Friday, January 15, 2016

Creating a Software Licensing Solution with LiveCode

The final development stage of my video analysis tool is coming along nicely. I hope to wrap it up in the next few days in order to do some final beta testing before I release version 1.0 as a commercial product. I keep joking that I plan to price it at the cost of a breve expresso, but I think that is about the right price. I actually plan to give it away to a lot of colleagues and their students, especially here at UGA. (Disclaimer: I was not paid or compensated in any way by the University of Georgia to create this tool.) But, I do think there will be a small market for this tool and I'm looking forward to the entrepreneurial experience that awaits. Just going through all of the steps to get this thing to market and figuring out how to accept payment and provide customer service will be a great learning experience for me. (I considering submitting to one of the available online stores, such as the Mac App Store.)

These thoughts point to the need to produce a free version of the tool that prospective customers can access to evaluate to make sure it serves their needs well. If it is a good tool for them, then I hope it will persuade them to purchase the full version. Likewise, I would like an easy way to give the tool to colleagues for use in their classes. Now, I could produce several different, standalone versions of the tool where each serves a distinct purpose. But, that would be complicated and a lot of work. So, I've come up with a solution that allows me to create and maintain one product that serves all purposes. Now, I'm sure there is a great literature out there somewhere that would explain various approaches or algorithms for doing this. But, true to my design spirit, I just forged ahead and invented my own approach.

Lloyd's Licensing Approach

The approach I used relies on one new global variable that I titled "varFullVersion" that is either true or false. When true - as the name suggests - all options and functions are available to the user. When false, a few critical options or functions are turned off. I have set it to false by default, so the free version is triggered upon start up unless the program finds a certain value in a certain file stored on the user's computer.

Deciding on which options or functions to turn off was an interesting design decision. There is a balance to be struck between giving users enough functionality to be able to evaluate the tool, but not enough to keep them from wanting to purchase the full tool if they find it useful. I settled on disabling two main functions. First, the free version only allows the user to work on one project. If you want to work on another, you have to first delete that project before beginning another. I also removed the capability to export source files. Not doing so would have created a loop hole allowing people to use the free version - albeit inconveniently - pretty much as the full version. They could begin a project, then export the source file and delete the project, only to import the source file later to continue working on the original project. I should probably turn off other functions as well (e.g. ability to import source files), but I'd rather error now on the side of giving people a good opportunity to check out the tool.

How to Integrate Licensing Codes

The next obvious question is how to toggle the varFullVersion variable to true or false. The concept is simple - people download the free version, so the default value is false. Then, if they decide to purchase the full version (or if I want to give to them), I need to give them some code that "turns on" the full version. If you have ever downloaded trial versions of commercial software, you know just how common this is. You download the trial version and if you then purchase the software, you are simply sent a code to unlock it.

One way to do this would be to hard code into the standalone alone a secret code that, if entered by the user, would unlock the full version. But, I wanted to have a little more control than that. I wanted to have a list of codes that I could give out and manage. For example, say I have a colleague who is teaching a course and wants to start using the tool next week with his students. I wanted a way to give that colleague a unique code to share with his students that would be "active" for a short period of time, just long enough for his students to download the tool and activate it. But, I didn't want his students to give out the code to friends and family to activate the tool later. I needed a way to activate or deactivate a list of unique codes at will.

Storing Codes on the Internet

Fortunately, in some of my other LiveCode projects, I have learned how easy it is to use information from text files stored on the Internet. I really like this approach because it saves me from the hassle of creating a database backend for storing simple information. So, I have hard coded into my tool a web address that points to a simple text file containing a list of codes. (Sorry, I won't be giving out that URL here - that would defeat the "secrecy" needed for the approach!) Here is an example of what the file looks like:

 87-93-87-22-44, the current commercial license code  
 bob7395, special code for Dr. Bob to use the tool with his class  
 stop, psych101vat, special code for the introductory psychology courses  
 vatforfamily, a special code just for sharing the tool with family and friends  

Each line has a list of items separated by a comma. The first item is the code. All other items are ignored. Notice that the code in line 3 is "stop." I've simply programmed the tool to ignore the word "stop" as a code. So, if I want to turn off a certain code for awhile, I simply add this word as the first item in that line. If I want to reactivate the code, I remove it. I can also simply substitute a new code for that group at any time. The program reads in all of the lines and will allow any active code to unlock the full version of the tool.

I should mention that I did program in a "back door" code directly into the program. So, if I ever need to unlock the tool for whatever reason (e.g. the Internet is down), I can do so.

How to Save the Codes

As I mentioned, I have the variable "varFullVersion" set to false as its default when the video analysis tool is launched. Obviously, the first things the program does is check to see if the person has previously unlocked the full version. How is this done? In short, I save a secret code stored in a file I won't name on the person's computer. It works kinda like a cookie. Most commercial software program access a special "preferences" folder on the user's computer to store these sorts of files. Maybe I do too, or maybe I don't - I'm not giving out those details here. The idea is simple though, if this secret file and code are found, then varFullVersion is immediately set to true within the first second after launch. Otherwise, the value remains false the free version is provided.

An advantage of using this approach is that if the user gives a friend a copy of the tool after they unlock the full version, they won't know anything about this stored file. So, when the friend launches the program, the free version is triggered.

Final Thoughts

Is this the best way to build a licensing function into a software program? I really don't know, but I doubt it. I'm actually quite sure there are way more sophisticated ways of doing this. But, with a zero budget, this approach seems to work based on my current knowledge of LiveCode. Of course, if my video analysis tool sells a million units, I may hire a real programmer to improve on this design.

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