Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules

Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules

Summary: Last week, Microsoft cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes for TechNet subscribers. Readers tell me that doesn't matter, because every key is good for multiple activations. But is that really true? My investigation says yes, although exact details are murky.


Over the years, I have written tens of thousands of words about the mysterious workings of Microsoft’s Windows activation technology in XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It might be one of the most arcane and misunderstood technologies of the PC era.

Last week, the topic came up again when I published details about Microsoft’s decision to cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes with TechNet subscriptions. (See “Microsoft slashes product key allowances for TechNet subscribers.”) Two years ago, a TechNet subscription included 10 product keys for each version of Windows and Office. That number was cut to five in late 2010, and to three earlier this month.

A half-dozen readers left Talkback comments and sent emails telling me that it’s “well known” that each TechNet product key can be activated 10 times. Several quoted Paul Thurrott, who wrote in 2010, without citing a source, “Each product key can be used to install up to 10 versions of the OS or application, for the most part.”

So, they say, no big deal—three product keys equals 30 installations per Windows and Office version.

But is that true?

I’ve fact-checked this issue several times over the years and have never been able to track down a definitive answer.

This policy is not documented on any official Microsoft site. I have found unofficial statements on Microsoft’s public support forums and in private emails, like this example from a front-line tech on a support forum:

You have 2 product keys for most products, and for Windows Retail keys, each of these keys will let you activate at least 10 times (it depends on the key type).

Another customer got this message from a support rep last week, via email:

Thank you for contacting Microsoft regarding your TechNet subscription.

I understand that you are not satisfied with the TechNet product key reduction. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

Our customer research has identified that three product keys are the appropriate amount for TechNet professional subscribers based on subscription usage. As such, please be advised that each product key is good for up to ten activations. Also, most products come with a complimentary 30, 60, or 90 day evaluation period. If you plan on frequently re-imaging machines, please consider using the trial version in lieu of one of your activations. These complimentary evaluation periods should allow you to complete your short-term testing. If you need to do long-term testing, you will need to use one of your activations.

Smoking gun? Well, I’m always suspicious of information that comes from front-line support reps, who often are well meaning but not fully in the loop. In addition, these two messages are actually contradictory. One says each key is worth at least 10 activations, the other says up to 10. Is either statement true? If so which is it?

I asked a few official and unofficial sources at Microsoft. It took 48 hours and much hemming and hawing, but I finally got a Microsoft spokesperson to confirm that 10 activations per subscription key “is not the official policy across all products.” She went on to note that "different products call for different activation parameters.”

That’s something more than a non-denial denial, but it’s still far from clear. And that, as it turns out, is the crux of the problem. The official policy for retail Windows product keys is that you are allowed one activation, with an unlimited number of reactivations on hardware that is substantially the same as the system on which the OS was originally installed.

But the activation servers, which do the grunt work of processing activations over the Internet, aren’t so rigid. There are, in fact, business rules designed to flag unusual behavior and allow or block activations based on those rules. For example, if you activate a retail copy of Windows on a PC and then, 18 months later, try to activate that same key on a different PC, your activation will probably complete without error. Why? Because that’s the behavior of an enthusiast getting a new PC, not a pirate.

If, on the other hand, the same key is used to try to activate Windows on six different PCs in widely scattered geographical locations over a short period, that key is likely to be flagged as stolen.

Microsoft doesn't like to go into detail about those business rules, because doing so makes it easier for pirates to figure out how to game the system. Crooks who have to guess about how the system works are more likely to screw up and get caught.

In the case of TechNet keys, there isn’t a literal 10-activations-per-key algorithm on the activation servers. Instead, the business rules are set to recognize the way that TechNet subscribers—who are typically enthusiasts and IT pros—are likely to use those licenses. They play with it, reinstall on multiple hardware configurations to test compatibility, and try to see if it breaks things. The upshot is that those TechNet subscribers behave far differently from typical retail customers. As a result, the business rules flag TechNet keys as special. They are indeed able to qualify for more activations than an equivalent retail key would get. And if your legitimately obtained keys fail to activate, you should be able to resolve the issue with a phone call or email to Microsoft support.

Sources at Microsoft adamantly refused to talk on or off the record about specific numbers used as activation guidelines. But they did confirm that the rules are relaxed:

The way we allocate keys for TechNet subscriptions is designed to offer our customers with high flexibility for their software evaluation needs with minimum hassles. In keeping with the spirit of the TechNet Subscriptions program, we go out of our way to ensure that legitimate subscribers are able to fairly test and evaluate our technologies.

My experience with TechNet downloads and product keys over the years bears that out. I keep good records about which keys are used where, and I can’t remember ever being denied activation because a key had been used too many times.

The lack of transparency in the process is frustrating, but it’s also understandable. Software pirates have proven, time and again, that they’re willing to treat each unique key as an asset that can be resold against the TechNet terms of service. Reducing the number of keys in a subscription means there are fewer of those assets to bootleg. As long as legitimate subscribers find a relaxed and tolerant attitude when activation time comes around, this might turn out to be a non-issue.

In the wake of the TechNet product key reduction, I’m interested in hearing firsthand reports about your experience with Microsoft’s activation servers. If you’ve had recent experience that can help make sense of how this activation works, please send me an email or leave a comment below.


Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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  • Never been refused activation for a legit key

    I work on computers, sell computers, have Action Pack, Technet, and MSDN subscriptions. I have customers with OEM, open, volume, academic, and charitable licences. I activate many keys, often many in a day for the same product. I have had to phone for activation a few times. I've even been questioned once or twice by a real person. I've never had an activation refused unless it was a stolen or pirated key that the customer didn't know (or didn't tell me) was not legitimate. It is a pain to have to activate software but if it must be done the Microsoft system seems to work pretty well.
    Kerry from BC
    • No problem them;-)

      Oh wait, I've had problems, and people I know have had problems.

      For one friend the problems with his windows activation was so annoying and difficult to solve with "MS tech support" (basically accused him of stealing) he walked into an Apple store and bought himself an iMac and MacBook Pro!

      But all good, Kerry hasn't any issues;-)
      Richard Flude
    • Slippery slope

      I have had very few issues when it comes to Microsoft's product activation system. However, once Microsoft introduced activation in XP, other software companies followed suit. The problem is that many of them didn't do activation nearly as well. One example is Intuit with their QuickBooks software. Intuit requires product registration along with their activation, which is something Microsoft does not require. Also, getting Intuit to activate an older product can be nearly impossible. I had a client that was running a version of QuickBooks 2000 and had their hard drive crash. Fortunately, they were doing backups of their data so all we had to do was reinstall their software on a new hard drive and restore their data. Unfortunately, Intuit refused to activate QuickBooks 2000 because they "no longer can" and said the only solution is to buy a newer version. Luckily, someone wrote down their activation code when it was originally activated over 10 years ago, so I was able to input it and re-activate the software. It's good to remember that just because Microsoft is relatively good about activation, many of the companies that have implemented it are not.
      • Re-activating QuickBooks

        I had to re-activate QuickBooks once via telephone. The person gave me a re-activation key which I continued to use every time I was prompted for telephone re-activation.
  • Activating Windows - Seamless

    Of course, when it comes preloaded on a new PC, its seamless since activation works differently. Using TechNet and Retail licenses, I have never had any issues with Windows 7 product activation. Usually, reactivation is triggered by certain circumstances such as changing key hardware such as a motherboard, hard disk or if you are using Registry Cleaning software, most of which are notorious for tampering with activation technologies. Some other factors can include race conditions or date and time not correct in Windows or the BIOS. Sometimes when you receive activation issues in Windows, running the Microsoft Genuine Diagnostic Tool can repair some issues and fix the activation error.

    Overall, Microsoft has done a lot to make the process very seamless, in fact, I have never had a problem with product activation since the introduction of Windows XP.
  • My experience as well

    Technet keys can be activated multiple times. On the other article I quoted a statement found on the msdn faq, that specifically talked about keys being able to activate 10 times, more when you use the same hardware. Later I found the same faq steered to technet, and noticed they are not talking about 10 but about 1 activation or more in some cases. It is clear that Technet seem to have much stricter key usage conditions as compared to msdn, where you incidentially still can claim up to 10 keys.
    • MSDN and TechNet are very different

      The price of an MSDN subscription is much higher, and the usage rules are different as well.
      Ed Bott
  • Activate 10 times...

    but not use them concurrently. i.e. you can re-install up to 10 times per key, but (theoretically), you can only have the licence active on one machine at a time, not 10 parallel installs.

    How strict MS are about the concurrency is another matter. If you install the same licence on 2 or 3 machines at the same time in the same location, you probably won't have any problems. Install it on 2 or 3 geographically disparate PCs and it might get blocked.

    The key wording here is 10 activations, not 10 concurrent installations.
  • I've noticed more problems activating XP

    If I pick up some refurbished XP Pro PC's to replace some old/failing XP Pro PC's, I use to be able to just clone over the HD drive from the old PC to its replacement, and then do a repair install. This saves an enormous amount of work since the user gets exactly everything he/she needs and wants, including often some fussy, obscure programs, on a faster platform. Lately, though, I've been running into more and more situations with Windows XP activation flaking out after doing this: it would refuse to accept either the product key on the refurbished unit's sticker, the key from the unit it's replacing, or the OEM key for the installed version on the refurbished unit (I usually record this before reimaging). And calling up to activate only rarely fixes this as well. My "solution" is to just try different XP keys from other PC's in the office until one works. This is stupid and doesn't exactly discourage offices I know who are hoping to switch to Apples when XP support ends.
    • Switching?

      Switching to Mac may be an option for a small business with a hlaf dozen PCs. But as soon as you grow to a size that requires centralized administration of resources you've got nowhere else to turn but Microsoft.
      • Well, It's Possible to Use Linux or BSD Servers

        Well, it's possible to use Linux or BSD servers, but if you've been using Microsoft all along, switching is no small undertaking.
    • Where do you pick up your refurbished XP Pro PC's?

      Could they have used that key code 6 times before, on other "non stickered" machines?

      I haven't had any issues like that myself, and I've done a few rebuilds in the last yearon upgrading XP machines's hardware
      William Farrel
  • Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules

    Its not confusing at all. Different keys for different products can be activated a different number of times. I've not heard of many if any problems with technet activations. Microsoft did a pretty fair balance of keys to activations given what the technet subscription is.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • I'm not seeing any complexity here.

    You are issued three keys. Each key is good for one activation. That's where your expectations should stop. Anything else is gravy.

    With that said my experience has been there are (or were since I no longer have a subscription) two types of keys issued from TechNet: Individual keys and Multi-Activation Keys (MAKs). Individual keys are just that: One key per activation. MAKs are a single key which can be activated on multiple systems up to the pre-determined number of activations. Given the sheer number of keys I had access to I never attempted to activate an individual key on multiple computers.

    On the retail side I did activate 2008 Enterprise on one system, and then a couple of years later successfully activated that same license on a different system through the Internet without problem. So your statement in the fourth paragraph after the Microsoft statement appears accurate in this one instance.
    • Read the license agreement/terms of service

      You're making a bunch of authoritative sounding statements. What are those statements based on?
      Ed Bott
      • They're based on your article which stated Microsoft reduced the number...

        ...of keys from five to three. Is your article in error?
      • Oh for heaven's sake


        You wrote "You are issued three [TechNet] keys. Each [TechNet] key is good for one activation."

        On what authority do you base that statement?

        There is ample precedent for allowing multiple activations for a single key. Look at the Windows Family Pack for example, which allows three activations, or at retail Office products, which can be activated on a primary PC and a secondary portable PC.

        You state with authority that one key equals one activation when talking about TechNet. Unless you can cite a basis for that statement, I will asume you made it up because you BELIEVE it is true.
        Ed Bott
      • I base it off of my experience with my previous Tech Net subscription.

        @Ed Bott:

        Where one type of key, called a Single Activation Key (SAK) permitted activation on one system. A second type of key, called a Multiple Activation Key (MAK) allowed one key to activate multiple systems. Perhaps that's changed I said I no longer have a subscription.

        With that said whether a SAK could be used to activate multiple systems is irrelevant. It's obvious, given the nature of the key, Microsofts intent is it be used to activate a single system (at a time). Thus if Microsoft issues three SAK's then you should expect you can activate three systems at a time. Anything beyond that is gravy (though likely against the license terms).

        Nothing you've written contradicts what I've written. The fact one can do something doesn't mean one should rely on that ability to do it. Microsoft's intent seems fairly clear to me given they are (or were) offering a combination of SAK and MAK keys.

        Amazing you asked for feedback and when you get it all you can do is be a jerk to those who provide it.
      • I'm not seeing any complexity here lol

        @Ye: [i]I base it off of my experience with my previous Tech Net subscription.[/i]

        Which by your own admission is rather limited. ["... I never attempted to activate an individual key on multiple computers."]

        Ye: [i]You are issued three keys. Each key is good for one activation. That's where your expectations should stop. Anything else is gravy.

        [T]here are [...] two types of keys issued from TechNet: Individual keys and Multi-Activation Keys (MAKs). Individual keys are just that: One key per activation. MAKs are a single key which can be activated on multiple systems up to the pre-determined number of activations. [/i]

        And yet you go on to claim these pronouncements are in alignment with what Bott is attempting to get to the bottom of, along with many others? How so? Or did Ballmer himself deliver these crystal clear edicts to you?

        Ye: [i]Where one type of key, called a Single Activation Key (SAK) permitted activation on one system. A second type of key, called a Multiple Activation Key (MAK) allowed one key to activate multiple systems.[/i]

        And where have you discovered this omnipotent synopsis, along with so-called "SAK" keys? MAKs are little more than newfangled VLK keys. There are "Retail license" keys and "Static Activation" keys, but they are not generally referred to as SAKs. [?]

        Ye: [i]Nothing you've written contradicts what I've written.[/i]

        [Er, I didn't just read that] :| The reality is, TN subscriptions are governed, however [s]imperfectly[/s] nebulously, by single user licenses + server licenses, but only as MS sees fit. As it pertains to available product key types, it basically boils down to the following for the lion's share of offerings. R E A D carefully:

        [b]Retail Key[/b]
        This key allows multiple activations and is used for retail builds of the product. In many cases, 1 or more activations are allowed per key, though often more are allowed on the same machine.

        [b]Multiple Activation Key[/b]
        You can use the same key to activate multiple copies of the software. MAKs are generally used with Volume Licensing builds of a product. Typically you will only be provided one MAK for a given edition of a product.

        [b]Static Activation Key[/b]
        A key is required for installation of the product, but the key does not require activation, so it can be used for any number of installations.

        There are also Custom, OEM and VA 1.0 keys available but in more limited scopes.

        [b]TechNet Note:[/b] Subscriber Downloads offers both retail and Volume Licensing versions of certain products, only retail versions of some products, and only Volume Licensing versions of others. As a general rule though, products requiring activation such as Windows, Windows Server, and Office client products are only offered in their retail version through TechNet.
      • Not sure why this is so difficult.


        Why do people always make things harder than they need be?

        Microsoft is stating you will receive three keys with your subscription. Given they have Multi Activation Keys any key which is not specifically marked as such should be assumed to be a single activation. PERIOD.

        There is no ambiguity here. The fact you may be able to active a non-MAK key more than once does not change this simple fact. You purchase the subscription on the assumption you will be limited to three concurrent activations. If you should be able to activate more than three concurrent systems Microsoft has given you more than they said you would get. Again: Gravy.