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