Question about LEGALLY reinstalling XP

Does it legally matter which disks are used to re-install XP if I use the ID from the Windows OEM sticker on the computer?

A friends laptop is several years old and is experiencing several problems. I recommended that she set the hard drive back to ones and zeros, and reinstall the OS. She doesn’t (or never had?) the original disks. She bought the computer new. She owns the version of XP that matches the Windows sticker on the computer.

I told her that she should install from any XP (of the same version), and enter her own registration numbers.

Now I’m almost positive I’ve done this before. When I put in my registration numbers I had to call Microsoft at a number provided to me during the installation process, and tell them the situation. They were then able to walk me through the registration process. (much like if you used your own disks to reinstall after you had a significant hardware change, the registration wouldn’t work)

Does anyone what the EULA says about this?

Any other info would be useful as well.

I’m pretty sure it’s entirely legal. When you own an OS you’ve paid for the licence more than the disk(s) the OS came on.

It is legal, but there may be activation issues. Microsoft (rather amazingly) is pretty good about this. They provide some number of activations, and if you run into problems you can call them and they will activate you with no hassle.

You DO have to make sure that you are using the exact same same version. An OEM code (the one on the side of the machine) will not work with a shrink-wrapped copy of the OS, nor will it work with a VLA (volume license agreement) copy, even if it is the exact same build.

I’ve never been aware of any legal issues with this, YMMV of course.

Potential issue. OEM installation disks. Odds are that you wouldn’t be able to use the OS disks that came with a Compaq or Dell to reinstall to a different system. Sometimes not even a different model from the same manufacturer.

Likewise you’ll probably have problems trying to apply an OEM license to a generic installation.

I’m no lawyer but it sounds okay to me since you’re reinstalling your own license. The disk itself is not unique. But I echo BrotherCadfael’s remarks about needing the right version or it might not activate.

I suggest running KeyFinder before you reformat. That will read the installed license for Windows and MS Office and a few other applications. That way you can be absolutely sure that you have the correct key. I have seen OEM installations where the installed key is different to what’s on the sticker and the sticker number didn’t work.

If you have a spare computer, if at all possible, even with the KeyFinder result, I would try it on another computer so see if it is going to work before you commit to reformatting and face the risk of having to tell your friend “well … your computer had a few problems before but now it doesn’t work at all.” On the other computer you only need to go as far as seeing if that disk will accept the code which is fairly early in the install. I guess taking a disk image before you commit is the other way.

KeyFinder is very useful. I do some volunteer IT support at a school. With donated computers etc, it always seems to be a challenge to keep track of what disk and key belongs to what computer. KeyFinder allows me to save that info to a text file and have it backed up safely. Just to be clear, it’s not a pirating tool. It just confirms what you should already know but may have lost through poor record keeping or whatever.

Legally, you’re fine. Same hardware, same license. There may be technical issues - some Dell and HP / Compaq machines require tailored versions due to BIOS checks.

In this case I think it’s an 8 year old Sony Vaio

As far as I know all installation disks for Win XP have the same files and are the same except for the file i386/setupp.ini which tells the installation if it is retail, OEM, home, pro etc. Look for the Product ID line like


The first five digits determines how the CD will behave, ie is it a retail cd that lets you clean install or upgrade, or an oem cd that only lets you perform a clean install, etc. The last three digits determines what CD key it will accept. You can easily decode this with information you can find online. You can also “adjust” the disk so it fits the license you have.

It’s actually possible (or at least used to be) to buy multiple licenses for Windows and only one disk (or some small number). If you’re a corporate IT department, the last thing you want is to manage a thousand disks. It’s even possible to get software that will do an install or reinstall over a network and plug in an appropriate license number.

For myself, I use Windows on Parallels Desktop for Mac. If Windows has problems on one computer, we just make a copy of the Parallels files and update the registration numbers. It’s much faster than trying to troubleshoot many Windows problems.

I had to reinstall Windows on a Dell computer upon which the hard drive had died. The problem was that the copy of XP that we needed had been on a partition of this now dead drive. I didn’t have 6-8 weeks to wait for a backup CD to arrive, assuming Dell even offered one.

The solution? Well, Microsoft doesn’t care where you get the software. It’s the key that matters. And since we had the key already and we knew it was legit we just found a copy of Dell OEM XP on the internet and used our legit key to make it all kosher.

Perverse anecdote: I was putting together a computer for a friend but the shop where we got the hardware was all out of copies of XP Pro. We went to another shop that had XP Pro but refused to sell it to us because we didn’t buy the rest of the hardware there. He was actually worried that Microsoft would find out and shut him down. So we went across town to a third shop which sold us an OEM copy of XP with the condition that we buy a piece of hardware as well. A $15 mouse was considered sufficient to fulfill this hardware requirement. Hell, a $5 cable would have done it but we needed the mouse anyhow.

On ebay they will specify that to comply with MS requirements with your copy of XP (win98, whatever) you will receive a piece of unspecified hardware which may be working but may be not. I have never bought but I wonder if you may just get a broken connector or 3" of phone cable.

Note that using the Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder might show a different number than the one on the sticker. The big manufacturers use one license number to activate all their systems but that number will not work when you reinstall at home; you must use the number on the sticker.

Legally, you paid for a license to use the software, not for the physical media, as evidenced by the fact that some systems don’t come with the CD.

Yeah, I sometimes wonder what the real deal is with the OEM stuff. The requirements seem a bit of a joke. I bought an OEM copy of Windows XP from Tiger Direct and it came with a small worthless oddball connector. Does that really make it legit? I suspect so or at least Microsoft don’t care about it.

Short answer is, you need to use appropriate install media, but that key on the sticker is absolutely fine to use to reinstall on that system. Just to expand on what BrotherCadfael was saying…

I’m not sure what the deal is with the fly-by-night “OEM Copy of Windows” kind of stuff you find on ebay or get spammed in your email, but I do know what’s up with COA stickers, install media, 5x5 keys, and the laptops/desktops that they came with.

OEMs like Dell, Gateway, IBM, Compaq, OQO (RIP), etc, have agreements with Microsoft to make mass installation and install media generation easier for the OEM and improve the OOBE for the end user. The OEM encodes a unique string of characters at a specified location in their system BIOS, and sends a signed version of that info to Microsoft. In return, Microsoft provides the OEM with an “SLP key” (system lock preinstallation key, also called OA in Vista for OEM Activation), as well as either a little pile of signed files that go in the system directory (XP) or a signed script that does some more complicated voodoo (Vista)-- a different key is provided for each flavor of the OS. The OEM can then build up a base install to ship out on all systems with this same key applied, and can even use this key in building custom install media. Since the SLP key is locked to the BIOS signature, that custom media or an image generated from the base install won’t work on another OEMs system, or even necessarily a different model from the same OEM.

But the 5x5 COA sticker on the side of the machine is not the same as the SLP key. It is effectively a standard retail key (provided to the OEM in a big roll at a discount), which is what the end user is actually buying from Microsoft via the OEM. This key is totally valid and real, but just happens to not have been used to install your system.

So if you have an OEM system with a sticker on it, the options are:

  1. Using appropriate custom OEM install media on which the OEM has implemented the SLP key: awesome, it won’t even ask you for a key.

  2. Using stock retail media or non-customized media from the OEM: If it’s just your first or second reinstall after it came from the factory, eh, you’ll have to give it the license key from the side of the machine, but it won’t be a big deal. If you’re reinstalled several times, you’ll use the same key, but might have to make a phone call to have the mother ship validate that you are good to go.

  3. Using VLA, Enterprise, MSDN etc media: nope, your key won’t work with that media. Likewise custom media from one OEM will give you trouble if it tries to apply the wrong SLP key.

So anyway, the OP is right on target. It’s totally kosher. Microsoft doesn’t care about media; they care about that sticker, which y’all own fair and square.