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Issue #756: January 16-22, 2022

Q: In reference to issue #748 (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. #748, November 21, 2021) I have two legitimate, activated copies of Windows 10 that are loaded on different computers. Is there any way to obtain the Product Key that was used to activate the O/S?

– Joseph B.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A:  Ah, the venerable Windows Product Key.  That 25-digit alphanumeric prize that marks the difference between a legitimate copy of Windows, and one that Microsoft considers pirated.  This little piece of information is, oddly enough, protected, and hidden deep within the operating system, as if it’s some great secret.  I suppose that’s understandable, to some extent, considering the importance of its role in deciding the legitimacy of any given copy of Windows.  One has to wonder then, why vendors commonly affix the holographic sticker containing this code to the case of the equipment in which it’s installed?  Be sure you don’t confuse the “Product Key” of which we’re speaking, with the “Product ID” that’s shown on screens like the Control Panel->System applet.  They are not the same thing, and you cannot register a copy of Windows using the Product ID.

The necessity for product keys all but went away with Windows 10, because there was supposed to be no subsequent new versions of the OS.  Since Windows 10 turned out to not be “the last version of Windows” after all, the need to know your product key has reared its head once again, and many people are finding that either their computer doesn’t have the holographic sticker containing the key, or time and repeated handling has worn the sticker to the point of unreadability.  Fortunately, there are ways to coax this handy piece of data from the system itself – if you know how.

There are actually multiple ways to query Windows for the original product key. The first, and easiest is to use the Windows Command Prompt, and a semi-obscure tool called WMIC, or, the Windows Management Instrumentation Command.  To proceed, click the Start button, and type CMD into the Search box.  In the search results, right-click “Command Prompt” and select “Run as Administrator.” The following command might not translate very well to a printed newspaper column.  If it breaks across a line, remove any dashes that get inserted.  If all else fails, visit my website for the unadulterated command.  Type the following into the command prompt window:

wmic path softwareLicensingService get OA3xOriginalProductKey  

If the command works on your machine, you’ll see the product key.  Unfortunately, the WMIC tool has been deprecated in newest versions of Windows 10.  There are also situations where, for one reason or another, the Product Key is simply unavailable via this method.  If that’s the case, you’ll either get an error, or nothing at all.

The next method involved using Windows Power Shell. This process is similar to using the command prompt but doesn’t rely on any deprecated features.  Start by right-clicking on the Start button and select “Windows PowerShell (Admin)” from the menu.  The same caveats from above about how this might format on a printed news page apply.  Type the following all as one command into the PowerShell window:

powershell “(Get-WmiObject -query ‘select *
from SoftwareLicensingService’).OA3xOriginalProductKey”

Unless you mis-key something, this one is unlikely to produce an error, but there’s an outside chance that it still won’t display the Product Key.  If that happens, your last resort is to look in the registry.

Click [WinKey]+R to bring up the Run… box, type regedit, and click “OK”.  Navigate through the registry keys, being very careful not to change anything.  Make your way to Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\SoftwareProtectionPlatform.  You’ll find a key named “BackupProductKeyDefault” which contains a valid Windows 10 product key.  Just to make things more complicated for you, there is a small chance that this might not be your current product key.  If you’ve ever upgraded one version of Win 10 to another, such as going from Windows 10 Home Edition to Windows 10 Professional, this might be the key from the original version that was installed.  It’s still a valid product key, just maybe not the one you’re looking for. 

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