Free Windows 8 upgrades? Not so fast (or easy)...

Summary:You might have heard reports that Microsoft has accidentally been giving away free licenses to Windows 8 Pro. Sorry, but that's not true. It's just another move in the long cat-and-mouse game between Microsoft and the pirates.

Everyone wants something for nothing. But contrary to reports published earlier today, Microsoft hasn't accidentally begun dispensing free copies of Windows 8 Pro.

The story, which appeared in ZDNet earlier today, originated at an enthusiast site and has since been widely reported.

Anyone who writes that these are 'legitimate activations' or 'free activation keys' needs to go back to Software Piracy 101.

Here's the whole story.

As a promotion, beginning with the General Availability of Windows 8 on October 25, 2012, Microsoft is allowing anyone with a copy of Windows 8 Pro to install the Windows Media Center Pack for free. The offer ends on January 31, 2013, and on February 1, the Media Center add-in will be a $9.99 update.

To get a free Media Center update, all you have to do is visit this online form and enter your email address. You'll get a license key for free. On a PC running Windows 8 Pro, you can enter that license key and unlock the Media Center features, including the ability to play back DVDs.

If you enter this key on a PC running Windows 8 Pro, you get exactly the effect you were expecting. You're entitled to the upgrade - enjoy it in good health.

If you enter this key on a new PC running the Core edition of Windows 8 (not Pro), you get an error message:

product-key-wont-work

"This key won't work." So where's my free copy of Windows 8 Pro?

If you want that, you need to step far outside of normal retail channels and start hanging with actual software pirates.

Those jolly pirates (most of them enthusiasts who play the piracy game for sport) have figured out that they can use product keys intended for use by Volume License customers and then activate those keys using a Key Management Service (KMS) server. Several semi-underground Windows-oriented websites have published details on how to find 'open' KMS servers on the Internet.

Normally, a PC that is activated using a KMS key has to check in with the KMS server every week and renew its license every 180 days. But if you have already installed a pirated copy of Windows 8 Pro and used an unauthorized KMS server to activate it, you can use the free Media Center Pack product key to "add features" to your installation. When you do that, the license information stored on your PC is replaced with new details that use the new product key. The result is that your system appears to have a legitimate Windows 8 Pro license.

Let me repeat the key part of that sentence: If you have already installed a pirated copy of Windows 8 Pro and used an unauthorized KMS server to activate it...

In order to take advantage of this loophole, you need to have acquired a volume license product key from an unauthorized source, downloaded the VL installer files from a pirate site (or tampered with legitimate installer files for Windows 8 so they appear to be Volume License media), and then deliberately activated the resulting installation using a server you're not authorized to use.

You are not going to do any of those things by accident.

In other words, the only people doing this are already confirmed pirates. And the resulting installation, although it is indeed properly activated, does not have a valid license. Go ahead, try doing this on 25 PCs at your business and see what happens when you're audited.

This is all part of the cat-and-mouse game that has been going on between Microsoft and pirates for... well, forever.

At the beginning of the Windows 7 era, I looked at similar tactics that pirates were using to similarly hack their way into Windows installations that look legitimate but aren't. (See, Confessions of a reluctant Windows pirate.) Many of the techniques that I documented at that time have since been blocked or disabled. This is just the latest attempt.

Meanwhile, if you're that determined to get a Windows 8 update cheap, why not just pay the $40 and get a perfectly legal copy?

Microsoft declined an opportunity to comment on this story.

Topics: Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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