Are you using a pirated copy of Windows XP?

by Mike on August 30, 2008

image This week Microsoft are releasing a new update to the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) component of their Windows XP operating system. If your Windows license key is copied or stolen or you have made an attempt to bypass the Windows online activation process then now you’re going to get nagged.


If your copy of Windows is not genuine (or your key has been stolen and published on the Internet), the new WGA component will start to nag you.

  1. Your desktop background will be changed to a plain black background. You can change it back manually, but every 60 minutes the background will default itself to being plain black.
  2. You’ll get pop-up notifications telling you that, “You may be a victim of software counterfeiting”.
  3. The same notification will be permanently displayed on your desktop background, just above the system tray.



“What if I bypass product activation again? Surely the crackers will come up with something?”

It’s true that ultimately someone with the right skills, time and determination will break the current WGA protection for Windows XP. Microsoft have identified Windows XP Professional is product most likely to be pirated. Software protection and cracking is an arms race where one side makes improvements to the product’s defences and the other seeks to exploit undetected holes or to crack (replace files) the product’s protection in order to bypass the defences. Each “side” has it’s turn at either attacking or repairing the defences of a software product.

In order to reduce software piracy, Microsoft are adopting a common Micro-ISV strategy in coping with this software protection arms race; to reduce the turnaround time in changing the defences. As soon as a new crack is detected or a new product key is leaked, Microsoft will release a new update to their WGA protection in order to stay “one step ahead”. The pirates work will be wasted and they’ll have to start cracking the updated product all over again.

“So what? I’m a pirate and I can live with that”.

It’s clear that this new WGA update won’t put off those who either cannot or will not afford to pay for a genuine Windows XP license. However it will serve to embarrass and inconvenience businesses who have not paid for their copy of Windows XP. This goes for a lot of the “second hand” market too; where pirated Windows licenses abound.

I’m sure the hacking community will break through the protection offered by WGA but it will be a smaller subset of the community that will keep up to date with pirated updates than before.

We also don’t know Microsoft’s plans for the future. Sure at the moment they are just nagging, but it is very possible that they will disable some or all of the operating system for those who get caught.

“I reinstalled Windows using the key on a sticker on the bottom/side of my machine. Windows won’t activate!”

This happens a lot. When you purchase your computer from an OEM (e.g. Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba) they often use one license key for all of their installations. It’s easier for them that way since they have thousands of machines to get ready for customers. The key is pre-activated and is different to the unique key that they give to you. That key on your sticker is more often than not invalid for the purposes of activating a new Windows installation. The sticker is provided for legal reasons only. If you’re unable to activate using the key provided by your OEM, you need to use the recovery media (usually a recovery DVD) in order to rebuild your machine and ignore the misleading sticker!

“I bought my machine from a genuine shop!”

This happens a lot. A small business might accidentally have built you a machine using an image (a copy) of another machine’s operating system, including copying the key. Windows detects that the machine is different and activates the WGA nagging. Unfortunately you need to prove to Microsoft that your license is genuine or go back to the shop and for a refund.

“What about Windows Vista?”

Windows Vista already has the WGA technology built-in. This update is merely a retro-fit to Windows XP Pro, the most copied operating system in history.

Does this new WGA update affect you? Has this article helped you? It took about 30 minutes to research and 30 minutes to type, so please leave a comment and let me know if it’s been useful to someone!

Debunking a common misconception on software licensing…

By law you must maintain copies of all your software licenses. Software is intellectual property and is very rarely owned by the end user. Instead software is licensed from the vendor to the end user. You don’t purchase software to unlock it, instead you purchase a software license to give you the legal right to use the software within the terms of the license. In practice almost all software vendors implement a form of software/anti-piracy protection to keep the shop safe!

If you haven’t got a copy of the software license for each piece of software you use, contact the original vendors.

If you are in the UK and are aware of unlicensed software use by a business, then please contact:

Even software developers have to eat and pay our bills!


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