Windows 10 digital licensing was first introduced as a Digital Entitlement in November 2015 in Windows 10 version 1511, the first Windows 10 feature update. It was renamed to Digital License in Anniversary Update version 1607, which also brought the option to link that license with a Microsoft Account (MSA). What digital license means is that when a Windows 10 device is activated, it remains activated for the lifetime of said device. A clean reinstall can be made without entering any product key. As soon as Windows gets connected to thw Internet, it automatically connects to Microsoft’a activation servers to check the hardware ID. If no hardware changes are detected, Windows will be activated.
The license is tied to a hardware ID, a hash based on actual hardware at the moment when Windows is activated. Changing the motherboard, CPU or GPU voids the license, but if the license is linked to an MSA it can be transferred to new hardware and a new digital license will be created. Although this officially only applies to retail licenses, users with OEM licenses are also reporting that license transfer also works — for instance, in the case of a replaced motherboard.
The hard disk ID is not included in the hash calculated for digital licensing. If an HDD or SSD on physical machines or VHD on virtual machines gets corrupted and becomes unusable, it can be replaced with a new one. Windows may then be clean installed or a system image restored without a product key. Windows detects the underlying digital license and activates automatically.
A digital license is edition but not language specific. For instance, if you run UK English Windows 10 PRO, but choose to install French W10 PRO next time when clean installing or deploying an image, it will activate automatically.
One PC or virtual machine can have different digital licenses, one for each edition installed on that machine. Any edition can be clean reinstalled on any machine without a product key, Windows will be automatically activated based on the digital license for whichever edition was installed, subject to said edition having been activated earlier on that machine.
Windows 10 EULA
I honestly think Microsoft should rewrite its Windows 10 End User License Agreement (EULA). An easy way to find and read it as it is now is to run the winver command (press WIN + R, type winver, hit Enter) and use the link shown:
Over the years, the EULA has remained about the same dating back to the time when Windows came on floppies and later on CD or DVD. At those times, the product key appeared on a sticker on the box and was required every time Windows was reinstalled. Section 2, paragraph A, made some sense back then:
What the highlighted part in the preceding screenshot means is that earlier, if you wanted to install a second copy of the same edition for dual boot, you needed a second product key. This is completely changed now; a digital license is hardware and edition specific. Therefore, each additional instance of an edition which has a digital license on that machine will be automatically activated.
Here’s a real life example: my main OS on this laptop is UK English Windows 10 PRO. I have two additional instances of W10 PRO on this machine (dual / multi boot setup). One is a Finnish version installed on another partition as physical installation, the other is an extremely stripped down W10 PRO EN-GB for video editing and encoding installed on a native boot VHD (extremely stripped down = all services, startup items and such not required for video encoding and editing removed or disabled).
The main OS (W10 PRO EN-GB) is the only one activated with a product key. The other two instances were automatically activated based on the main OS digital license. Because the hardware ID is the same when adding other instances of same edition to a multi boot scenario, they get the same license and activation status. I have only ever used one W10 PRO retail product key on this laptop when upgrading the Home edition it was shipped with to PRO. Thereafter, all installs in single or multi boot scenarios have been automatically activated based on that key and an existing digital license.
Some hardcore purists may now think I am breaching the Windows 10 EULA, thinking I should use the Change product key option in Settings > Update & Security > Activation and use two more product keys to activate those additional Windows instances. The thing is, all instances of same edition will always use the same product key and the same digital license. If I now change let’s say the Finnish W10 PRO product key, the main OS and my Video Edit instances will also switch to that key and license and the earlier key used to activate original installation will be released, free to be reused on another machine.
I’ve tried my best to contact both Microsoft and Software Alliance, an organisation to protect software intellectual copyrights and fight piracy (Microsoft is a co-founder). I want to get this clarified: Am I breaching the Windows 10 EULA and making myself guilty of piracy due my multi boot scenario? The below tweet is from almost a year and a half ago:
I am reporting myself for a possible copyright infringement. See attached letter. pic.twitter.com/0qvMbF1H9J
— Kari 🇫🇮 (@KariTheFinn) January 26, 2017
I have received no answer to my tweets and emails.
As long as Microsoft does not make a very clear statement about the Windows 10 EULA and how it is interpreted regarding a digital license and multi boot scenarios, I will continue using several instances of same edition on my machines with one single digital license and one single product key. And, I want to make this very clear, I will do it without any ethical or moral issues whatsoever .
As I see it, because only one of the installed Windows instances on the same machine can be used at any given time, there are no problems with this. I would appreciate your take regarding this matter. Please comment!
Author: Kari Finn
A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.