The product key is a usually unique alphanumeric key of any length required by many software programs during installation. They help software developers ensure that every copy of their software has been legally purchased.
Most software, including some operating systems and programs from popular software manufacturers, require product keys. As a general rule, once you have purchased a program, it will most likely require a Product Key during installation.
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In addition to product keys, some software manufacturers, including Microsoft, often require product activation to further ensure that the software has been legally downloaded and installed.
Open source and free software programs usually do not require a product key unless the manufacturer implements one for statistical purposes.
How product keys are used
A product key is like a password for a program. This password is provided when you purchase the software and can only be used with that specific application. Without the product key, the program will most likely not open past the product key page, or it could be run but only as a trial version of the full version.
Product keys can usually be used by a single program installation, but some product key servers allow the same key to be used by any number of people, as long as they are not used at the same time.
In these circumstances, there is a limited number of product key slots, so if the program using the key is closed, you can open another one and use the same slot.
Microsoft product keys
All versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system require the entry of unique product keys during the installation process, as do all versions of Microsoft Office and most other Microsoft retail programs.
Microsoft product keys are often found on the product key sticker, an example of which you can view on this page.
In most versions of Windows and other Microsoft software, product keys are 25 characters long and contain both letters and numbers.
In all versions of Windows starting with Windows 98, including Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP, Product Keys are in the form of five (five characters) by five characters as in xxxxx-xxxxx- xxxxx -xxxxx-xxxxx.
Previous versions of Windows, such as Windows NT and Windows 95, had 20-character product keys that took the form of xxxxx-xxx-xxxxxxx-xxxxx.
See the Windows Product Key FAQs for more information on Windows Product Keys.
Finding Product Keys
Since product keys are required during installation, finding that you've lost a product key could be a serious problem if you need to reinstall a program. You probably don't need to repurchase the software, you just need to find the key you used when you first installed it.
The unique product key entered for an operating system or software program is typically stored in an encrypted format in the Windows registry, at least in Windows. This security makes it very difficult to find one without help.
Special programs called Product Key Finders or Key finders locate these keys, as long as the program or operating system has not already been deleted.
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Notice about downloading product keys
There are many sources online that correctly claim that they have product keys that you can use for various software programs or incorrectly claim that a provided program can generate a product key for you.
The way they sometimes work is to replace a DLL or EXE file on your computer with one that was taken from a legitimate copy of the software; one who legally uses the product key. Once the file replaces the copy, the program may now be a never-ending “trial” or will work completely if you provide the product key that came with the pirated software.
Another way product keys are illegally distributed is simply through text files. If the software performs all offline activations, the same code can be used by multiple people for multiple installations without generating flags. This loophole is why many software programs activate their products online by sending the product key information elsewhere to validate it.
Programs that generate product keys are called keygen programs and usually contain malware along with the product key applicator / activator. This is one of the main reasons why keygens should be avoided.
Regardless of how you proceed, obtaining a product key from anyone other than the manufacturer of the software is most likely illegal and considered software theft, and probably not safe to have it on your computer.
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