If your product key is stolen, part 2

More on the consequences of losing your Office 2007 or Vista product key and what you can do to try protecting yourself.

We continue our look at some concerns with product activation and disabling in Office 2007 and Vista. Last week we talked about how easy it is for your product key to be stolen and how your legally bought software could be disabled by Microsoft.

In this issue we look at some consequences of a stolen product key, noting the lack of a clear and open process by Microsoft to deal with disputes. We end with some ideas for what you can do, so you can try to protect your investment in Microsoft software.

What’s happened to my product key?

One problem with the activation process is there’s no way for the customer to know how the product key / software license has been used. Microsoft keeps close records of each activation for a product key but withholds that information from the customer.

If your product key is stolen and attempts are made to use it, you (as the legitimate owner) aren’t notified. You’ll only find out if the product key is deactivated and even then you won’t know why.

If you have an activation problem, Microsoft knows what has happened but won’t tell the customer. It’s possible the activation record could reveal details that would support a case that your product key was stolen (eg activation in another country) but Microsoft won’t tell you.

Since you never see the activation history, you also can’t check to see if your product key has been misused. Ideally the registered user could login to a special site, review their activation history and know when there’s been improper use.

As it stands, you don’t know there’s a problem until you try to activate the software or Microsoft imposes their ‘kill switch’ on your legal software.


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Why has my software been killed?

So your product key was stolen, used and as a consequence, you start getting messages saying that your Windows Vista (or maybe Office 2007) is illegal – what can you do?

Good question and there’s no good answer – presumably you’ll phone Microsoft’s call centre to ask for an explanation. That’s where the situation gets messy – there’s no clear path from Microsoft to deal with this situation.

The obligation falls on you to prove to Microsoft that you bought legally. That can be difficult because Microsoft has already decided that your product key has been used illegally by a number of people and it has no means of knowing whether anyone was a legitimate user of that product key, and it has no clear path for customers to prove otherwise. Microsoft’s recommendations about documentation would not really help.

Since the product key isn’t linked to you by name there is no way for you to prove that you are the legitimate owner of that product key.

Having an itemized receipt (as suggested by Microsoft) doesn’t help because the product key isn’t shown on a shop receipt. Microsoft could argue that a receipt is for any copy of Office or Vista – not necessarily the product key in question.

In the end all you can do is call, plead your case and hope for a sympathetic response.

Corporate or volume customers who are victims of product key theft might have some more power with Microsoft to negotiate a solution. But home or small business customers have no such leverage nor is there the vital link between the owner and the product key.

Microsoft argues there are ‘few cases’ but since there’s no external checks of that statement, we only have Microsoft’s word for that. It would be in Microsoft’s direct interests to downplay the possibility.

The time lag between theft and detection

With Microsoft holding all the software license and activation history it can be long time between the actual theft of your product key and when there are noticeable consequences.

This will deepen the mystery for you when you start seeing warnings that you have pirated software. The theft of your product key may have been weeks, months or years ago.


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What appeal process?

What if Microsoft disables your copy of Vista or Office 2007? You’ve tried to explain to Microsoft that you were the original purchaser but they won’t believe you. How can you appeal?

You can’t – there’s no appeal process.

Microsoft’s decision is final; you’re a software thief, then you’ve lost that software license. You’re expected to buy another copy of the software (and hope the same thing doesn’t happen again).

You could try writing to Microsoft and presenting your case – but there’s no disclosed path to do this. There is no name, title or address given to direct your letter. All you could do is write a letter and hope it arrives on a sympathetic desk – and not the desk of the people who refused you in the first place.

Certainly there’s no proper external appeal process. We’ve long felt that Microsoft should appoint some external arbiters who could examine disputed cases and make recommendations in both specific cases and general practices.

Microsoft has always rejected the idea of outside examination of their practices. Strangely they can’t see that such a system would increase customer confidence and therefore sales. Instead it is seen as an intrusion with the implication that they are doing something wrong.

It would be in Microsoft’s interests to implement an open system with proper appeal processes, before they are imposed from outsiders.

Not only does Microsoft ‘hold all the cards’ they also hold all the rules to the game. The company can change their proof requirements at any time because they are not publicly available. Since much of this is done over the phone there’s also the real possibility of misinterpretation or even misrepresentation. It’s not a stretch to envisage Microsoft staff (who assume you’re a software pirate from the moment you call) being reluctant to change that view regardless of the evidence.


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How you can protect yourself

After reading this, I’m sure some people will decide that there’s insufficient ‘security of tenure’ in buying a Vista or Office 2007 license to warrant the high cost.

License problems and the possibility of Microsoft ‘killing’ your software probably isn’t enough on its own to make you decide not to get the new versions, but combined with the cost and the usual changeover hassles these concerns might be enough to keep your money in your pocket.

While Microsoft fails to provide a clear path for customers who have their product key stolen there is no reliable method of guaranteeing your Vista or Office 2007 license is safe, but there are some things you can do:

  • Keep your paperwork. Save a copy of the itemized receipt for the software purchase with a copy of the product key (preferably a copy of the actual product key label).

  • Know your license. Windows and Office software licenses vary in many ways, especially how many computers you can install the software on. It’s a complicated thing and not always obvious to the purchaser. To save later trouble you should know the license terms from the start. We suspect many people have bought new copies of Office when they don’t need to. Either they have misunderstood the nature of their license to use Office or the flexibility of the software activation system (which, despite flaws, is considerably more flexible that most people realize).

  • Track your activations. Microsoft tracks your software activations but keeps that info for themselves, therefore you should keep a record of when, where and on which computer you have activated Microsoft software. This will give you a firm basis to dispute Microsoft’s version of events.

  • Protect your computer. Make sure that access at start-up and the screen-saver is password protected. This is good practice to protect all your personal data, not just product keys.

  • Protect your paperwork. Keep product keys out of easy reach. It’s the product key that is vital to your ownership of Office or Vista, the CD / DVD isn’t as important.

No de-activation option

One glaring omission from the Microsoft anti-piracy system is the option to register the ‘de-activation’ of Office on a particular computer.

There is no way to tell Microsoft when you uninstall Office from a computer, for example when you’re transferring Office to a new computer. Microsoft only records attempts to activate Office, if they think you’ve tried to activate too often you’ll have to deal with their call center staff to explain your situation. They only have your word that you’ve uninstalled Office before putting it on a new machine.

Surely it would be better for customers to have the option to ‘de-activate’ during the uninstall process? It would give the customer some support to a claim that their Office license isn’t being misused.

Of course any ‘de-activation’ option could only be an indicator. If a computer breaks down entirely, you might not have the ability to uninstall and notify Microsoft. Despite this we feel the option to better trace your use of Office licenses should be an option.