Google Fights Android Piracy

A new licensing service for Android apps aims to limit misuse.
In an effort to help Android developers address ongoing worries about unauthorized app copying, Google this week announced a licensing service for apps in the Android Market.

Android currently offers a limited copy protection system. The forthcoming licensing service, which will debut in a few months, operates in real-time. It's more flexible than Android's legacy copy protection mechanism in that it supports a variety of license-enforcement options.

With support for Android 1.5 and up, the licensing service goes beyond merely granting permission to operate. It allows developers to specify how application functionality is limited when usage is unauthorized. For example, an app can be set to operate a specific number of times when the license check fails.

Jeff LaMarche, a prominent Mac OS X and iOS developer, likens the Android licensing service to Steam, a digital distribution, rights management, and community platform run by Valve Software, a leading gaming company.

"Steam-style online authentication isn't exactly warmly embraced by the proponents of 'open' systems, but given how easy it is to pirate applications downloaded from the Android Marketplace (and then return them for a refund!), it's probably a necessary step to attract developers to the platform," he said in a blog post on Wednesday.

Though LarMarche's skepticism of Android is betrayed by his placement of quotation marks around the word open, he still has a point: Android developers have long complained about unauthorized copying.

Even so, LarMarche argues that Google's efforts won't work and claims that he can think of a dozen ways to defeat Google's protections. "Google can add complexity and make it harder to circumvent, but if someone with the right skills has full access and control over the hardware and software, you can't stop them from getting around any kind of licensing authentication scheme you create," he said.

LaMarch makes it clear that he believes Apple's curated platform presents a superior user experience and allows developers to make more money from their software. On the iPhone, only the 10% or so of users who jailbreak their iPhones can use pirated apps, he notes.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has acknowledged that its system won't be perfect.

"Although no license mechanism can completely prevent all unauthorized use, the licensing service lets you control access for most types of normal usage, across all compatible devices, locked or unlocked, that run Android 1.5 or higher version of the platform," Google's Android developer guide states.

Of course if Android device sales continue to outpace iPhone sales, Android developers may end up making more money than iOS developers despite having their apps copied more frequently.