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Can you help me with my software licensing question?

I've come by some older laptops and want to re-install windows on them. (See my related question on an easy way to do so.) I want to do things in a legal and ethical manner. My thought was that if a computer has a Windows XP Pro COA sticker on it, then I'm allowed to (re-)install Windows XP Pro on it. [And, it seemed to me, it should be reasonable to download a disc with the OS and all the latest updates on it for that purpose, so I don't endlessly reboot or get hacked while installing the OS. This statement, I think, made people think I was interested in piracy, and I'm not.]

Anyways, it appears that there are some subtleties here, and I wanted to know what is legal, what is ethical (if it differs), and if the technology gets in the way of allowing me to do what is legal and/or ethical.

This is my current understanding:

Any computer that has a Microsoft Certificate of Authenticity sticker for a particular version of Windows is licensed to run said version of Windows, and it may be re-installed on the computer.

This is where things get a little hazy for me:

Windows installation media come in (at least) three types:

  • Retail CDs, either stand-alone or upgrade disks
  • OEM CDs, which were shipped to you by the computer manufacturer in bygone times (but nowadays you are more likely to have a restore partition)
  • Volume Licensor CDs (where a large organization uses the same serial code for every machine they install Windows on)

Is it the case that you need an OEM CD to re-install Windows on a machine? Is it ethical, but not strictly legal, to use a retail CD, and use the code on the sticker on the machine (and will the anti-piracy measures in Windows, including Windows Genuine Advantage, reject it)? Can you use an OEM CD for a different computer, provided it is the same edition of Windows? Can I re-install Windows (without paying for another license) on a machine that has a restore partition without using the restore partition? Does one have any recourse if they are licensed to use the software but do not have an installation disc? Is downloading the disc any different than borrowing one [not that I'm confident that I could find a reputable place to download from]?

Is the only real difference between an OEM CD, a Retail CD, and a Volume Licensor CD the license code it will accept?

Let me re-iterate that I have no interest in piracy; I want to do what is honourable. As I need to run Windows software, and I believe the machines are licensed for it, it seems silly to, say, install Linux and run things under WINE. The problem lies in the fact that I don't have the OEM CDs for these computers.


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marked as duplicate by Iain Jan 27 '12 at 17:30

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

This is a very good question. I also am curious about the topic. To add on to your question, is there just "one" OEM CD or are there multiple ones with different key validities? I seem to recall trying to reinstall one OEM machine with a CD from another OEM and it did not accept the key. –  Dave Drager Oct 19 '09 at 15:07
Very, very good question. But call Microsoft, since they will help you with activating your license, they will also tell you how it works in THEIR eyes... –  Sniek NL Oct 19 '09 at 15:37
I believe the different OEM CD releases that come with service packs have different key validities. –  pjc50 Oct 19 '09 at 16:01
Any guess on how much I'd have to pay if I were to contact Microsoft? –  Clinton Blackmore Oct 19 '09 at 20:08
This question reminds me of some advice that I often like to give: NEVER purchase a used Windows-based PC without a Windows installation CD and Certificate of Authenticity (or full package product with CD and license key). If you are buying a new Windows-preloaded computer, NEVER buy one that does not include a Windows CD, and NEVER throw that CD away. (Just say no to computers that have restore partitions with no OS CD.) Not following this advice has financial consequences when something inevitably goes wrong down the road. This goes for other preloaded software as well. –  Jay Michaud Oct 19 '09 at 23:10

10 Answers 10

up vote 10 down vote accepted

According to the licence document referenced by @fortheworld, if you don't have and can't obtain the original recovery solution, you have to buy a new license. That's the legal basis, and if you want to operate strictly by the rules (for instance, if you are a business and need to cover your ass really well), then you should find a way to obtain original install media, or buy another copy of windows.

On an ethical basis, I fail to see how MS deserves to get paid twice for an OEM copy of XP just because the original recovery solution is missing (or trashed by an idiot computer repair guy or failing HD). From an ETHICS standpoint, if you've got the case sticker, and it's the original PC, then there's no ethical problem with obtaining a plain-jane windows OEM CD and using the product key you have. Other posters have addressed the logistics of this pretty well.

I can't imagine a situation where you could be successfully prosecuted for having the version of Windows that matches your product key sticker installed on your PC, even if the re-install happened via 'interesting' means.

In fact I have noticed that the version that comes preinstalled on some computers have a DIFFERENT serial number than what is on the sticker. You can find this out by using "magic jelly bean key finder". I have personally seen this on a number of Dells. That tells me that Dell uses an image that is pregenned with a key that Microsoft knows about. But, due to licensing it requires a sticker on the side of the case. –  Nathan Adams Jul 6 '10 at 19:36
I hadn't thought of that, but I just checked and my refurbished tablet has the same thing - the installed key doesn't match the sticker, because the refurbisher is using a standard image. –  Michael Kohne Jul 7 '10 at 1:29
Welcome to the ranks of the Stack Athletes. –  Dennis Williamson Jan 25 '11 at 18:42

In my travels, i found this:


According to this, any PC that isn't brand new that you are performing a reinstall on is classed as a refurbished PC.

From the file:

A new Windows license is not required for a refurbished PC that has:

(1) The original Certificate of Authenticity (COA) for a Windows operating system affixed to the PC, and

(2) The original recovery media or hard-disk based recovery image associated with the PC.

The operating system identified on the original COA indicates the edition of Windows that was originally licensed for that PC and the refurbisher can use either:

(1) The original recovery media or

(2) The original hard-disk based recovery image to re-install the operating system software specified on the COA.

That's the official Microsoft definition in an easier to digest format than the EULA.

That was an excellent find. One of the later questions asks (and I'm paraphrasing), "I have an OEM disc for a different model. Can I use it with this computer?" and the answer is "No. Recovery media can only be used with the original PC that it accompanied when supplied by the OEM to the end user customer." –  Clinton Blackmore Oct 19 '09 at 17:40
+1 - All the "opinion" answers here aren't useful. You must purchase a new Windows license for the machine if you don't have the original COA and the original recovery image (be it on optical media, or on the hard disk drive). If you don't like it, don't use Windows. –  Evan Anderson Oct 19 '09 at 19:38

Retail, OEM and VLK keys are different and NOT interchangeable. You cannot use a retail CD and expect the key from an OEM sticker to work.

Ethically, I personally don't see an issue with using say, an OEM HP WinXP Pro CD and using it to install onto a Dell machine and using the Dell OEM WinXP Pro key that is on the box.

One other thing, and YMMV on this one, but I've seen OEM CDs that were older, like maybe a WinXp SP1, and the key was for SP2 or SP3, and it also may reject, even though both the CD and Key were an OEM.

@Clinton: the fact that the keys are not interchangeable in the first place makes the ethics question moot. I've tried using a retail key with an OEM CD before when I didn't have the retail CD handy, and I can confirm that the keys are not interchangeable. –  rob Oct 19 '09 at 16:39
On a practical level, you may not want (or be able) to use recovery media from a different vendor (or even model) on a given PC. This is because vendors sometimes include drivers and extraneous junk in the recovery images, which may not install or work correctly on a different system. –  Michael Kohne Oct 19 '09 at 21:26

You can actually transform a disk to use different types of keys.

Go to the file i386\setupp.ini in that file there is a value like this: Pid=76487270 which means it is a windows xp sp3 volume license key. If you change it to be Pid=82503OEM it will now only take OEM or COA license key with no Service packs applied disks. You can make a copy of the disk, change setupp.ini and using something like nlite burn it back onto a disk. the last three digits are the type of key, 335 is retail, 270 is volume license and OEM is OEM (which includes the COA) Here is a sample list of the PIDs for common versions:

**Windows XP RTM**
Retail: 51882335 (Retail edition accepting Retail CD keys)
Volume License: 51883270 (Volume License edition accepting Volume License keys or VLK)
OEM: 82503OEM (OEM edition accepting OEM keys or COA keys)

**Windows XP SP2**
Retail: 55274335
Volume License: 55274270
OEM: 55277OEM

**Windows XP SP3**
Retail: 76487335
Volume License: 76487270
OEM: 76487OEM

You can also use the repair disk option to change up what key an installation will take: http://www.mydigitallife.info/2009/08/16/how-to-change-windows-xp-version-between-retail-oem-and-volume-license-channel/ (explaination of the Pids is also in this article)

Personally I have no ethical qualms about it since I am fully licensed. Often OEMs will send out a RTM disk (released to manufacturing) that they have been sending out for years but slap a COA for windows with service pack 2 on the machine. Naturally the two are out of sync.


Ethically: I don't see any issue as long as you can get your hands on an install CD that matches the Version of windows you bought (OEM, VL, Retail, MSDN). I'm talking about a full install not a restore cd with an embedded key.

Technically: This is where you will run into issues. 1) As noted already there are different keys for different version of Windows (OEM, VL, Retail, MSDN) on top of that there are what are called "X numbers" for the keys - these are basically version numbers. If you look at the right hand side (or bottom on older COA's) of your COA sticker there will be Something that looks like X11-xxxxx The X11 part is important. It needs to match the "X Number" on the cd you are installing, otherwise the cd won't accept the key.


One answer that I don't see on here but is perfectly legal and acceptable is to exercise volume license reimaging rights. Basically, if you have a volume license agreement with Microsoft, you are allowed to install from your volume license media on any computer that is licensed for the same software irregardless of whether that computer was licensed through OEM, FPP, or any other method. Here's the exact wording from Microsoft:

Reimaging is permitted if the copies made from the Volume Licensing media are identical to the originally licensed product . Volume Licensing customers who have licensed Microsoft software products from an OEM, through a retail source, or under any agreement other than their Microsoft Volume Licensing agreement may use copies made from Microsoft Volume Licensing media. Customers can use these copies from Microsoft media only if they are the same product and version, contain the same components, and are in the same language.

If you're licensed with an OEM copy of Windows XP Pro, you're allowed to use your Volume License media and key of Windows XP Pro to reinstall on that computer. You are not allowed to use XP Pro for a XP Home OEM license (obviously). Also, keep in mind that any volume licenses you obtain are only going to qualify you for an upgrade (from an eligible product). You cannot obtain full licenses for desktop OSes through a Volume License program.

Source: http://download.microsoft.com/download/3/D/4/3D42BDC2-6725-4B29-B75A-A5B04179958B/Reimaging.docx


In my previous life I recall that certain licenses wouldn't work with certain media. If that is still the case my thought would be that if the license works with the media it doesn't matter what media you use. If the media mattered wouldn't ghosting become problematic? As long as you have the license and COA I think the BSA would be satisfied. I've never heard of anyone asking for your install media for existing installations.


It's a grey area. On one side, the License states that

The transfer has to include all component parts, media, printed materials, this EULA, and if applicable, the Certificate of Authenticity

on the other side, the Product Key is usually seen as "good enough". I am not aware of any case where Microsoft sued people that had a valid COA but no valid Installation media. I've even had my Windows activated over the phone (by a human) after I used a different installation media (64-Bit English Vista instead of 32-Bit French Vista) and there were no problems.

But then again, the EULA is not really specific about "What is part of the license". For OEM Versions there sometimes isn't even an installation Medium. As said, very grey area.

I don't actually think it's grey - if you don't have all the original bits, Microsoft wants you to buy a new license. That's pretty clear. –  Michael Kohne Oct 19 '09 at 22:22
The only question is: What are the original bits, or more precisely: Can't you just claim that the COA was the only thing. hard to prove sometimes. Also I've seen many people throw away the booklet that came with their OEM version of Windows, because it's actually rather useless anyway. –  Michael Stum Oct 20 '09 at 7:45

Is the only real difference between an OEM CD, a Retail CD, and a Volume Licensor CD the license code it will accept?

If they are the full install media, I believe the answer is: "yes they are the same". BUT different sets of media use different keys. OEM, VLK, and Retail all use different keys to activate different discs.

If you've downloaded a pirated VLK version to install your copy of Windows. You're still using the pirated VLK. Which means you may not be able to us MS Genuine Advantage.

Even if you are trying to act "honorably" you still might get screwed.


My opinion:

  • with label => Any XP installation CD (but not a recovery CD, meant for another type of computer) should 'enable' you to install (=is ethical). When asked to enter the license, use the one from the sticker on the computer your installing onto.
  • No label => you need to buy a license!

This does not mean that any install CD will work.

Are you sure any installation CD will work? I've had multiple legitimate installation CDs (OEM, Retail, Volume) and the keys do not seem to work across different media. They seem to have their own set of keys. –  Dave Drager Oct 19 '09 at 15:06
These will not work with the same keys. –  Joseph Kern Oct 19 '09 at 15:20
Sorry for the downvote, but as the others have mentioned, Retail, OEM, and Volume license keys are not interchangeable. The type of install CD has to match the type of key on the license sticker. –  rob Oct 19 '09 at 17:28
The way I read the question, it was about ethics. I stated my opinion on the ethics, not on any "games" Microsoft feels they must play to prevent illegal copying. ymmd –  lexu Oct 19 '09 at 19:58
+1. Half of the question was concerned with ethics, and the response clearly indicated it was an opinion. Anyone reading the answers will see that the CD keys are not interchangeable. –  Clinton Blackmore Oct 20 '09 at 1:15

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