Is your Windows license legal? Should you even care?

This software is licensed, not sold.

That sentence, which has scrolled past PC users’ eyeballs for decades as they click through Windows license agreements without reading them, is what made Bill Gates rich. It is also the gateway to an insanely confusing thicket of legal verbiage, and Microsoft has made the topic even more bewildering through the years by adding layers of anti-piracy protection that are only indirectly related to the license itself. (And let’s not even start on weaselly words like genuine.)

Windows 11 FAQ

I’ve been studying Microsoft licensing agreements for more than two decades. During that time, I’ve written dozens of articles on the subject and have prepared testimony as an expert witness in criminal and civil cases where Microsoft licensing was at the crux of some serious disagreements. One thing I’ve learned along the way is that even people who work for Microsoft sometimes get confused about when a license is legitimate and when it’s not.

And if they have trouble sorting out license agreements, what chance do the rest of us have?

Most of the time, a Windows license is strictly a formality, something you can safely ignore. But occasionally, it matters, especially if

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