Windows Server 2003 has yet to be officially launched, but a registration key to install Microsoft's new server operating system has already been posted online.
The volume license key allows installation of Windows Server 2003 on multiple systems without the activation process required for single licenses. Volume license keys are meant for corporate users.
A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed that a volume license key had been leaked to the Internet and said the company was investigating the situation.
Microsoft is trying to determine whether the key was leaked from within Microsoft or by a customer of the company.
"We're still in the investigative stages," the spokesperson said.
Along with the key, several copies of Windows Server 2003 have been illegally posted on the Web for download. The software will be officially released on April 24.
It is not unusual for a registration key to leak online. There are hundreds of Web sites that offer registration keys, key generators and software cracks, which is software with copyright protections disabled, for just about any software application. With the release of its Office XP and Windows XP products, Microsoft instituted a product activation feature that was designed to thwart software piracy.
The Microsoft technology requires all users to "activate" their copy of Windows XP soon after they buy it. This process "locks" a product identification number assigned to each copy of Windows XP to the PC it is installed on. Various information from the machine on which XP is installed are collected and used to generate a unique activation code based on the machine's configuration.
Because no activation was required for customers with a volume license key, however, Microsoft could not remotely disable the key, the spokeswoman said.
She could not comment on whether there was a ceiling to the number of Windows Server 2003 copies that could be created with a volume license key.
However, the company could stop customers using the key from receiving future updates and service packs and exclude systems using the key from software updates, which are essential to keep the system secure, the spokeswoman said.
She declined to say whether the license key would be used to identify and block rogue Windows Server 2003 installations or whether some other method would be used.
Despite the existence of a free volume license key, comments posted in an online discussion forum on the Windows enthusiast site, Neowin, indicated that a lack of access to future software updates meant that average users probably would not be interested in playing around with a server operating system.