What is a HASP Dongle?

Robert Grimmick

A Hardware Against Software Piracy (HASP) dongle is a type of computer hardware device designed to combat software piracy. These devices must be plugged into a computer in order for software to function, and are often used in place of serial numbers or other forms of authentication. Dongles can also be used to create and enforce other business models for software, such as rental or feature-driven models. For end users, dongles can offer both convenience and frustration.

Software piracy can be combated by a form of hardware device known as a HASP dongle.
Software piracy can be combated by a form of hardware device known as a HASP dongle.

A HASP dongle fills much the same purpose as a product key or activation system found in consumer software, but is usually confined to highly specialized software programs used in a variety of industries. These types of programs, which include professional printing software, forensics software, high end audio programs, and computer aided design (CAD) applications, often carry high per license price tags, making them lucrative targets for the black and grey markets. To combat piracy and prevent organizations from using software on more computers than they have purchased licenses for, some software publishers make use of HASP dongles.

Information on how to create a dongle emulator is typically passed from hacker to hacker.
Information on how to create a dongle emulator is typically passed from hacker to hacker.

Customers who use this software must connect a specially programmed HASP dongle to a computer before the software will function. Without the dongle, some programs will run in a demo or trial mode, while others will not run at all. Software publishers usually purchase dongles and dongle software from other corporations, and the dongles must be specially tailored for the programs they will be protecting.

As the sophistication of dongles has increased, publishers have found new uses for them. Some new dongles feature internal clocks, batteries, and more onboard memory than older models. These features allow publishers to more closely control how their software is used. The internal clock, for example, can keep track of when a software license expires, and can then render the dongle useless. A HASP dongle can also enable rental, subscription, pay-per-use, or even pay-per-feature software licensing models.

Businesses and consumers who purchase software requiring a HASP dongle may find this hardware solution more convenient than equivalent software protection technologies. For programs sold with a limited number of seats or users, a dongle can easily be transferred between different computers or departments. Some dongles can also enable functionality on multiple computers on a network. Dongles can be a major source of frustration for customers who need to run legacy or unsupported applications, however, as new operating systems, lost dongles, or new hardware can mean the programs will no longer run. In these cases, a dongle emulator is sometimes used to trick a program into believing a physical HASP dongle is connected.

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Discussion Comments


How common are HASP dongles? I do believe I'd be livid if I bought a piece of software and found one of these in the package. The old product key activation scenario isn't THAT bad -- you only have to do it once and they you're set.

I suspect these dongles have come as a response to rampant software piracy. I can't help but wonder how many pirates have found ways around them. If they have then this is just another way that legitimate consumers are punished by companies hoping to stop a few people who are stealing software.

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