Copy protection options for USBs

Copy protection schemes have been around almost since the invention of magnetic media back in the 80’s.

In fact one of my first business ventures was writing copy protection code to protect software distributed on floppy disks for the early PCs.

It’s fair to say that media based copy protection has become less fashionable over the years with the perception that the hindrance to paying users outweighs the extra business generated from converting ‘lost sales’ from copying.

However there are still circumstances where content publishers need to restrict a users ability to copy and distribute their content.

When distributing content on USB flash drive media there are number of options for protection.

1. Password protect the document.

For documents created in most popular software there is usually a password protect option when saving. This allows you to set a password which the users then need to enter when opening the document. The password is the same for all users. This option adds no extra cost to duplication as it’s part of the original file.

The user can copy and distribute the file but still needs the password for it to open.

2. Password protect the USB drive.

It’s possible to implement a system where the user needs to enter a password to access any of the content of a USB. However this is prone difficulties for the user where they do not have admin rights on their PC as is often the case in business environments and may cause the USB to be unacceptable to a portion of the intended user base. Not recommended. 

3. Copy Protect the file and link it to the USB stick.

The most advanced option is to implement a copy protection scheme where the content is linked via a software check to the USB it’s distributed on, using the USB as a ‘dongle’.

Each USB has a unique reference. When the content is opened the copy protection software checks to see if the USB is plugged into the machine. If the original USB can’t be found then the content can not be accessed.

The user can still copy the content from the USB but the content will not work unless the USB is plugged into the machine.

4. Write Protect the USB or “Data Locking”.

Not ‘copy protection’ as such rather a way of ensuring your content can not be deleted or modified on the USB. The user can still copy the content off the USB and access it.

Some clients use this option to create a write protected volume on their USB to ensure the longevity of their content while giving the user a normal read\write volume to use as they wish. The practical upshot is that the user keeps using the USB stick for their work along side the original content from the USB sticks company.

This process is also known as data-locking.

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