as I describe below.
Why does SkipRearm even exist in Vista?
The Vista development teaam apparently inserted the SkipRearm loophole to help major corporations work around Microsoft’s new Volume Licensing Agreement. This new program, which the Redmond company calls "Volume Licensing 2.0," requires buyers to set up a Key Management Service (KMS) host, as described by a Microsoft FAQ. Companies must choose from two types of digital keys and three different methods of activation to validate thousands of individual Vista machines within the corporate LAN.
Activation of Windows XP, by comparison, requires merely that volume purchasers use a single product key. Corporate buyers obtain a unique key when signing a Volume Licensing Agreement. Microsoft has said, however, that most Windows XP piracy involves stolen product keys that are used by others to activate unauthorized machines.
The new KMS requirement is intended to discourage such piracy, but it places a heavy burden on corporate IT administrators. For example, Microsoft provides a tool called System Preparation (sysprep.exe) to prepare Vista machines for use. If a system can’t be completely prepped within 30 days after installation, an admin can run the command sysprep /generalize to postpone the activation deadline another 30 days. However, like the slmgr -rearm command, sysprep /generalize will only succeed three times.
To work around this, as a Technet document states, "Microsoft recommends that you use the SkipRearm setting if you plan on running Sysprep multiple times on a computer." This is echoed by Microsoft Knowledge Base article 929828.
Contributing editor Susan Bradley points out, "The good guys have to go through this stupid implementation of a KMS deployment because of bad guys abusing the system." She strongly feels that users should comply with Microsoft’s EULA provisions. "The operating system license has always been a one-machine install. … Many of us forget the multiple-install rule [for Microsoft Office] since we are so used to the one license, one install rule," she adds.
In its TechNet documents, Microsoft recommends the repeated use of SkipRearm. How many times is "multiple times"? My testing revealed that the answer is, well, indefinite.
• On a copy of Vista Ultimate that Microsoft released in New York City on Jan. 29, I found that changing SkipRearm from 0 to 1 allowed the command slmgr -rearm to postpone Vista’s activation deadline eight separate times. After that, changing the 0 to 1 had no effect, preventing slmgr -rearm from moving the deadline. The use of slmgr -rearm 3 times, plus using SkipRearm 8 times would eliminate Vista’s activation nag screens for about one year (12 periods of 30 days).
• On a copy of the upgrade version of Vista Home Premium that I bought in a retail store on Jan. 30, slmgr -rearm also worked 3 times and SkipRearm worked 8 times before losing their effect. This combination would, as with Vista Ultimate, permit a one-year use of Vista without nag screens appearing.
• On a copy of the full version of Vista Home Premium that I bought in a retail store on Mar. 14, SkipRearm had no effect on extending the use of slmgr -rearm at all. This suggests that Microsoft has slipstreamed a new version into stores, eliminating the SkipRearm feature in Vista Home. That could mean that changing the key from 0 to 1 will now work only in the business editions of Vista — Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate — so corporations can use the loophole.
Where is the usage count of slmgr -rearm stored? Where is the usage count of SkipRearm stored? These bytes won’t be hard for expert users to find. The use restrictions may be easily lifted. If so, this would allow crooked PC sellers to truly create machines that would never need activation, ever.
The financial impact of SkipRearm on Microsoft
I’d like to repeat here that I’m not advocating that anyone use the above technique to violate Microsoft’s EULA or avoid paying for Vista. Any company that used SkipRearm to install Vista on multiple machines for as long as possible would have little defense against a surprise inspection by the Business Software Alliance. This coalition of software makers, which includes Microsoft, investigates reports of unlicensed software and obtains warrants to conduct audits.
As a journalist, my job is to report the facts. SkipRearm was specifically built into Vista to be used. Microsoft executives made Vista’s activation overly complex and cumbersome. So the development team apparently invented a Registry key to lift the burden of Vista’s activation deadline, for at least a year and probably more.
The technique is so powerful and basic, however, that hackers around the world may soon use the feature to install millions of extra copies of Vista without buying them. This could have a major impact on Microsoft’s revenues. The company’s employees and shareholders might want to be aware of this.
Product activation does little or nothing to stop mass software piracy. It’s become so convoluted, the way Microsoft has implemented it, that it’s more of an irritation to legitimate users than a worthwhile antipiracy measure. In my opinion, Microsoft should concentrate on legal action against true pirates instead of inventing more ways to drive honorable users bonkers.
I invite my readers to send me information about SkipRearm using the Windows Secrets contact page. I’d like to thank my program director, Brent Scheffler, for tirelessly testing SkipRearm dozens of times, and reader Reine T. for being the first to point out the use of SkipRearm to me. He’ll receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for sending me a tip that I used.
Brian Livingston is editorial director of the Windows Secrets Newsletter and the co-author of Windows Vista Secrets and 10 other books.