My wife has managed to buy a Dell laptop she was using at her ex-employer that just went bust. The problem with it is the OS (Windows XP) which takes ages to boot and is generally disproportionally slow to the hardware of the machine. So my aim is to sacrifice a day and reinstall it.

The problem I am slightly worried about is the licensing/registration/activation hell. Apart from the sticker (with WinXP license key), the laptop has no other paperwork proving this license is legitimate. I believe this was originally an OEM license. Unfortunately, I don't have the the installation CD.

This computer also has MS Office installed (which I would like to retain) but it none of MS Office apps would launch due to some obscure error complaining about lack of free disk space (which computer has plenty of). I have absolutely no clue what kind of license this MS Office was. And because the company has gone into the administration, there is no way of getting this information nor installable media.

I believe that by buying the hardware I have also acquired the software which I can use as I see fit. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Above said, my question would be:

What is the easiest way of reinstalling the XP? By easiest I mean avoiding spending my time to prove Microsoft support I've got the right to use the software (insert your computer says noooo joke here) but still being able to get to fresh virgin activated legal state of the XP. I used to work as a sysadmin many years ago so I am not afraid of any technical difficulties. The same question applies to MS Office.

I imagine the process would consist of backing up all the data, pulling some bits from the registry and using that on the fresh install. As for reinstall I'd expect to use some sort of OEM Windows repair CD from Dell, right? Are those freely available? My other box (HP) has such a thing and it can't be used on any other brand.

I'm sure somebody had to go through this licensing hell and could share his/her tips.

Thanks in advance.

  • 1
    If you want to find the key for the office installation you can get it using this software: magicaljellybean.com/keyfinder Then you only need to find a copy of the correct media.
    – Joe Taylor
    Apr 13, 2010 at 15:35

5 Answers 5


You can backup and restore the activation files so that you don't waste an activation each time you reinstall. This is provided the hardware hasn't changed, which is unlikely on a laptop.

  • Thanks for the link, that probably makes a half of my worries sorted. Still hoping anybody to respond about the MS Office, though...
    – mindas
    Apr 5, 2010 at 21:19

I agree with the comment that this really is a black-and-white issue. The best way to think about software licensing is to assume that you are guilty until proven innocent. If you can produce evidence of a valid license, you're OK. If you don't have evidence of a valid license, you're in trouble.

In the case of Windows, the license sticker on the laptop is the Certificate of Authenticity for an OEM license. You are allowed to reinstall the same edition of Windows (presumably XP Pro) on the same laptop. If it doesn't activate automatically online, use the phone option, and the call center in India will let you activate it when you explain that you're reinstalling on the same computer. As long as the license key on the OEM license sticker attached to the machine is legible, you will have no problems here.

As for Office: if you have no proof of license (Certificate of Authenticity) for Office, you will need to purchase a new license. Be sure to explore all of the licensing options available, as some are better deals than others. e.g.: if your wife has gone back to college following her former employer's demise, the Microsoft "Ultimate Steal" program provides academic-licensed Office Ultimate for less than $100. OpenOffice is also a very good option, and it costs nothing at all. However, continuing to use what is likely a volume-licensed copy of Office, when the computer no longer belongs to the licensee, would be illegal.



  • 1
    This answer is most complete as it covers the Office licensing. Your OS is valid and licensed (an OEM license stays with the machine, and you have the proof of authenticity), but the Office installation you have is not licensed for your use or reinstall.
    – Chris Thorpe
    Apr 5, 2010 at 22:26

Here is a link to where you can order replacement OEM CDs from Dell.

Also, you can check what the laptop orginally came with by entering the service tag of the laptop on this page.

If the Dell page lists Office OEM, you may be able to get a new product key for Office according to this Microsoft KB.


Actually, the Windows OEM license is only transferrable if you possess the chassis certificate of authenticity and the original Windows OEM CD. (or a second-hand, original CD with hologram) You also must be using the same motherboard, and the chassis serial number must match the BIOS serial number. Otherwise, if you don't meet those conditions, once you transfer title of the laptop, the new owner is no longer entitled to use Windows unless they purchase a retail box copy of Windows.

Depending on how Microsoft Office was licensed, you may be stuck in a similar situation. In many situations, the OEM -- NOT Microsoft, licenses Office to the end user. In most cases, the end user is not entitled to any media, other than the original image provided by the OEM on the recovery disk.

Microsoft changed the rules for refurbished computers about three years ago. Previously, OEM licenses were not at all transferrable, except for donations to schools and such. If you Google around, you should find a PDF that explains it.

  • I'm not sure that this is legally correct. As far as I remember, the EULA states that the licence is only valid for the hardware with which it is sold. There are no provisions for any change in the hardware, so a new battery or mouse would seem to invalidate the licence, which seems absurd. Basically it is a "Ship of Theseus" problem, and as far as I know has never been tested in court. Microsoft's attitude is that it is the motherboard that matters (probably because there are OEM disks that are tied to certain manufacturers' motherboards and don't require activation?).
    – Neal
    Apr 6, 2010 at 8:13

The licensing question is a grey area. It would depend entirely on what licensing scheme was used at to whether there are any transfer rights. If you have the OEM sticker for the OS on the laptop then that's generally fine. Office is another matter entirely.

You probably can use your HP disk to do a repair or reinstall. I've done them in the past using a disk from another manufacturer without issue. If you go for a reinstall rather than a repair be sure to back up your data first and you'll need to source install media (and a license key) for Office since you don't have access to them.

  • It's not grey- it's black and white. You can transfer an OEM edition 1 time per lifetime of the system. You must have the COA sticker and presumably you have the OEM install media. If you want office you can transfer that as well as long as you have the COA. If it's an enterprise install you cannot transfer the license.
    – Jim B
    Apr 5, 2010 at 21:03
  • @Jim, Everything I have ever read about OEM licensing has stated that you cannot move the license at all. The whole idea of OEM is that the license lives and dies with the hardware. Can you provide a reference for your comment about being allowed to transfer it once?
    – ITGuy24
    Apr 5, 2010 at 23:33
  • Both Jim B and ITGuy24 are right, if you buy a machine with an OEM licence you can sell that machine and the licence as one job lot. The person who buys it then has a machine and a valid licence. That person can then sell the machine and the licence as one job lot if he or she so wishes.
    – Neal
    Apr 6, 2010 at 8:01
  • how do you know it's one time, @JimB and not twice?
    – Thufir
    Apr 18, 2020 at 11:18
  • @thufir I have no idea where i got that 10 years ago but now i can tell you no transfer sat all of OEM licenses is possible (except with the unit)
    – Jim B
    Apr 23, 2020 at 18:50

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