What is a Virtual Dongle?

H. Bliss

A virtual dongle is a software program designed to emulate a dongle or hardware key. Used in software copy protection, virtual dongles allow the user to access multiple dongle-dependent programs without the necessity of a physical hardware key for each software program. If a dongle is required to run software, that means a portable device equipped with unlocking information needs to be plugged into the computer for the software to run. Because dongles are usually only required on high-end specialized programs, most computer users are unlikely to encounter a program that needs a dongle.

A physical dongle, which a virtual dongle emulates.
A physical dongle, which a virtual dongle emulates.

Dongles are used to control software piracy. Software piracy occurs when a program is distributed without the consent of the company that holds the software copyright. The software programs used to design and create media are expensive and prone to theft and copying, and the company does not get paid for its work when programs are distributed without their knowledge. Dongles protect the software program from piracy by blocking its use when a dongle is not in the computer.

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.

Programs that require dongles are usually high-end, professional design or production programs. Dongles make an appearance in software used in creating video, designing theater productions, recording and editing audio, and designing buildings. Examples of programs that require dongles include Pro Tools® and Vectorworks®.

Creating a virtual dongle requires the use of a software program called an emulator. These programs use software to imitate the function of a device or another software system. An emulator imitates the function of the portable dongle, essentially tricking the computer into thinking a hardware key is plugged into a computer port.

A virtual dongle can work without taking up a plug, which frees up Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports for other devices. Traveling computer users can avoid the clutter of carrying several portable dongles for multiple software programs. Using a virtual dongle also helps protect the original dongle from damage, theft or loss.

Both virtual dongle and physical hardware key systems suffer incompatibility issues. While many dongles have built-in plugs that allow the user to stack multiple dongles in one USB port, conflict issues can cause one or more of the dongles to malfunction. When facing compatibility problems with hardware dongles, switching some of your hardware keys to emulated virtual dongles may fix the malfunction. Likewise, when an emulated dongle does not work, switching back to the hardware key may be necessary.

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Discussion Comments


@jennythelib - I'm not sure if virtual dongles are used for piracy, but my understanding is that pirated software tends to simply omit the part of the code that makes it look for the dongle in the first place.


Can a virtual dongle be used in piracy? It seems like anything that enables you to avoid the physical usb dongle or whatever would be a key feature in piracy. The word "emulator" reminds me of those video game emulators you used to be able to download to play Nintendo, etc. games on your computer.

I'm also thinking of those websites that sell phony software installation codes using a random number generator.

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