There’s a high probability that most people reading this article will be familiar with the image on the right.
That’s because in computing terms, data compression tool WinRAR has been around for what seems like forever.
Indeed, with its 25th birthday coming up next April, WinRAR launched before many of its users were even born. Nevertheless, it has stood the tests of time and according to the latest estimates, now has around 500 million users.
Indeed, the company told us this week that WinRAR is the third most installed software in the world behind Chrome and Acrobat Reader. The reason for that, at least in part, is the company’s liberal business model.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this ubiquitous tool is that while WinRAR gives the impression of being free, technically it is paid software. Users get a 40-day period to trial the tool and then, if they like it, they can part with cash in order to obtain a license.
However, WinRAR never times out and relies completely on users’ inclination to pay for something that doesn’t need to be paid for to retain functionality. As a result, WinRAR has huge numbers of pirate users yet the company does pretty much nothing to stop them.
Those who do pay for a license get rid of a ‘nag’ screen and gain a couple of features that most people don’t need. But for pirates (and the tool is massively popular with pirates), an unlicensed WinRAR still does what it’s supposed to, i.e unpacking all those pesky compressed pirate releases.
Of course, there are people out there who would still rather not pay a penny to use a piece of software that is essentially free to use. So, in order to obtain a ‘license’ and get rid of the nag screen, they use a piece of software called a ‘keygen’ that generates one for them.
The company behind WinRAR doesn’t seem to care too much about casual piracy but it is bothered about keygens. This week we spotted a lawyer for the company Win.rar GmbH filing a complaint with code repository Github targeting such a tool.
“We have put in a licensing generation system that is impossible to decrypt (until now that is). This system works by our employees generating a unique .key file and the end user putting it in their WinRAR installation directory so in that way the product activates,” the notice states.
“It violates our technological measures by the repo holding the source code and the compiled application to a custom-created keygen which is built to bypass our licensing generation system and allows end users to create their own unique .key files for no charge which therefore bypasses our technological measures.”
The format of the DMCA notice is part of a growing trend. It doesn’t claim that the keygen copies WinRAR’s code but instead states that it violates the company’s rights by breaching the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA. As such, the notice cannot be easily countered.
“This GitHub repository violates a section of 17 U.S.C. § 1201 which is a part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” the notice adds.
“Since 17 U.S.C. § 1201 doesn’t have a counter-notification process if GitHub does not provide one then appealing of this notice is improbable. GitHub is legally not required to provide an appeals system for anti-circumvention cases.”
Github didn’t waste any time taking the repository down but before it disappeared, this is what it looked like. Notice the Chinese text at the top, which is of special interest.
The author of the tool identifies as Double Sine or DoubleLabyrinth, hailing from Tianjin University in China. He or she seems to have created the keygen as a technical challenge but there is some irony to be found in the coder’s location.
Since 2015, WinRAR has provided a completely free version of WinRAR for regular users in China. This, the company said, was to thank people for sticking with WinRAR over the years.
“We are proud to announce that after years of hard work, we now finally provide a completely free Simplified Chinese version of WinRAR to individual users in China,” a note on the local website reads.
“You can now officially download and use WinRAR completely free of charge from winrar.com.cn, without searching or downloading cracked products, or looking for illegal versions, or downloading from unsafe websites at risk of security.”
Speaking with TorrentFreak, a representative from WinRAR’s marketing team couldn’t immediately elaborate on the specifics of the DMCA notice but noted that people shouldn’t really have a need to pirate its product.
“Indeed this is an interesting case, as we also don’t see the necessity of using a pirated version of WinRAR instead of our trial version. We know that our licensing policy for end customers is not as strict as with other software publishers, but for us it is still important that WinRAR is being used, even if the trial period might be over,” the representative said.
“From a legal perspective, everybody should buy at the end of the trial, but we still think that at least uncompressing content should be still possible as unrar.exe is open source anyway.”
The company also highlighted the existence of cartoons and memes on the Internet which relate to WinRAR’s indefinite trial, noting that “we like all of them and it meets our sense of humor.”
Perhaps more importantly, however, the company understands the importance of maintaining the positive image it’s earned by not persecuting users who use the product beyond its trial period. Going after them isn’t on the agenda but they would prefer people not to go down the piracy route.
“[I]n the field of private users we have always been the ‘good guys’ by not starting legal actions against every private user using it beyond the trial period, thus we also don’t understand the need of pirated license keys for WinRAR,” the company concludes.
Rival open source tools such as 7-Zip offer similar functionality for free, no keygens needed or nag screens in sight. But, for the majority of users, WinRAR remains the tool of choice, even after a quarter of a century. It’s a remarkable achievement backed up by an intriguing business model.