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If I install a boxed retail edition of Office 2013, what degree of hardware and operating system changes can I make while still retaining my license to use the software?

As for the hardware, here are the relevant excerpts from the Office 2013 Retail License Terms:

Can I transfer the software to another computer or user? You may not transfer the software to another computer or user. You may transfer the software directly to a third party only as installed on the licensed computer…You may not retain any copies.

and

Computer. In this agreement, "computer" means a hardware system (whether physical or virtual) with a storage device capable of running the software. A hardware partition or blade is considered to be a computer.

The license terms prohibits transferring the software to an entirely different computer, but it does not state which change of component(s) and what degree would result in a different computer. For instance, will changing my motherboard result in my system being interpreted as a different computer? What about a video card? I know the MAC address will be different in the case of a motherboard change. A video card change also results in different system data.

As for the software changes, here is the relevant excerpt:

Use in a virtualized environment. If you use virtualization software, including client hyper-v, to create one or more virtual computers on a single computer hardware system, each virtual computer, and the physical computer, is considered a separate computer for purposes of this agreement. This license allows you to install only one copy of the software for use on one computer, whether that computer is physical or virtual. If you want to use the software on more than one computer, you must obtain separate copies of the software and a separate license for each copy…

Once Office is installed on one virtual computer on a physical machine, the license prohibits transferring the software to another virtual computer, even if it is set up with the same parameters on the same physical machine. The only software difference I see here is the number of times the Windows operating system (OS) has been activated, assuming the transfer was attempted using the same OS installation media after uninstalling the OS from the first virtual computer.

So if something like that were prohibited, then if I initially install Office on my (non-virtual) computer and simply reinstall Windows on the same computer, can I install Office again? However, I would be on my next activation number of my Windows installation media.

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Assuming the rules for defining which "computer" the Office license is tied to matches Microsoft's rules for OEM licensing of Windows desktop operating systems, then it would be the motherboard that Microsoft considers to be central to the legal definition of the "computer." Excerpt:

A. Generally, an end user can upgrade or replace all of the hardware components on a computer—except the motherboard—and still retain the license for the original Microsoft OEM operating system software. If the motherboard is upgraded or replaced for reasons other than a defect, then a new computer has been created. Microsoft OEM operating system software cannot be transferred to the new computer, and the license of new operating system software is required. If the motherboard is replaced because it is defective, you do not need to acquire a new operating system license for the PC as long as the replacement motherboard is the same make/model or the same manufacturer's replacement/equivalent, as defined by the manufacturer's warranty.

(I don't expect Microsoft to have changed this definition with respect to Office, but if anybody else knows to the contrary, please comment.)

To answer your question on the issue of activation: Again, assuming the rules are the same as for OEM Windows, then legally, yes, you would be entitled to reinstall Office again on the same computer it was installed on originally – provided the motherboard hadn't been replaced for reason other than defect, and if it had been replaced due to defect, then also provided any new motherboard met the requirements mentioned above.

But, would Microsoft's online activation system permit automatic activation of the software? Perhaps not. My experience has been that subsequent automatic activation sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails. In the case where it fails, you'll need to make a phone call to Microsoft's software activation centre (the number will be provided on screen), possibly explain the situation, and then proceed with a manual activation process. I've found the process straightforward, albeit annoying.

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