Microsoft Product Activation
This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. (Learn how and when to remove these template messages)(Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Microsoft Product Activation is a DRM technology used by Microsoft Corporation in several of its computer software programs, most notably its Windows operating system and its Office productivity suite. The procedure enforces compliance with the program's end-user license agreement by transmitting information about both the product key used to install the program and the user's computer hardware to Microsoft, inhibiting or completely preventing the use of the program until the validity of its license is confirmed.
The procedure has been met with significant criticism by many consumers, technical analysts and computer experts, who argue that it is poorly designed, highly inconvenient and ultimately does nothing to prevent software piracy. The process has been successfully circumvented on multiple occasions.
When installing a retail copy of Windows or Office, the user is asked to input a unique product key supplied on a certificate of authenticity included with the program, which is later verified during activation. Immediate activation is not required following installation, but the program must be activated within a specific period of time in order to continue to function properly. Throughout this grace period, the user will be periodically reminded to activate the program, with warnings becoming more frequent over time.
Certain versions of Windows and Office are available under a volume license, where a single product key is used for multiple installations. Programs purchased under this license must still be activated, with the exception of Windows XP and all versions of Office released prior to Office 2010. Businesses using this licensing system have the option of using Microsoft's activation servers or creating and managing their own.
If Windows is pre-installed on a computer by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the operating system is automatically activated without the need for interaction from the user. In this case, the copy of Windows installed does not use the product key listed on the certificate of authenticity, but rather a master product key issued to OEMs called a System Locked Pre-installation (SLP) key. On each boot, Windows confirms the presence of specific information stored in the BIOS by the manufacturer, ensuring the activation only remains valid on that computer, even if the product key is used on another machine.
After grace period
If activation is not performed within the grace period or fails because of an illegal or invalid product key, the following restrictions will be imposed on the user:
- In Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Server 2003 R2, after a grace period of 30 days, the operating system cannot be used at all until the activation process is completed successfully.
- In Windows Vista RTM, after a grace period of 30 days, the operating system will boot only into a reduced functionality mode. The reduced functionality varies based on whether the operating system is simply out of grace or has undergone a failed activation. In the former case, built-in games and premium features like Windows Aero are disabled, and the system is rebooted every hour; in the latter case, certain premium features are disabled and some content is not available from Windows Update.
- In Windows Vista SP1, Windows Vista SP2, Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 R2, after a grace period of 30 days (60 days for Windows Server 2008), the operating system will display the notice stating that the copy of Windows is not genuine and set the desktop background to black. This includes allowing only critical and security updates to be downloaded from Windows Update and giving periodic reminders to activate the operating system. However, the operating system otherwise functions normally.
- In Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows 10, Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2012 R2, and Windows Server 2016, the 30-day grace period has been removed. If the operating system is not activated, there is a watermark showing the edition of Windows or a message telling the user to activate Windows on desktop. Personalization features such as changing the wallpaper are disabled. In Windows 8 and 8.1 notifications appear occasionally telling the user to activate. However, the operating system otherwise functions normally.
- In Office XP, Office 2003, Office 2007, Office 2010, and Office 2013, after a grace period of 30–60 days for Office 2010 and 14–60 days in Office 2013 or opening the program 25 times for Office 2007 and 50 times for Office 2003 and XP, the programs will enter a reduced functionality mode, where files can be viewed but not edited.
When activation takes place, the program saves a record of the verification data in the user's computer. If the system is booted up with significant hardware changes, the application will likely require reactivation to prevent the same copy of the program being installed on two different systems.
On Windows 10, the activation process can also generate a "digital entitlement", which allows the operating system's hardware and license status to be saved to the activation servers, so that the operating system's license can automatically be restored after a clean installation without the need to enter a product key.
Activation is performed with a utility supplied with Windows and Office called the Activation Wizard. It can be performed either over the Internet or by telephone. When activating over the Internet, the Activation Wizard automatically transmits and receives verification data to and from Microsoft servers, completing the process without any interaction by the user. Activation by telephone requires that a user and a Microsoft agent verbally exchange activation information. In this case, an installation ID is generated, which is then read to the agent. The agent verifies the information and replies with a confirmation ID, which is then typed into the Activation Wizard.
The Activation Wizard generates verification data primarily based on information about hardware in the computer. In Windows XP, information about the following ten categories of hardware is included:
- Display adapter
- Hard drive type (Primary drive if more than one installed)
- System partition volume serial number
- IDE adapter
- Network adapter MAC address
- Optical drive (e.g. DVD-ROM)
- Processor type
- Central processing unit serial number
- RAM amount range (e.g. 0-512 MB)
- SCSI adapter
Every time a PC is booted, Windows checks the hardware configuration against that which existed at the time of installation. From the above list, six or more items must change for the reactivation to be required. The position is complicated in that the network card MAC address is regarded as three items. Therefore, if the network card is not changed, a change to six or more other items will trigger a reactivation. If the network card is changed, then just three other changes will trigger a reactivation.
PCs that are considered dockable are treated more leniently as hardware will, by definition, regularly change. A dockable PC is one that is equipped with a docking port that connects to an expansion unit that features extra ports or hardware (these are usually ancillary units custom designed for some laptop PCs). A dockable PC is allowed three extra changes beyond a non-dockable PC before reactivation is required.
The verification data is also based on the product key entered during activation. In some cases, the product key is checked against a list of known illegally distributed keys.
Certain retail copies of Windows and Office sold in certain countries classified as emerging markets have geographical activation restrictions, which only allow the user to activate the product within the indicated region.
If activation completes successfully, the user can continue to use the application without any further issues or impediments. Also, if the key gets blacklisted, the application will continue to run as normal unless a clean install and activation is performed after its key has been blacklisted.
The following tables illustrate the usage of product activation throughout Microsoft software, specifying whether the programs can be equipped with retail or volume licensing activation as well as geographical activation restrictions.
|Retail activation||Volume licensing activation||Geographical activation restrictions|
|Windows Server 2003||Yes||No||No|
|Windows Server 2008||Yes||Yes||No|
|Windows Server 2012||Yes||Yes||No|
|Retail activation||Volume licensing activation||Geographical activation restrictions|
|Office 2016 *||Yes||Yes||Yes|
*All Office 2016 and Office 365 licenses are associated with an email account. A personal licence is re-activated on a new machine by logging in to office.com and selecting which of their machines to associate.
While Microsoft says that product activation benefits consumers by allowing Microsoft to produce higher quality software, it has nevertheless received much criticism regarding its design and implementation, effectiveness at stopping piracy and respect of privacy rights. For instance, during the development of Windows XP, beta testers strongly criticized the introduction of product activation, particularly because a change in computer hardware required re-activation. Ken Fischer at Ars Technica questioned whether activation would ultimately be effective in stopping piracy, stating that while casual computer users would be affected, he would "be a fool to think that someone out there won't find a way to break this whole thing." Dave Wilson, a technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times, describes activation as "just another example of a rapacious monopolist abusing computer users who are helpless to do anything about it." He too believed that the system would not have "any significant effect on professional pirates." Fred Langa at InformationWeek, with reference to the transmission of hardware information during activation, stated that "many users are incensed at this level of monitoring, intrusion, and control by Microsoft." Finally, Dr. Cyrus Peikari and Seth Fogie, security consultants, considered product activation to be "hostile both to privacy and to human dignity."
Others defend Microsoft's use of product activation. The Harrison Group, a market research firm, conducted a study sponsored by Microsoft in 2011 illustrating that computers running activated versions of Windows software were on average 50% faster than their pirated counterparts. The group concluded by stating that users of genuine Microsoft products ultimately receive superior performance while counterfeit users are susceptible to security issues and lost productivity. Fully Licensed GmbH, a developer of digital rights management technology, while criticizing Microsoft for being vague about the nature of information sent from a given computer during activation, nevertheless concluded that activation is not particularly intrusive and does not significantly violate privacy.
Microsoft Product Activation has also been criticized on multiple occasions for violating patent law. In 2006, Microsoft was required to pay $142 million to z4 Technologies for infringing on a product activation patent, while in 2009 Microsoft was ordered to pay $388 million to Uniloc for patent infringement in product activation in Windows XP, Office XP and Windows Server 2003.
Microsoft Product Activation has been cracked or circumvented on numerous occasions since it was introduced in 2001. In 2001, a UK security company called Bit Arts successfully managed to bypass product activation on Windows XP, while in 2003, volume license keys for Windows XP were leaked to the public, allowing users who had not purchased a volume license to the operating system to bypass activation. In 2009, several security flaws in Windows 7 were used by hackers to circumvent activation.
Since the introduction of Windows Vista, most attempts at circumvention of product activation have focused on using leaked SLP product keys and BIOS information used by OEMs to preactivate Windows. In 2007, a circumvention measure was developed for Windows Vista by warez-group Paradox that simulates the BIOS, allowing leaked SLP information to be fed to the operating system, bypassing activation. In 2009, SLP product keys and certificate information for Windows 7 were leaked to the public, allowing the BIOS to be reconfigured to bypass activation.
List of Microsoft products with product activation
The following Microsoft products other than Windows, Windows Server or products from the Office family use activation: 
- Microsoft Plus! Digital Media Edition
- Microsoft Money 2007 and later
- Microsoft Streets & Trips 2008 and later
- Microsoft AutoRoute
- Microsoft MapPoint 2009 and later retail versions. Not for volume licensed version.
- Microsoft Songsmith
- Microsoft AutoCollage
- Age of Empires III
- Zoo Tycoon 2
- Microsoft Flight Simulator X
- Microsoft Expression Studio 3 and 4 (retail versions other than DreamSpark or volume licensed version)
- Microsoft Math 3.0
- Digital rights management
- Product activation
- Product key
- Regional lockout
- Technical support
- Software protection dongle
- Windows Genuine Advantage
- Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp.
- Microsoft Corporation. "Microsoft Product Activation." Protect Yourself From Piracy. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Langa, Fred. "Is Windows XP's 'Product Activation' A Privacy Risk?." InformationWeek. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Ragan, Steve (2009-11-17). "Windows 7 activation crack comes as no surprise". The Tech Herald. Glasgow, UK: Digital MineField. Archived from the original on 2019-01-24. Retrieved 2019-01-24.
- Microsoft Corporation. "Windows Activation Technologies in Windows 7." Microsoft TechNet. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Technical Details on Microsoft Product Activation for Windows XP." Microsoft TechNet. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Keizer, Gregg. "Microsoft: No Office 2007 Activation Required In The Enterprise." InformationWeek. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Entering a Volume License Product Key When Deploying Office XP." Office.com. Archived 2013-12-17 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Office 2003 Licensing and System Requirements." Office.com. Archived 2013-06-15 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Office 2010 - Volume Activation, Activate Office 2010." Microsoft TechNet. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Preserving OEM Pre-Activation when Re-installing Windows XP." Microsoft TechNet. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "How to activate Windows XP." Microsoft Support. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Windows Product Activation." Microsoft TechNet. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Activating Windows: frequently asked questions." Microsoft Windows. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Description of the behavior of reduced functionality mode in Windows Vista." Microsoft Support. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "How to install Windows Vista Service Pack 1 when the Windows Vista activation period has expired." Microsoft Support. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Windows Server 2008 Product Activation." Windows Server 2008 R2. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Windows Server 2008 R2 Product Activation." Windows Server 2008 R2. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- "Appendix B: Licensing Conditions". Appendix B: Licensing Conditions. Microsoft. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
- Microsoft Corporation. "Activate Office 2007." Office.com. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Activate Office 2010 programs." Office.com. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Activate or register programs in the Microsoft Office System." Office.com. Archived 2011-12-11 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Windows XP Prompts You to Re-activate After You Restore Your Computer." Microsoft Support. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- "How to make sure your free copy of Windows 10 is activated". Supersite for Windows. Penton. Archived from the original on August 1, 2015. Retrieved July 31, 2015.
- "Why you can't find your product key after upgrading to Windows 10". PC World. IDG. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- Microsoft Corporation. "Activate Windows 7 on this computer." Microsoft Windows. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Technical Details on SP1 Changes to Microsoft Product Activation for Windows XP." Protect Yourself From Piracy. Archived 2011-11-19 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Geographically restricted software." How to tell. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Validation problem...geographically blocked PID." Microsoft Genuine Advantage Forums. Archived 2011-11-20 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 27, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Product Activation and Key Information." Microsoft Volume Licensing. (accessed November 25, 2011)
- Microsoft Corporation. "Microsoft Software License Terms - Windows Vista." Microsoft Download Center. (accessed November 27, 2011)
- Rohn007. "Reactivating Office 2016 on a new PC".
- Lettice, John. "WinXP beta testers still in open revolt over product activation." The Register. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Fisher, Ken. "Windows Product Activation: an early look." Ars Technica. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Wilson, Dave. "Safeguards Punish Consumers, Not Pirates." The Los Angeles Times. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Peikari, Cyrus, and Seth Fogie. "Buy Microsoft, Go to Jail?." informIT. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- The Star Publications. "Study: PCs run faster on genuine Microsoft products." The Star Online. (accessed February 16, 2013)
Harrison Group White Paper: Genuine Microsoft Products Vs. Pirated Counterparts Archived 2014-12-21 at the Wayback Machine August 26, 2011
- Lettice, John. "WinXP Product Activation decoded and analysed." The Register. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Keizer, Gregg. "Microsoft Loses 'Product Activation' Patent Suit, Owes $142 Million." InformationWeek. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Fried, Ina. "Microsoft slapped with $388 million patent verdict." CNET News. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Knight, Will. "Coders claim a crack in Windows XP." New Scientist. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Mook, Nate. "Microsoft: No Activation Changes Until Longhorn." BetaNews. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Haymarket Media. "Product activation system flaw found in Windows 7 follows earlier server message block problem." SC Magazine UK. Archived 2016-04-10 at the Wayback Machine (accessed November 26, 2011)
- McCarthy, Caroline. "Microsoft confirms Vista OEM hack." ZDNet. (accessed February 16, 2013)
- Keizer, Gregg. "Windows 7 Activation Already Hacked." PCWorld. (accessed November 26, 2011)
- Frequently asked questions about how to activate Microsoft Games for Windows, Streets and Trips, and Mappoint