Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

What's OEM software? Is it safe to buy?

I need to buy a new XP disc and license key. I see some websites sell the
OEM version. What’s the difference between that and a version I’d buy off the
shelf? Will Microsoft let me activate an OEM license key if I’m only a
consumer?

OEM stands for “Original Equipment Manufacturer”, and those are the folks
like Dell and HP and Sony and others who manufacture computers. OEM Software is
the software that they install on your machine, or provide with the machine,
when you purchase it new.

How, then, can one buy OEM Software without purchasing a machine?

That, my friend, is exactly the issue.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

If you’ve purchased a machine lately, there’s a lot of software already
installed on the machine. A good manufacturer will also provide you
with the CD-ROMs containing that software, so that you can re-install it should
you need to reformat or otherwise repair your machine.

OEM Versions of software are provided by the software vendors, like
Microsoft, to manufacturers for mass distribution on new hardware. Sometimes
there’s nothing different between an OEM version of Windows and its retail
counterpart. More often, though, the hardware manufacturer will customize the
operating system such that in installs drives for their specific hardware,
displays their logo on boot, or other things relating to that specific
manufacturer. OEM versions of applications, such as Microsoft Office for
example, are typically pretty much identical to the box you might pick up on a
store shelf.

Folks attempting to sell OEM version of software are typically sell the
backup CD-ROMs that came with machines they’ve purchased. They’ve backed up
their machine in some other way, or perhaps duplicated the CDs for their own
use, and are taking the “official” OEM CDs and offering them for sale.

“Folks attempting to sell OEM version of software are
typically sell the backup CD-ROMs that came with machines they’ve
purchased.”

The problem is simple: OEM software almost always includes licensing
language along these lines: “For distribution with a new personal computer
only. This software may not be sold independently.”

Pretty clear, eh? Reselling the software that came with your computer is a
violation of the software vendor’s terms. In other words, it’s illegal.

Another potential problem is that what’s advertised as OEM software isn’t
that at all – it’s simply illegal pirated copies of the software. The OEM term
is used simply to attempt to “legitimize” the deeply discounted price.

Now, unless you yourself are building a business attempting to sell OEM
software illegally, you’re probably not going to get a visit from the police
about this. But you could run into some very serious issues down the road.
Specifically: you may not be able to update your software.

Microsoft, in particular, has been slowly ramping up their enforcement of
software legitimacy. That means that if the software you’re running is
determined to be an OEM version that’s been compromised and purchased illegally
(typically determined by the product key being used by many more people than
there were machines shipped with that key), you may be denied product updates,
including serious security patches, until you legalize your copy. (Which is
typically as simple as purchasing a retail copy and installing that on top of
your existing copy.)

So my advice is simple: buy retail. Definitely go bargain hunting, but as
soon as you see “OEM”, run away. Buy from a legitimate retailer instead.

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Tech problem solving & safety tips with a weekly confidence boost in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow

Slow Computer?

Speed up with my FREE special report: 10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow, now updated for Windows 10.

No strings. No email. Here's the direct download. (Just right-click and "Save As...".)

28 comments on “What's OEM software? Is it safe to buy?”

  1. It may not be legal for a person to sell it, but it’s perfectly legal to buy the software from a retailer if you meet the requirements of the EULA. You can legally and easily buy OEM copies of Windows from stores like Newegg or ZipZoomFly if you are also buying parts for a new computer.

    And no manufacturer gives you the Windows disk anymore; often, if you get disks at all, it’s an image that you have to restore. Most likely it’s a partition on your hard drive with the same image.

    Making blanket statements that buying OEM software is illegal is misleading, if not false. It’s perfectly safe to buy OEM software as long as you follow the rules for buying online; buy from a reprutable retailer and, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    Reply
  2. When Leo warns against deals that sound too good to be true, he’s not kidding. And to be honest, when the deals are that sweet, you HAVE to suspect something is shady.

    My point of view, if you’re not going to buy from a reputable vendor, you might as well just pirate it off the file sharing nets. You’re pirating it either way, but at least by downloading it off a filesharing net, you’re not handing money over to sleazebag criminals.

    When you buy it from the questionable vendors, you’re handing your money over to criminals.

    Reply
  3. Just had to offer some “it happened to me” comments. I bought a computer used off of eBay. It had XP Pro w/SP2 installed. The seller also provided an OEM disc with the machine. For the first 6 months or so, everything was fine. I could get the Windows Updates, download Microsoft games, etc. Then one day the computer would not pass the validation scan. Microsoft said the Product Key was blocked because it had been reported lost, stolen or leaked.

    I provided Microsoft with my eBay sales receipt and I even had the seller provide HIS sales receipt from when HE bought the computer direct from Dell. Microsoft wouldn’t budge and basically accused me and the seller of being in cahoots trying to scam them. I had to buy another XP Pro install disc so I could become “legal”.

    Moral of the story: I have serious doubts about Microsoft’s policies and procedures when it comes to really knowing if a person is using a pirated copy of XP. I’m not a lawyer but it sure seems to me if a person has an original sales receipt from a legitimate company like Dell, that should be sufficient proof that the OS was legally obtained, regardless of what might have happened with that particular Product Key once the computer left the factory.

    If anyone has any comments, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    Reply
  4. It’s just outrageous that it’s possible to buy a PC with pre-installed WinXP without being able to reinstall it if it crashes at some point. When I bought my IBM laptop recently, I did not even get a recovery CD any more either.

    However, there is a pretty easy and entirely legal way of creating your own XP CD-ROM from your pre-installed system.

    For the German speakers among you, get yourself this article from the CT Computer Magazine:

    http://www.heise.de/kiosk/archiv/ct/06/03/202/

    The necessary Slipstreamer tool is available at:

    http://www.wintotal.de/yad/index.php?id=3083

    I’m not sure whether all this has been replicated in English somewhere, but if not, it would certainly be a good idea.

    Reply
  5. On one hand, I agree that there are many dishonest people selling pirated discs as “OEM Installs” — they should be closed down.

    If *you’re selling* software that *you signed an agreement to sell under certain conditions*, then *you* are responsible and should be raked over the coals if you don’t do what you said in the agreement. The buyer (who doesn’t know what you did/did not sign) shouldn’t have to worry about that.

    On the other hand…
    It is a packaged good that is sold at a point of sale. EULA’s and the all be damned, especially at this point (purchasing the OEM version) you haven’t used it. There should be no legal way to get around the first sale doctrine, unless you have *explicitly* signed that right away (and by explicit, I mean that you have Gates’ signature and yours on the same piece of paper). These EULAs have the same weight with me as the “this poduct cannot be returned” that you sometimes see on lawnmowers (err… Wal*mart will take it back — if you don’t like it, don’t sell such a crappy product).

    That said, there is one thing that may/may not be good about the retail edition:
    Typically OEM software comes with no support thru the mfr(ie, if you have a problem with MS Windows on a Dell OEM license, MS will tell you to talk to Dell.)

    Sometimes, the mfr’s support is good. Other times….

    Also… for some things (Windows), it just says that it must be purchased with hardware… a number of shops will let you buy it when you purchase it with a mouse (for example). Granted, if you need support, I don’t think that shop will be of much help…


    Mary: Not that you can do anything about it, but I think what you had was “enough evidence” (err… he bought it from dell, sold the machine and all the stuff to you… where’s the copy?)

    but, I am not a lawyer. I just think the whole “conditions after the sale” thing is bunk. And I support copyright (imagine that… it governs “rights to create copies” not anything dealing with selling the one copy).

    Reply
  6. It’s just outrageous that it’s possible to buy a PC with pre-installed WinXP without being able to reinstall it if it crashes at some point. When I bought my IBM laptop recently, I did not even get a recovery CD any more either.

    However, there is a pretty easy and entirely legal way of creating your own XP CD-ROM from your pre-installed system.

    For the German speakers among you, get yourself this article from the CT Computer Magazine:

    http://www.heise.de/kiosk/archiv/ct/06/03/202/

    The necessary Slipstreamer tool is available at:

    http://www.wintotal.de/yad/index.php?id=3083

    I’m not sure whether all this has been replicated in English somewhere, but if not, it would certainly be a good idea.

    Reply
  7. It’s just outrageous that it’s possible to buy a PC with pre-installed WinXP
    without being able to reinstall it if it crashes at some point. When I
    bought my IBM laptop recently, I did not even get a recovery CD any more
    either.

    However, there is a pretty easy and entirely legal way of creating your own
    XP CD-ROM from your pre-installed system.

    For the German speakers among you, get yourself this article from the CT
    Computer Magazine:

    http://www.heise.de/kiosk/archiv/ct/06/03/202/

    The necessary Slipstreamer tool is available at:

    http://www.wintotal.de/yad/index.php?id=3083

    I’m not sure whether all this has been replicated in English somewhere, but
    if not, it would certainly be a good idea.

    Reply
  8. Hi,
    I’m buying a new PC from dell, but i want to buy a OEM version of Microsoft Office from a company i know well…
    They’re a offical retailer and th eOEM linces are 1 use only will there be any issues with that????

    Please e-mail me on robertmellink@hotmail.com.

    Thanks

    Reply
  9. I have to differ with you. There are definitely legit OEM vendors out there, and the way you can tell that is simple: they will ask you to choose a small computer-related item you want with your purchase of the OEM software. They do that, with the full knowledge of the software manufacturers, so that they are not in violation of any licenses: They throw in an el cheapo mouse that can be considered “computer hardware” and everyone is happy. So yes, be cautious, but no need to freak if you need to buy cheap… just be smart about it.

    Reply
  10. Microsoft changed the requirements for OEM software. It now has to be purchased with a full system, or by a system builder, and if you build your own systems, guess what MS considers you a system builder.

    Reply
  11. The fact that they throw in a cheap mouse with the OEM software just to make sure that they “sell it with hardware” means nothing. It’s not meant to circumvent the law or any license agreement, it’s meant to fool you into believing that you are doing a legit buy. You’re not.

    Many of the “OEM softwares” you see advertised isn’t OEM at all, it’s pirated. Adobe, as an example, has never even offered an OEM version of Photoshop, still you can buy it “OEM” at hundreds of sites. What does that tell you?

    Reply
  12. Uhhh.. Adobe sells OEM/customized software to MANY hardware manufacturers — camcorders, cameras, scanners, etc. all come with Adobe/OEM software. It’s clearly marked “OEM” (not for resale), and in many cases, has programming to prevent use on non-authorized hardware.

    So Adobe, like every other software vendor on the planet, sells variations on their core retail-product direct to other businesses/vendors. They even sell an “academic edition” for registered student/faculty at participating colleges/universities. (The software is identical to the commercial retail version, but the end-user license agreement is of course totally different, ‘confined’ for academic use.)

    Reply
  13. How can I tell if I purchased the retail version or OEM version? I’m guessing that I purchased the retail version, but now I am confused. I have installed MS Office Pro 2003 on my PC and now I want to put it on a personal pc too. Is this ok?

    Reply
  14. The issue here is not “OEM” of itself. The deeper, underlying issue is real simple–that of “The Doctrine of First Sale”. Which plainly says that the first, unrestricted sale of a patented item eliminates any cause for which relief can be granted on behalf of any patent owner in litigation proceedings. See below:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-sale_doctrine_(patent)

    In short, if I buy a car from ABC manufacturer, I can in turn sell it for whatever price I choose to whatever buyer I choose. Still more, the purchaser has done nothing illegal in buying this vehicle from me.

    Legal? YES. Ethical? YOU DECIDE.

    Concerning “OEM” software as such (by its most widely accepted and accurate definition), Leo is right.

    Having said this (and I am NOT giving advice, here), it would be better for these wise asses to admit that they are taking advantage of the Doctrine of First Sale, than deceiving the buying public with any other perception.

    Regarding the difference between “the law” and “the license agreement”, any first year law student can tell you that if something isn’t provided for in the law, it doesn’t matter HOW much ink you waste in writing your EULA.

    Rather, what is at issue is that (despite the possible illegality of a EULA)one has no protection against an elaborate–albeit illegal–EULA if, despite the illegality, they STILL agree to it. In this case, you are ethically BOUND to abide by what you agreed to.

    Again, however, there is that “sticky” issue of the difference between “legal” and “ethical” and the courts generally make this distinction quite clear by siding with the “disadvantaged” end user.

    Usually, the courts will say that it is of no consequence that Mrs. Bonnie Bushka agreed to the EULA, despite her enthusiastic clicking of the “I ACCEPT” button. The thinking of the law is that Mrs. Bushka is in an “unfair bargaining position” being faced with the horrible consequence of not being able to use the “industry-leading” software she purchased, while being effectively unable to find a reasonable alternative to, let’s say, Adobe Photoshop.

    In this instance, Mrs. Bushka was therefore (and under great duress) compelled to agree with something she would not otherwise have agreed with. Ergo, the technical “legality” of her electronically stated agreement to the EULA is overshadowed by the “unethical”, unfair bargaining posture Adobe allegedly enjoys in such matters.

    I own an ad agency and we deal with this type of thing every day. It is amazing what you can find out if you just READ.

    Thanks and Great Topic, Leo. This is my first time in your forum and I really enjoyed the reading!

    Reply
  15. You really have to look for the sticker, as long as there is a sticker on the packaging, it is legal (as long as the license number on the sticker has not been used), most OEM manufacturers, like Dell, Sony Vaio, Compaq, and other computer manufacturers, put the sticker on the back/side/top of the computer, it’s kind of hard to remove the sticker off the case and put it on the plastic shrinkwrap around the CD and booklet, and I think that, just like warranty stickers, there is a “VOID” adhesive layer, so as long as the sticker is on the shrinkwrap, it is a legal OEM version, I have use OEM versions of Windows on a lot of computers, 100% legal

    Reply
  16. Some of the software vender’s like oemsoftware.cn do not sale software but only archives versions of software. This was the same thing done 20 + years ago. The law as it was (and I haven’t kept up on it) was the you could reproduce intellectual property for personal protection of your purchase. It is the product ie. Song, story, movie, software, etc. That is protected not the media. Its kind of like not having to toss out all of your movies if your dvd player dies, you just get a new one. The only problem is that if you don’t have an original copy then its stealing. All of these EULA now are doing there best to get around that fact mostly due to a real problem with copyright infrengment.

    Reply
  17. Hi,

    I have a dell desktop machine that comes up with a preloaded xp.Now i want to upgrade my system(upgrade my processor,motherboard,ram), here the question can i able install the xp by using the recovery cd given by xp.will it work or not.

    Most likely not. Recovery CDs are not the same as installation CDs. Depending on what or how much you are upgrading, it might not work. Contact Dell to figure out exactly what you need to do in your specific situation.

    – Leo
    04-Dec-2008
    Reply
  18. If I have an old machine that has an OEM office instalation on it (SBE 2003), would it be okay to reuse the key for this instalation on a new machine while the old machine is decommissioned completely and not used again?

    I believe that strictly speaking you may not – OEM software is licsensed for the one specific machine it was delivered on. (OEM software may also not always work on other brands or models of computers than originally delivered on, but I suspect that’s not the case for Office.) But check the wording of the license – it may also vary from OEM to OEM.

    – Leo
    06-Jan-2009
    Reply
  19. I am a software developer and I am just about to sign up a packaging and distribution agreement with some distribution company,can I distribute my software as an OEM, since there is no specific hardware accompaniment or prescription

    Reply
  20. ok dude millions of people buy off newegg.com so you are definitely safe to purchase oem off there i promise but any other site except newegg.com, tigerdirect.com or compusa.com i say no so here is safe oem software: http://www.newegg.com/Store/Software.aspx?name=Software there is no way it can be pirated because it has the original manual and the disk is not blank and it says windows vista on the front printed like the retail and all updates work to so don’t be afraid of oem at newegg.com

    Reply
  21. I recently purchased an “OEM” Windows 2000 Professional program, sealed, with legal COA and the program runs fine. In fact the laptop that I installed it on had previously ran the program, so the seller told me to use the old COA for it, and I did. I also installed it with the new COA on this laptop, both laptops runs and updates fine. But that may not work with XP, with the validation. But even with XP, the validation tool downloads first, without your consent, but the checker, you can refuse the download and even check not to show it again.

    Reply
  22. Good article. While I don’t if it cleared everything for me, it will make me more careful on buying or selling OEM software. A few years I installed a number of computers, and some program came bundled in the box. The company did not use the product, and it was not pre-loaded on the machine. I debated about selling/giving it away to charity, but wasn’t sure about the legal rights to do so. Still not, but hey, if you are the least bit unsure, best not do it.

    Reply
  23. I bought a 2007 office software from NewEgg and when I loaded it on my computer it showed up when I went to use it as illegal. So looks like you can get illegal software in the least likely places. I complained but got no response. I put it on my Gateway computer. It loaded as a HP product. It was in the microsoft box and the CD was copper colored like most all of Microsofts operating systems. Go Figure!!

    Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.