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When you purchase software you're not always buying what you think.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

No, I'm not talking about your car keys, though you probably don't want to lose those either, I'm talking about your product keys.

When you purchase software it's easy to think that you're purchasing the CD or DVD and perhaps the manual that might come with it. In a sense that's true, but many people end up throwing away the most important thing they purchased. They might save the disc, or even the manual and throw away ... the product key.

The product key is that string of random numbers and letters that seem totally meaningless, but that you need to type in to activate or enable the software's feature. You probably remember them as being incredibly difficult to type in correctly since they do seem so random.

While every CD for a particular product is probably identical, the product key printed on the outside of the software's packaging is different on every box. It's that product key that identifies your unique legitimate copy of the software.

In a very real sense, it's actually that product key that you're purchasing, not the CD or DVD. This is particularly true for downloadable software, where there is no box. When you finally purchase the software the vendor emails you an activation code - the product key.

Look at it this way, if you keep your CD but lose the key, you might be able to install the software, but you can't activate it. If however, you lose the CD but do still have the key, it's quite legitimate to install from a borrowed CD or a download and simply use the key you already have to activate it.

I consider product keys important enough that I actually treat them like passwords. For each package I purchase I add the key to a spreadsheet I keep on my encrypted drive. That way no matter what else I might lose, I can always re-install and activate with my saved keys.

Now, if software came pre-installed on your machine you may never have even seen a key. Check out the packaging that came with your machine now, before you lose it.

There are also utilities that, for some software such as Windows XP and Office, can retrieve the key from the registry for you and display it. If you haven't already, I recommend you do exactly that and save the resulting information in a safe place.

Someday, when your hard disk crashes, and you've lost the packaging that had the keys on them, you'll thank me.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11438 in the go to article number box to access the show notes and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,100 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3008 - April 29, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Ken
April 30, 2007 8:17 AM

Shouldn't that be "lose"?

I used to store the CDs in one of those rubber-coated plastic boxes that they don't make any more. The rubber cover could be removed from the plastic shell, and I wrote the keys on a diskette label I stuck to the shell inder the cover. Even a crashed HD couldn't stop me from reading the list, and it was certainly easier to find than the original disk sleeve.

dunstergirl
May 4, 2007 11:30 PM

I usually write the product key right on the software CD using a permanent marker, just in case my kid (who is notorious for discarding CD cases) or one of the pets (or myself in some absent-minded mode) manages to lose/destroy/eat the CD case (while miraculously preserving the actual CD :-). And also because I occasionally pass on outdated equipment and associated software/drivers and the recipient should be able to activate them if needed.

The idea of a file with all the activation codes in it (including for downloaded programs, which I currently have scribbled on pieces of fragile, easily misplaced paper stuck in the CD holder or with my software manuals, and if I lose/can't find those, require searching through sometimes years of email archives...hmmm...how many years ago did I buy that??) seems like a no-brainer (why didn't I think of that earlier?), so I've added that task to my "to do" list...

Thanks Leo for another great tip.

Cheers,
Lelani

STEVE PREGOSIN, FLA
May 5, 2007 7:42 AM

Running BELARC ADVISOR. Belarc Advisor is a free program that builds a detailed profile of all your installed software (LOOK IN SOFTWARE LICENSES SECTION) and hardware, Microsoft hotfixes, and antivirus status. It also provides you with detailed Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks. The results are then displayed in a nicely formatted HTML report. From your Web browser, you can easily sift through the report information and access Web sites for additional information. However, all of your computer profile information is stored on your system and is not sent to any Web server. PRINT A COPY

Cathal Donnelly
May 8, 2007 2:44 AM

I use Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder and copy the results into Word, print it out and store it. After the amount of times reloading my system, this is invaluable. It finds both Windows and Microsoft Office product Keys.

Steve
April 27, 2010 12:13 PM

I recognized in the very beginning that keys were the "key." OK, pun intended. I use Robokey-to-go on a USB key. Robokey has what they call a "Safe Notes" section that is encrypted as well as the passwords. I put all the information about a software program there along with the key. It is a very handy place to keep important information when awway from home.

Margaret Louk
April 27, 2010 4:15 PM

Boy did I learn the hard way about losing keys, I had my OS reinstalled and when I went to pull up some files it asked for the key. I ended up having to get an Open Office to open my data files, letters and such. I keep a file box with all the keys to the different games I have purchased. Believe me it came in handy when I bought a new computer.

Bharat Bhardwaj
May 2, 2010 8:04 AM

i wish, you would have also pointed to some clean programmes to do this. though in the course of years of using Windows, i have come across some of these programmes to retrieve the keys from the windows & other products, however, quite a few of them, are marked as illegitimate by the antivirus apps.

for example, while using Produkey, Mcafee wouldn't even wait for me to run the executable. Merely, unzipping the utility would invite its wrath

Cynthia
August 1, 2010 12:28 PM

This is really good, Leo! I for one, often lose my product keys. Good thing there are softwares that help you recover them nowadays. KeysRecover ( http://www.keysrecover.com ) is one of them. Works like a charm for me! :)

Jack
March 5, 2012 6:33 PM

Thanks, I didn't realize I could use my buddies CD with my purchased key. Now I can use my program again since I had used BelArc Advisor to save my keys and no longer have my CD.

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