Problems arise with Vista's validation

Problems arise with Vista's validation

Summary: Microsoft announced its new anti-piracy measures for Windows Vista last fall with an assurance that its tight integration into the operating system would reduce the number of false positives. But its own message boards tell a different story, with at least four third-party applications now known to cause validation problems and even outright activation failures.

TOPICS: Windows

Update: I've prepared an image gallery showing what you'll see if you're unlucky enough to trigger the Vista anti-tampering warnings. read my follow-up report and then view the entire gallery here.

Last year, when Microsoft announced a new anti-piracy infrastructure for Windows Vista, I was skeptical. Here's what I wrote at the time:

What's most distressing about the SPP announcement is Microsoft's continued insistence that its anti-piracy tools are nearly perfect and that innocent victims never suffer from errors in their code. ... Microsoft insists that "most customers should never be affected by having a non-genuine installation." That reassurance would be a lot more comforting if there wasn't already a solid base of failures in its current WGA program.

And now, only weeks after the retail launch of Windows Vista, early Vista adopters are experiencing a wave of validation and activation problems.

I first heard about this a couple weeks ago, in a post that recounted one user's experience with a new game called 9Dragons:

I signup for the game and download the client, install without a hitch.

I am playing the game when all of a sudden I get popped out of my game back to desktop with a message that my copy of Vista isn’t Genuine.


I tried to revalidate my copy of Vista only to be told that it was still not genuine. When I uninstalled the game and tried guess what it worked.

As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. A quick scan of Microsoft's Windows Vista Validation Issues forum turns up many similar examples, with users who paid for a retail key being told that their copy is "no longer genuine" and that the key is in use.

The underlying issues were identified by Microsoft a few days after Vista's release to manufacturing last November and publicly disclosed in this post on the Windows Vista Validation Issues forum:

There are several threads in this forum that refer to Error 0xc004d401 causing non-genuine status or preventing activation.  In those threads, we have discussed 3 applications that have been identified as conflicting with Vista software licensing technology (which causes the issue).

The offenders included PC Tools Spyware Doctor (updating to the most recent version fixes the issue), Trend Micro Internet Security and PC-Cillin Anti-Virus (the issue goes away if you install version 14.56 or later), and nProtect GameGuard.

That last product is the killer, as it turns out. This anti-cheating package used in a variety of online games has previously been called out for behavior that resembles a rootkit. The program's action apparently triggers the anti-tampering features in Windows Vista. As I wrote last fall, that's not good news for the user:

The most chilling part of SPP is its new code to detect tampering. As Lindeman explained to me, "If the Software Protection Platform determines that the core binaries of your system have been hacked with, you will get a notification that operating system has been tampered with. Reinstallation is the remedy." And the clock starts ticking immediately. When an anti-tampering warning first appears, you have three days to reinstall or otherwise fix your copy of Windows Vista or shift into reduced functionality mode. 

Unfortunately, getting a fix for the GameGuard problem isn't as easy as it should be. According to Microsoft, each game manufacturer has to acquire the fix and then integrate the new version of GameGuard into their product.

In an unrelated issue, on January 30, the date of Vista's retail release, Microsoft published Knowledge Base article 931573, You may be prompted to activate Windows Vista on a computer on which Windows Vista activation was not previously required, which lists the following symptoms:

You may be prompted to activate Windows Vista on a computer on which Windows Vista activation was not previously required. Although this problem rarely occurs, it may occur during typical use of a Windows Vista-based computer. For example, this problem may occur under one or more of the following conditions:

  • You install a device driver.
  • You install a program.
  • You run a new program.
  • You remove a program.

The article goes on to report the reasons that the problem occurs:

This problem may occur because a specific system setting is removed when a program runs with administrative credentials. The removal of this system setting may cause a BIOS validation check to fail. The BIOS validation check is part of the system activation process. Therefore, you may be prompted to activate Windows Vista, even though the system did not previously require activation. For example, this problem is known to occur when you use Intuit QuickBooks 2007. However, this problem may also infrequently occur when you install other programs or device drivers.

Give Microsoft credit for taking ownership of the problem and not throwing the blame back on third-party developers. The KB article contains this unequivocal statement:

This problem does not occur because of an issue in the installed program or device driver. This problem is caused by a system problem in Windows Vista.

The 931573 patch is delivered via Windows Update, but because it's listed as a Recommended update (rather than Critical or Important), it's not installed by the Automatic Updates mechanism.

At this point, there's no telling how many people are affected by these issues. In some cases, at least, the only fix is to reactivate over the phone, a process that involves convincing a support tech that your installation is legitimate, reading a 50-character product ID over the phone, and then typing in a matching 50-character ID.

More details as this story develops.

Update: this story has been edited since its initial publication to correct an error in the date of publication of KB article 931573.

Update #2: Think it can't happen to you? Ask CMP's Alexander Wolfe, who reported his experiences with a copy of Windows Vista supplied directly by Microsoft.

Topic: Windows

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  • Unfortunate Bug

    This is a bug that needs to be fixed plain and simple. I'm a little suprised that this didn't get caught in testing, maybe it did.

    I know everyone hates DRM and copy protection, but its becoming a fact of life for commercial software and content. I know that most people say that DRM/copy protection is bad because it doesn't really stop pirating and inconviences legitimate users, and this is a great example of that.

    At the same time, when ths US runs a a trade defict with China to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, when is the largest source of pirating, I'm not willing to say just drop DRM and copy protection technology and let a country that kills us in trade and labor costs steal and steal. That doesn't seem right either.

    Its not the easiest problem to solve.
    • Basic economics

      You run a 100% trade deficit with your local grocery store. Does that spell disaster
      for your personal economics? Of course not. That's because trade is decentralized.
      Trade deficits are fear mongering by unions and protectionists. Don't fall for the junk
      economics of trade deficits.

      Regarding DRM? It's becoming a fact of life because of MS's effective monopoly in
      operating systems. I can guarantee you that if Linux or OS X had a 20% market share,
      copy protection would disappear in a hot minute.
      • OSX has it's own Softawre Validation tool:

        It's built into the hardware. Try running OSX on anything other then an Apple. That's thier version of "WGA". A person who orders OSX and trys to install it on their Dell or HP soon discover that they need to now purchase an Apple machine to actually use it.

        [i]can guarantee you that if Linux or OS X had a 20% market share, copy protection would disappear in a hot minute.[/i]

        That's easy to say as you can't really prove it. Who's to say that they wouldn't have their own version of the WGA tool as part of their software if they had the market share of 20%?
        John Zern
        • Silly answer

          ---It's built into the hardware. Try running OSX on anything other then an Apple. That's thier version of "WGA"---

          Try running Windows on your toothbrush. Or OSX on your shoes. Or Linux on your carpet. Duh. Guess by your standards all these operating systems have Validation Tools as you actually have to own hardware capable of running them.

          However, if you buy OSX, you can install it on as many Macs as you'd like. You'd be violating the terms of service, but there's nothing stopping you from doing this, other than your own honesty.
          tic swayback
          • Also no nagging checks to make sure it is still valid

            Also no activation required.
        • Yes, I can say it

          MS has demonstrated that they'll loosen their chokehold the moment a competitor comes along.

          When Firefox grabbed 10% of the IE browser share, all of a sudden, MS announced they were making a new, standalone version of IE.

          When WordPerfect got positive press for having a low-cost office solution and started getting bundled on consumer OEM systems, MS immediately came out with ridiculously loose licensing on their "education" version of office.
        • Why would I want to run OS X on anything other than a Mac?

          I certainly wouldn't want to run it on the cheap and nasty stuff
          my friends are using. This could be partly why they have so
          much trouble with Windoze. Or am I being too kind to Microsoft?
          • I would like to try it...

            because I don't feel the need to replace my hardware to run it (and yes Vista will run on this hardware without replacing it). But unfortunatly Apple doesn't allow it. Oh well, I'll just stick to Windows for now.
        • That's an ignorant statement...

          There's no authentication whatsoever. Mac OS X simply looks for a special chip that's built in to all Intel-based Macs. The reason for this is simple. Are you paying attention? Microsoft makes it's money selling SOFTWARE. Microsoft looses money on ever single piece of hardware it sells. Apple, on the other hand, makes it's money selling HARDWARE. Apple makes a glorious profit on all of it's hardware, which is why they don't want the public to be able to install Mac OS X on their sub-standard PCs. Also, this opening up Mac OS X to PCs would create the same problems that Microsoft faces. Apple's hardware and software work so well because they are all designed by Apple itself. It's a closed system, and it works great that way. I wouldn't have it any other way.
    • Contradictory statements

      I'm confused here, as you seem to be contradicting yourself. First you say:
      ---DRM/copy protection is bad because it doesn't really stop pirating and inconviences legitimate users---

      Then you say:
      ---I'm not willing to say just drop DRM and copy protection technology and let a country that kills us in trade and labor costs steal and steal---

      These statements don't make sense together. DRM does not work and does nothing to stop piracy, yet you will not give it up because China is pirating our products (even though they have DRM). If it's already happening despite the DRM, why do we need to keep it, other than to inconvenience legit users?
      tic swayback
      • Gun Control Laws

        It's the same mentality as gun control laws. Only the law abiding follow them, but that's the whole point, because the real reason is not the stated reason.

        In Microsoft's case, DRM is not about piracy, it's about revenue. For years, MS claimed that piracy kept the price of its products high because MS had to make up for lost revenue. So when they finally convince people to accept draconian DRM to stop piracy, MS responds by structuring their product to make it as expensive as possible to purchase, and they've structured it so as to make it easier for users to feel the need to buy additional copies.

        The end game here, of course, is a subscription model where you pay a monthly fee, like cable, to continue using Windows. Unless OS X or Linux makes significant in-roads, I see this move occurring within about 5 years, once people get conditioned into Microsoft owning their computers.

        As with all things, ignore what people say, and watch what they do.
        • Ding Ding Ding! We have a winner!

          Always nice to see someone who gets it. DRM is not, nor has it ever been about piracy.

          Probably the first DRM most of us encountered was region encoding on DVDs (which only allow you to play DVDs in certain countries). Region encoding was never about piracy, it was about artificially inflating prices in particular markets. If the UK price for a DVD was less than the US price, region encoding stopped US citizens from getting a better deal in a different market.

          DRM is about charging you for anything that has value. Best description I've read of it comes from this article:

          "I once attended a DRM negotiation where an MPAA vice-president said, "Watching a show that's being received in one room while you're sitting in another room has value, and if it has value, we should be able to charge money for it." Siva Vaidhyanathan calls this the "if value, then right" theory -- if something has value, someone must have a right to sell it. So while you might be accustomed to extracting unexpected value from your old media -- ripping a CD to play it on your iPod, copying a cartoon and sticking it on your fridge, taking your books with you when you move overseas -- forget about it from now on.

          Every conceivable source of value for DRM digital movies is now potentially for sale. I've heard proposals for "discounted" movies that you can't fast-forward ("discounted" in the sense that products you buy with a store loyalty card are "discounted" -- they raise the price unless you use the card). Prepare for the future where every button on your remote has a price-tag on it. "
          tic swayback
          • Double Ding Ding Ding

            And the main point, what SHOULD be first and foremost in the false "piracy" claims, IF piracy has been rampant (as Microsoft claims) all these years, how did they make hundreds of billions of dollars and become the biggest corporation in the world all the while pirates have been robbing them blind?

            Seems to me, if I had been made filthy rich by piracy, instead of trying to stamp out piracy, I would be shouting "COME ON PIRATES"! Any way I can help you? Just let me know.

            Ole Man
          • If the piracy claims were real....

            ...then clearly WPA and WGA must have reduced MS' losses due to piracy, right? So shouldn't Windows be dropping in price, rather than staying the same/increasing? You know, because of all that extra revenue MS has made from eliminating piracy?
            tic swayback
  • And the pain continues...

    when will people learn? When will Microsoft learn? WGA is a failed effort. DRM is a fantasy that only inhibits the law abiding citizens.

    How is it a muti-billion dollar corporation is unable to accept a small loss? They make enough money to offset any loss they are experiencing. As for piracy, Microsoft has no one to blame but themselves. They allowed it to go unabated for over 20 years and now it's common place. They made the bed... now it's time to sleep in it!

    At least I don't have to prove I own my OS, and I own my OS! ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • What pain? This is comedy...

      Watching a multi-trillion dollar company repeatedly shoot itself in the foor by spitting on it's customers with solutions that don't address the real piracy problem, and then blaming everyone else but themselves, is just too funny for words.

      Yes, I suppose that if I ran MS Windows I might be sad about how they are treating me... but then again, that's why I don't run MS Windows anymore. Frankly, anyone who still runs Windows has chosen the 'devil they know' (MS) over the 'devil they don't' (Solaris, Linux, *BSD, OS-X, etc...) and they will just have to live with the suffering that results from that choice.

      The rest of us are free to laugh.

      • Better than the pain of no apps

        The "Gee, there's no DRM/copy protection in (put your favorite *NIX here)" is always a funny too. Since one of the apps in question is gaming releated and we all know how big the *NIX game market is!

        Seriously, its not good to see this type o thing but the Windows universe is so huge that there are just going to be problems with OS/app integration forever.

        And really, telling a PC gamer to use *NIX, what's the point in that? Using a console would make more sense for a gamer.

        Overall, Vista is pretty nice. I've got it on a Tablet PC convertiable and I actually use digtial ink and penning. There's no analog to this technology at this level. I stream my recorded TV content over my Windows Media Center. While this can be done on other platforms, it works very well and is easy to setup.

        Windows has its problems for sure. But most ABM'ers seem to gloss over the sheer overall power and resouces that are in the Windows platform. That's why I use it and like it for the most part.
        • OTOH....

          [i]"ABM'ers seem to gloss over the sheer overall power and resouces that are in the Windows platform. That's why I use it and like it for the most part."[/i]

          NBM'ers seem to gloss over the sheer overall power and resouces that are on [b]non[/b]-Windows platforms. That's why I use them and like it for the most part.

          In addition I do not have to deal with DRM and WGA. For me that's a plus. If I want to play games, I'll do it properly and get a console.
          • They don't gloss over or overlook anything.

            It just seem that many in the Linux crowd get very upset when someone decides in the end to go with/stick with Windows. They take it as a personal affront, which is strange.
            John Zern
          • That's rich....

            ... coming from you.