5. Why You Can’t Run Windows on a Donated or Gifted Computer

The Windows 8 operating system (Photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

The Windows 8 operating system (Photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

Before we can proceed with setting up a donated computer, we need to consider what software we will use. If you just installed a new hard drive into it, your computer will need an operating system. However, even if your computer had a hard drive and boots right into it, you may be out of luck. The license may not be legally yours. Now I’m not a software lawyer, but I will try to sort this out for those of us who just need to get to work.

All the systems that I received for free from family, friends, and local businesses came without hard drives; in one instance, I was even asked to remove the hard drive. So I installed my own. They are fairly inexpensive these days, but I had quite a few already. Ironically, all the drives I happened to have were acquired used. Because they are rather fragile and the underlying technology is not well understood, used and defective (but fixable) drives can be had for very little expense, or even free. I had a box full that I received from a local company that was upgrading drives, so I was good to go.

The Problem with Windows Licensing

Now all the computers I received also had an authorized Windows license code on a sticker on the side of the box. For the laptop, I had to search a bit and I found it under the battery compartment, which is not uncommon for laptops. So can I just re-install Windows on these computers using the license codes to authenticate? Actually, no. I checked with Microsoft and the license belongs to the original customers if they keep the drives with the original software on them. If you think about it, they could just have moved the drive to another computer and still be using the license. Since I didn’t originally pay for it and since the software was not transferred to me, I do not own it. This would become an issue when I tried to authenticate it and that same license was still in use elsewhere.

Volume license customers, typically large organizations and institutions, benefit from hugely discounted pricing, but there is a catch (Image labeled for reuse from www.microsoft.com)

Volume license customers, typically large organizations and institutions, benefit from hugely discounted pricing, but there is a catch (Image labeled for reuse from www.microsoft.com)

Institutional licenses work the same way. Large companies, organizations and institutions typically purchase licenses in larger quantities at huge discounts. Their software is installed on top of the original Windows license and Microsoft considers that a single license because it is an add-on. This can seem confusing, because the software they receive is complete on its own and technically does not need a unique pre-installed Windows license to function. However, the discounted license price is partially subsidized by the fact that they need to purchase the original system with Windows pre-installed. The two licenses together combine to form a single legal license.

So even if I had received the computers from companies, organizations and institutions, I would still not own the licenses because I did not pay for them. The bottom line is that I did not acquire original Windows licenses on the systems I received because it went with the hard drives. I’m not in a position to test this against the largest software company I the world, so to keep things simple, using Windows was out.

The Problem with Apple Licensing

Does anyone really read the terms of the software license agreement?

Does anyone really read the terms of the software license agreement?

None of the systems I received were Apple computers so I did not research this from their end. That said, my experience working with Apple is that their licensing requirements are even stricter. For one, you can’t run Mac OS software on anything but Apple branded hardware, so building a PC-Mac computer is a violation of their license – yes, I know people have done it, but it is not exactly legal and since we are running a business, I would not recommend jeopardizing it by doing anything illegal.

Also, I am quite certain that the Mac OS is system specific, not hard drive specific. This means that one can replace the hard drive on a Mac and re-install the operating system on it, but the license for the OS must stay with the system. This is different from Microsoft where the license is tied to the original purchaser. In any case, with no Macs in my possession, this was not an issue for me at this time.

I should note that if I had purchased those computers complete with the hard drives and Windows/MacOS still installed, that would have been different. In that case, the original owner would have then ceded the license to me and I would be able to use it legally. Of course, Windows these days requires ongoing subscription fees, so then I would have to take over those payments. Since I am trying to find a no-cost solution to computing for a fledgling small-time business, this is really not an option.

* * *

As it turns out, receiving a donated computer for your business comes with some caveats. The best case scenario is to receive the computer complete with the hard drive and the software. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to hand over their private data and businesses are likely not able to do so for legal reasons. This means that free systems will usually not come with an operating system that you can authenticate with Microsoft/Apple. Running this software without authenticating means you won’t be able to update it and may put your own business at risk for violating the license agreement.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. I will cover that in my next blog post.

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