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Illegal and Cracked keys

Illegal and Cracked keys

What is a Key?

Product keys are usually an alphanumeric code used to activate the full features and functionality of a piece of software. These may also be known by other names such as Serial Numbers, Activation Keys or Activation Codes, 5x5 Installation Keys. The key would be obtained from the software manufacturer with the purchase of the program in question and provided in the form of an OEM key sticker physically attached to the device or on a retail box or a product key card or an online activation through a single purchase or as part of a licensing agreement.

A cracked or illegal key would be one that has not been obtained in a legitimate way from the software manufacturer or an authorised reseller, or is being shared when this is not allowed. These can be obtained from an unauthorised reseller, via auction sites such as eBay or by using a keygen tool. The software installed by the end user may have originated from the original manufacturer OR it may be downloaded from a suspect website.


Using a cracked or unauthorised key could and associated software present one or more of the following risks:

  • Malware/Security risk. If a hacked software has been used to install unlicensed software with a cracked key, this can open the end user’s device to potential security risks e.g. Malware. This can be extremely costly to rectify and may permanently damage an organisation’s reputation.
  • Deactivation. The main risk to using a cracked key is that the software does not activate in the first place, or after a time is deactivated by the manufacturer when the key is not recognised or flagged as having been abused. This could potentially leave the product with reduced functionality in the short term and unusable in the long term.
  • No product updates. The software could not receive updates from the manufacturer, if this has been recognised as an abused key. Updates often contain security updates and bug fixes, so without this end user’s device is exposed to security threats.
  • Incorrect product. The cracked key purchased does not relate to the product required, which could mean it does not activate or the user is left with the incorrect product installed.
  • Developer license. The software and key is designed and licensed for use in a development and test environment. It may not be a full featured edition, at risk of deactivation, and use in a production environment would be a breach of the Vendor’s license terms.
  • Although purchasing a cracked key and software may appear to be a cheaper option at the time, it could have a higher financial cost further down the line. If during the course of a Vendor audit cracked keys are discovered in use, these could be in breach of the Vendor’s license terms. The vendor would most likely insist that the full legal software is purchased to replace the cracked versions.
  • Legal Damages. If an organisation is found to be using software illegally activated using inappropriate keys it may be sued for damages by the software vendor. This can be a hefty cost especially where the organisation is found to have knowingly and deliberately avoided paying for the software licenses.
  • Organisations found to be breaching license conditions face a very real prospect of adverse publicity. Software vendors and their protectionist representatives publicise such cases from time to time.
  • Believe it or not company directors who knowingly allow software license abuse can face a prison sentence. Failure to pay for software licenses is a criminal offence.


The use of illegally installed software and use of illegal/cracked keys within an organisation can be reported to the Federation of Software Theft (FAST) at:

During the last few years software publishers have increasingly been moving to the cloud as a means to access and distribute their software. Software distribution via physical means is reducing but is not dead. Software products continue to be pre-installed on PCs. Many products remain available as “boxed” products. Older software (either unused or second hand) remains readily available via liquidation sales, online auction sites and other online sites, high-street markets and car boot sales. In many countries of the world software is regularly sold on CD in local markets. This means illegal copies of software are still in circulation and will be for years to come. This exposes the unsuspecting customer to two problems: counterfeit and unlicensed software.  It is commonplace to discover illegally copied or counterfeit software pre-installed on PCs. It is also quite easy to buy illegal software copies over the internet without realising it. There is a rampant online industry offering illegally sourced software. Many of these websites last only one day and are replaced with a different website name the following day. Sometimes the pricing is obviously too good to be true. Other times the pricing seems a little cheap but fair. One key feature to look out for is software that is offered as a download with a separate product key or serial number with which to activate the product. Avoid these unless it is sold by a reputable source.

Why should you be concerned about counterfeit software or key downloads?

Activation keys supplied with downloadable product are often are expired, blocked, fake or stolen activation codes. If the keys are invalid your product may not work at all, or will work with reduced functionality, or you may not receive online updates that normally help keep you secure.

Trial Editions

Software is often available on a trial basis. By all means use this if you get it from a legitimate source. But don’t be tempted to hack the activation keys to extend your trial indefinitely. This is simply illegal and fraudulent. It’s like keeping a loan car indefinitely – would you do that?

Academic, Charity and Commercial licenses

Software vendors offer attractive discounts to deserving users such as students, schools, universities and charities. If you qualify then you should make use if these offers. But don’t be tempted to lie to obtain cheap deals. It is quite simply illegal and you can be prosecuted for this deception. Also you do a disservice to those deserving users who might otherwise receive better deals.

What is mis-licensing?

Basically you are mis-licensed if you don’t license all your software, or you buy the wrong type of licenses (for example buying Academic licenses when you are a commercial organisation), or when you fail to procure enabling licenses (e.g. CALs) that are required to use what you have installed. For example, users often require a CAL (Client Access License) in order to access a central resource such as a file server, authentication server or database server. These enabling licenses are just a paper license and nothing is physically installed. The terms and conditions of your main software products will make it clear what is required. It is important that you ensure you understand the licensing terms to get this right. Another area of mis-licensing is grey-imports. Software is often sold for use in a particular country. This is because there are trade laws and rules within a given region such as the EU that govern import of goods and services. Tariffs, taxes and import duty will usually be levied on imports. Software procured for use in the EU should be bought from legitimate EU resellers or bought direct from the software publisher.

Why should I worry about mis-licensing?

By copying software, or in any other way using it but not paying for it, you are helping to bump up the cost to other users who legitimately procure their software. This is Intellectual Property theft and is a criminal offence. Similarly, avoiding import duties is an offence. When you are caught you will be penalised and have to pay the cost of the software you ought to have paid for initially as well as compliance purchase going forward together with discounts in doubt. The worst offenders can be imprisoned. Your organisation may receive unwanted publicity about the issue and have its reputation damaged, suffer consequential damage to your sales or other source of income, or in the worst case this could irreparably damage your organisation.

How can I check my software is appropriately licensed and safe?

  • Always check with the software publisher which channels they sell their products through. They will usually indicate who their resellers are:- whether they have their own online store or sell via a mainstream online distributor, whether their products are available bundled via a PC manufacturer or via high street stores.
  • A quick web search by product SKU (Part Number) often helps you to find the full product description and how it is normally sold.
  • Check if the product is intended to be sold only via a Corporate or Volume sales agreement, or as an online subscription only.
  • Some products and product editions can only be purchased via a Corporate or Volume Agreement which are typically intended for customers buying minimum quantities. If you are buying just one of two of a product that is normally procured via these sorts of agreements then it is likely you are buying an inappropriately licensed product.
  • Check if you need additional licenses such as Client Access Licenses.
  • Don’t be tempted by from a website selling at a price that is “too good to be true”.
  • Don’t buy just a “COA” – a Certificate of Authenticity. These stickers must be attached to the PC or software product. They should not be sold on their own.
  • Take great care when buying second-hand PCs to check the authenticity of any software it comes with. There is a high probability that any software pre-installed on that PC is not legally licensed unless you procure the PC from a licensed PC refurbisher.
  • If in doubt contact a mainstream software reseller for advice, especially when you are buying larger quantities.

About the author

Vaughn Chadwick

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