Problems arise with Vista's validation

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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