Monumental history, or the death of 32 pin serial port DRM

Jun 10, 2020

My father, an enigmatic, mystical man with a good heart, is a monumental stonemason. That doesn't mean he's a great stonemason (though his customers say he is!) but that he creates gravestones (spooky), and has been doing so since the late 80s. Since he started his business in 1997 he has used the amazing power of technology to assist in the design and plotting of the gravestone templates and stencils.

The software comes from the era of unskippable, full screen splash screens. Ah, the pyramids, my favourite monumental masonry. And look, StoneMaster is permanently on top! That surely means it'll still be a known brand of Stonemasonry software in the far-flung year 2020?

Well, the amazing power of 1997 technology, anyway, as the computer that powers the CAD software, Stonemaster, and the vinyl plotter, has been in use for roughly as long. Indeed, the target platform of this piece of software, which is responsible for the efficiencies that have made the business a success, is Windows 95.

An era when sexy clipart ladies on close confirmation dialogs was accep... wait, no, not sure that was true then either!

I am in possession of a CD copy of the much sought after 2001 repressing (as evidenced by the copyright notice on the CD), and this really is rare vintage stuff, because you can't even google the company who made it, and there's no record of this software existing on the internet at all as far as I can tell, outside of this blog post, and the CD-ROM. I promise you, googling those terms will produce no results (other than, at the time of writing, a virus-laden download site with some scraped information - but where did they scrape it from?)

Just think, there are people of voting age in positions of power right now who are younger than this software.

The take snapshot button is apparently red Bart Simpson?

Well, here's another blast from the past: remember dongles? Oh no, even more archaic than the USB dongle you may be picturing; remember serial ports?

This program had IN APP PURCHASES way back when. I assume you would pay, they give you a code, which you input to unlock new clipart.

The reason that computer has never been upgraded is because modern computers and OS's simply don't support the serial port dongle DRM that powers the Stonemaster software. This was becoming a nuisance, and something had to be done, and with goodness it was done (sort of).

Turns out these dongles have been a nuisance for the last, oh, 15 years, and there is (or was) a whole reverse engineering community built around emulating them. Sadly, that scene exists only on a couple of obscure hacking forums, which are now closed to registration, and many of the links to tools and programs are lost to the sands of freemium file hosting services (may they rest in peace... along with the 32 pin serial port)

Amazingly, the Stonemaster software itself runs exactly as it should, even on Windows 10, proving the timeless power of what, from my digging into the hex code and resources, I assume is a Visual Basic 5 interface on top of a machine code backend.

Cracking the protection involves running a program on a computer that does support the dongle, in order to dump some of its memory cells. Then, running another program on that output to detect which algorithm is being used on the dongle, and indicate which cells are active. Then, a fake driver and service is installed, which adds a device to the hardware manager claiming to be a "Virtual USB dongle". The service then reads the formatted dongle dump to provide the data to the DRM API that it needs. And hey presto! No more dongles.

We donglin'.

Unfortunately this technique worked up until the era of 64 bit computing. Installing these fake 32 bit drivers only really worked before UEFI and OSes started using the concept of signed drivers and secure boot. Even so, for a long time the dongle hacking scene (which I feel should have a funny name) kept up, and a similar technique would work if you put Windows into Test/Unsigned driver mode, until a recent 2019 update killed the ability altogether, so we are stuck on 32 bit Windows 7 for now, and possibly support up to 8.1 (untested).

So... If you need a dongle emulating... And you have some fascinating old software to be archived... let me know?

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