A Cautionary Tale About iLoks

Products break. I accept that. However, reputable companies make it easy to figure out what the problems are and get them fixed. They also honor warranties.

This does not seem to be true with the folks at iLok. And because of this, I want to share my personal experience with them as a cautionary tale of how not to do business.

iLok, for those of you that may not know, is a USB dongle that holds license keys for software. The audio industry uses these extensively to prevent piracy of their products; with ProTools as the best known example. The key fact you need to keep in mind is that iLok-enabled software will not run if your iLok is missing or broken.

For the last three weeks, I’ve been trying to install and run an iLok so that I could demo some new audio software that works with Final Cut Pro X. Trying, and totally not succeeding.


First, even though iLoks are supposed to support OS X 10.6, on my system they do not. Every time I accessed my account, the software crashed out to the Finder.

Normally, a quick call to tech support resolves this. However on the iLok webpage there is absolutely no way to contact support by phone. In fact, you can’t contact ANYONE by email at all. And you need to be at least three menus deep to find even a web-based contact form for support.

I should have been suspicious when any tech company goes into customer avoidance mode. No email addresses, and a very carefully hidden response form does not indicate a company that wants to actually do business with the public.


Giving up, I went to a local Guitar Center to purchase a new iLok at a cost of $50 plus tax.

Took it home and it didn’t crash.

However, it also would not install, even after downloading and clean installing the latest version of their license manager multiple times.

Again, no way to contact support. But, this time, I found the support response page and sent them a note.

To make a long, three-day story short, the iLok that Guitar Center sold me has been “intercepted” en route and someone used it to install license keys on their system.

The net result was that even though I bought this new from Guitar Center, they would not take it back because it had be used; prior, I might add, to my purchasing it.

And the folks at iLok could not take off the existing illegal owner and refresh the iLok back to its default state.

My only option, they told me was to buy another new one. Another $50 down the drain.


So, I went to a different Guitar Center, earlier today, and purchased a third iLok for another $50 plus tax.

Brought it home, plugged it in and it flashed seven times and died. Nothing. Dead out of the box. Sigh…

Went back to the iLOK page, only to discover that in order for me to send it back UNDER WARRANTY, I needed to pay iLok ANOTHER $50 — not for a new iLok, but as an RMA processing fee.

NOTE: The company also sells product insurance called “Zero Downtime” to enable you to keep working if your iLok breaks, is lost, or stolen. However, zero is a relative term because you need to send the iLok to the manufacturer for replacement, which means that for the several days it takes to get a new iLok back, your software is non-functional.


If a company is in the business of servicing the media community, they should, at a minimum:

  1. Provide an easy-to-find support contact email or phone number and place it in an obvious place on their website. iLok does not. FAQs are nice, but totally insufficient.
  2. Make it easy for a paying customer to get a replacement device under warranty. I just purchased an exercise bike – for roughly the cost of three iLoks from Schwinn – that didn’t work out of the box. Their support folks answered the phone on the first ring, shipped me replacement parts by Fed Ex and are sending out a tech to repair the unit all at no charge. And Schwinn’s manufacturing costs are FAR higher than iLok. Schwinn is not afraid of their customers.
  3. Assume that the customer is not trying to cheat them out of their iLok hardware. I mean, what is the actual cost of manufacturing this thing … three bucks tops? The rest of the cost is distribution, overhead, and profit for iLok and resellers. What is the harm in assuming a customer – at least a first-time customer – is honest and anxious to get their gear working?


I know that iLoks are used throughout the ProTools community. And there must be people who are happy with them, because ProTools continues to sell.

However, if you have the option of buying software that does not support iLok, you will be much better off avoiding this dongle. Because the iLok system, as it is currently implemented, is designed to force customers to spend money unnecessarily to get a hardware lock that does not work reliably and can’t be repaired quickly.

Would you trust your business to these folks?

As always, I am interested in your comments.


P.S. Normally, I would send this message as a private email to the “powers-that-be” at any company in an effort to resolve issues. However, as I’ve mentioned, it is impossible to contact anyone at iLok about anything.

10 Responses to A Cautionary Tale About iLoks

  1. bradbell.tv says:

    For about a decade beginning with OS9 and ending with a mature OS X, I was an IT manager as well as a video editor. In this period we saw technical problems radically diminish and we literally ended with DRM becoming a predominant source of computer problems. It’s not that software DRM got worse, but that the OS became more compartmentalised and resilient. OS design got better, software licensing didn’t. I think being a leading cause of computer problems is a damning indictment.

    Personally, I think Apple has solved the problem with their App Store: global market, digital product, very low prices, convenient, payment system built into OS. The idea is it’s more profitable to sell a million cheap than it is to sell a thousand high priced copies. And piracy has to compete with cheap, fast and convenient, so there is little need to punish your customers with malfunctioning DRM. I am currently NOT using a LUT plugin as it’s been knocked out of licensed mode and I can’t figure out how to get it back. I have to write to them. My tolerance for high prices and DRM is at an all time low. I uninstalled FCP7 Studio simply because I couldn’t be assed to dig up the serial number after I upgraded Macs. It’s legacy – although the boxes continue to do good work as desktop speaker stands 🙂

  2. Bravo, Larry, and you are so right. Customer support is everything. Which brings me to a simple positive phone call to Apple yesterday after the iPhone 5S/5C release. One ring, two key strokes and I was on the line with a human being who was friendly, happy, and supportively informed on my account question. This from a company with 700-million iOS devices in operation. Amazing customer service.

  3. RJ898 says:

    For the future (to protect yourself from all incompetent companies), try to make your purchases with an American express. If an item breaks they cover it and you get your money back.
    No company should be so bad that it comes down to such a scenario but in case it does, it’s good to be covered.

  4. David says:

    Absolutely. I’ve purged my world from anything iLok related as it is a blasphemous concept. A far as audio goes one can go a long way without iLok by sticking with Apple (Logic Pro), Native Instruments and Spectrasonics. I look forward to these companies to continue obviating the perceived need for anything iLok related

  5. Russtafa says:

    Yes had a problem with one of our old iLoks.
    Real nuisance had to ship it back to the States.
    They (iLok) are not a very helpful organisation and I would totally recommend ZDT if your iLok is a mission critical part of your business infrastructure.
    I also have a dongle for Avid MC7 which did not upgrade from MC6. Avid were amazingly helpful and got it up and running for me pretty much immediately. Plus points for Avid tech support!!
    I really like the “transportability” of using dongles but they ARE hardware and you have to accept that.
    Adobe CC is NOT without it’s problems either and have certainly have had issues with their stuff. I had a most hilarious support call to their Indian Call Centre where the chap could not speak very good English. I then did a live chat session. I kept the transcript and when I feel down have a look at it for a good laugh.
    We live in an “im-perfect” technical (support) world and have to face up to that fact.

  6. Nsa Waching says:

    Vendors note: I MIGHT buy your product if you don’t use iLok. I most certainly will never buy your product if you do.

  7. peter tours says:

    Larry – when I purchased De-Verb I had an option for a bLock or a software key, which I chose, and I have been able to use it in ?FCP7, Soundtrack, Audition an Premiere . The only way I got support was using data I received in my invoice for De-Verb. Perhaps something here may help.

  8. Joe Godfrey says:

    Great post, Larry.

    Pro Tools went to iLoks when they went native. Before that you needed Digidesign hardware plugged in for the app to launch. Digi hardware was a pain, and incorrect or corrupted drivers were the chokepoint in those days, but if you had a good driver and good hardware you could work.

    I don’t think it’s so much that Pro Tools users are “happy” with iLoks – it’s that we have no other option — the Stockholm Syndrome.

    I had to buy a new iLok for PT11 because the old teal one (that I used for Waves) wouldn’t work with 11. I held my breath when it came time to move my license from old to new – but it worked – first time.

    I’ve mentioned three audio companies here: AVID, Waves and iLok. They’re all legendary for lousy customer service. As mentioned, Apple has great customer service but their audio app (Logic) is so stable you’ll probably never need it.

    Thanks for shining a light.

  9. […] a link to my training on Adobe Audition.) ProTools is another excellent audio package, but I’ve never had success working with their iLok copy […]

  10. […] a link to my training on Adobe Audition.) ProTools is another excellent audio package, but I’ve never had success working with their iLok copy […]

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