Get facts, not spin, about Vista's new license

Last week I documented a change in the terms of the retail Windows Vista license that will directly impact hobbyists and enthusiasts. Paul Thurrott spoke to a Microsoft product manager who says it's just a "clarification." That's a remarkable bit of historical revisionism and a major change in what Microsoft has been telling its customers for five years. But don't take my word or Paul's - go read the supporting documents for yourself.

Update 2-Nov: In response to complaints from enthusiasts, Microsoft has revised the terms of its license agreement. For more details, see "Microsoft changes Vista license terms."  

Memo to Paul Thurrott: If you're going to write an article entitled "Windows Vista Licensing Changes: Everything you've read is wrong", it helps to get your facts right. After reading a post I wrote last week about Vista licensing, Paul spoke to a Microsoft product manager, who says there's no change in the license terms for Windows Vista, just a "clarification" of an existing restriction that already applies to Windows XP users.

I've dug deeply into this issue and I'm convinced that he's being spun by his sources at Microsoft. Unlike Paul, I'll give you links to all the facts, so you can read the supporting documents and decide for yourself.

For the record, Paul is responding to a post I wrote and published here last week. Here's how he kicks it off:

There's a funny myth going around that says you have a right to transfer a single copy of Windows XP (or any previous Windows version) to as many computers as you like, as often as you like, and for any reason you like. This myth exists because the Windows XP EULA is vaguely worded. It states, "You may move [Windows XP] to a different Workstation Computer. After the transfer, you must completely remove [Windows XP] from the former Workstation Computer." [emphasis added]

This is vaguely worded? Seriously, will someone please tell me what part of the section Paul quotes here is the least bit unclear? For a retail copy of Windows, you can move it to a different computer as long as you remove it from the former one. Period. Paul continues:

Pundits argue, incorrectly, that this EULA implicitly allows any user to continually move a single copy of Windows XP from machine to machine as often as they'd like. One online pundit decided this meant that "there are no restrictions on the number of times you can transfer the software from one computer to another in your household or office." That person is, however, incorrect.

Apparently, it is forbidden in the Thurrott household to speak my name. It is as if, in some fashion, speaking my name has the same effect as invoking the name of Beetlejuice. ("Ah, Ah, Ah... Nobody says the 'B' word!") So I am "one online pundit" and "that person." Paul also seems unwilling to link to my original post so that his readers can get both sides of the issue and decide for themselves. But the quote is taken directly from my post, so I am going to assume that Paul is talking about me.

How does Paul fact-check this assertion? He picks up the phone and talks to a Microsoft product manager, who tells him that the sky is green, rain falls up, and there are 25 hours in a day:

The Windows XP EULA appears to implicitly allow infinite transfers because it doesn't explicitly explain how many times one might transfer a single copy of XP. As it turns out, infinite transfers wasn't the intention. "This clause was always aimed at very specific circumstances," Microsoft general manager Shanen Boettcher told me. "Someone has a hardware failure, but still wants to run that copy of Windows on the new machine, for example."

The problem, of course, was that some people felt they could install a single copy of Windows as many times as they wanted. "It's always been per copy, per device," Boettcher said.

This is a remarkable bit of historical revisionism from the Ministry of Truth. ("Did we forget to say this only applies once? Sorry, that's what we meant.") Over the years, I have researched and written about Microsoft licensing extensively. I believe I've read just about every document Microsoft has produced on the subject of Windows licensing, and I have never heard this claim made.

Paul concludes:

With Windows Vista, the EULA has been clarified. It now explicitly states that a user may "reassign the [Windows Vista] license to another device one time." This, the pundits say, is a huge restriction that wasn't present in Windows XP. Many people incorrectly believe this to be the case.

Did I miss something? I try to be accurate, but I'm not perfect. So I went back through my archives and through Microsoft's website to see if I could find even a shred of documentation that supports this bizarre assertion. Alas, it's not supported by those pesky documents that Microsoft has been preparing and publishing for its customers for the past five years.

Retail copies of Windows cost more - much more - than OEM or upgrade copies. In exchange for that premium price, you get significantly greater installation rights. This is a big deal to hobbyists and Windows enthusiasts who want maximum flexibility in licensing. In the hundreds and hundreds of pages of Microsoft documentation I've read, I have never seen even a hint that there is any restriction on reinstallation of a Windows XP retail license, as long as the former copy is removed first. Until Paul printed this quote last week, I've never seen anyone from Microsoft make this argument, either. Not once.

Hundreds of millions of people have installed and used Windows over the years. Unlike Paul, they can't pick up the phone and call a Microsoft product manager if they're unclear about licensing terms. So they read the license agreement, which seems pretty clear to a reasonable person. And they search Microsoft's website for guidance on the subject and receive advice that is completely consistent with that interpretation.

Here's a sampling of the advice you'll get if you go to Microsoft's website and read up on licensing.

The Software Buying FAQ from Microsoft Small Business:

Q. Can I move software from one PC to another?

A. Software installed on a new PC can't be transferred to another PC. If you bought the program at a retailer or have a volume license, you may transfer the software from one PC to another as long as you have uninstalled it from the previous PC. [emphasis added]

The Education Operating System Licensing Q&A (Word document):

What is the difference between OEM product and Full-Packaged Product (FPP)?

OEM products are intended to be preinstalled on hardware before the end user purchases the product. They are “shrink wrapped” and do not come in a box like the retail products do. Full-Packaged Product (FPP) is boxed with CD(s), manuals, and the EULA and is sold in retail stores in individual boxes. The End User License Agreements (commonly referred to as “EULAs”) for OEM and FPP products are slightly different. One main difference is that an OEM operating system license (such as the license for Windows) cannot be transferred from its original PC to another PC. However, the FPP [retail] version of Windows may be transferred to another PC as long as the EULA, manual and media (such as the backup CD) accompany the transfer to the other PC. [emphasis added]

Knowledge Base article 302878, "Frequently asked questions about Microsoft Product Activation":

Can I transfer a license to another computer?

Consumers may use the terms of their license agreements to determine if transferring a license to another computer is allowed. If a transfer is permitted by the license agreement, the product has to be removed from the computer where it was first installed. Users may have to complete the activation on the new computer by phoning the Microsoft Activation Center. [emphasis added]

And the information is consistent across international boundaries as well. Customers in Singapore get the Stay Legal FAQ, which includes this Q&A:

Can I transfer software from one PC to another?

OEM software installed on a new PC cannot be transferred to another PC/notebook. If you bought the software (Full Packaged Product) at a retailer or have a volume license, you may transfer the software from one PC to another as long as you have uninstalled it from the previous PC. [emphasis added]

And the software licensing FAQ in the UK repeats this message:

Q. Can an operating system be transferred from an existing PC to a new PC?

A. It depends on the type of Windows software installed on your computer. Full-packaged retail versions of Windows software are generally transferable from one PC to another as long as the software is no longer installed on the original PC. An OEM software licence, however, may not be transferred or installed on another PC because it's tied to the original computer system on which it was installed, even if the PC is no longer in use. [emphasis added]

Not a single one of those sources even hints that there's a limit on the number of times a retail copy of Windows XP can be transferred or that Microsoft had the intention of limiting reinstallations to cases where there was a hardware failure. Exactly the opposite. And I challenge Paul or anyone to find me any document from Microsoft published before 2006 that includes that revisionist interpretation.

Which set of facts do you want to believe? You could rely on Microsoft's documentation as published over the past five years, or you could rely on a single product manager's bald assertion, printed without any further fact-checking by an online pundit who doesn't provide links to any additional information and just says, "Trust me."

If you choose the latter, do me a favor: Can you let us all know which provisions of the new license are vague and need clarification? I suppose we could wait until Paul talks to another Microsoft product manager in 2011 and tells us that everything we read for the previous five years was wrong. But it would be much more convenient to find out now.