On this page you will learn:

- What causes all the confusion?

- What an activation key is when compared to a licence

- How this works with volume agreements

Why all the confusion?
One of the biggest causes of confusion and often non-compliance, is when publishers use the words "Licence Key" on their software media or documentation.

Be very careful of the difference between a key that allows the software to install or work and a piece of paper that should constitute a licence.

It is of no surprise that there is confusion as the industry uses the terms  ‘activation key’ and ‘licence key’ interchangeably.

Golden rule

The most important rule is, if the key is used to activate the software, whatever it is called, it is an activation key.

The licence

The licence, as always, is effectively whatever proof of entitlement that the publisher requires for that particular product bought in that particular way.

The confusion

Just because you have a valid activation key, even if it is called a licence key, doesn't mean that a valid licence exists.

Licence and activation keys are available from many sources, including dodgy websites.

Technical reality
If you haven't discovered this already, technically (but illegally) for a majority of software you can use the same activation key more than once, e.g. install the same file onto multiple machines with the same key code.

Some publishers will call the activation key the licence key, the inference being that you have a licence. 

But the licence/activation key is not a licence, it is only a key that activates the install.  It may form part of the licence proof needed to prove possession of a valid licence but more often than not it doesn't.

Volume agreements

Licence/activation keys are issued when you sign up to a volume agreement.  They may be specific to your organisation, but all they do is allow the software to be deployed.  You still have to purchase a licence.

It would be great if a licence key only worked once, thereby controlling the licence aspect of the software so that the only organisation that could make the software work is the holder of the valid licence key, but this would cause other issues, such as how do you deploy MS Office to 1000 machines all based on the same licence key?

Therefore the publisher will issue a different key for each product included in the volume agreement, each key being used for many deployments.

From the sublime to the ridiculous...
One of the frustrating things of doing SAM or working in licence management is when you go to the technical people that installed a system or piece of software and ask for the licence or contract details, only to be handed details of the 'licence keys'.

Technical people do not necessarily understand the requirements of proof of licence (see Licence entitlement in our Reconciliation section for more detail).

There are very strong arguments for saying that everyone should understand this point but the industry has been so bad at educating people properly, on top of confusing the hell out of everyone with the use of words like 'licence key' when they are not a licence, there is little wonder that there is so much misunderstanding.

Anyone in this situation is not alone, we have seen highly paid SAM consultants accept these keys as proof of licence.

Of course what you are really looking for is the contract, the licence certificate, whichever piece of documentation that the publisher would accept as proof of licence entitlement.

If everyone understood this properly, a huge amount of non-compliance would be fixed over night as people would keep the right proof.

Now we look at the importance of having a licence in place even when software is Available but not used...