October 15, 2009
Get a refund for your Microsoft Windows license

Updated with the happy ending!

Hello, my name is Gwa Cobbett. Today, I donated $115 to a non-profit organisation which maintains and develops a free alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. But I didn’t fund this myself: Microsoft did. Here’s how I did it.

I bought a new notebook PC, replaced Windows and got a refund for the operating system I didn’t want. Not many people do that last bit about getting a refund, but perhaps you can too: if you have a calm attitude and persevere then it’s straightforward.

1. Download Linux.

This one’s pretty easy, although you’ll need to find a friend with a computer if you don’t have access to one already. First, you choose what kind of Linux you want. I got Linux Mint. It’s based on Ubuntu, so it has a huge support base. So if you get stuck, you can easily Google for help. But unlike Ubuntu, it comes ready to play DVDs, music files and Flash files with no tinkering. If you use Windows to download your replacement operating system, the only tricky bit is that you have to use a special utility like Isorecorder to burn the file. (http://isorecorder.alexfeinman.com/isorecorder.htm).

2. Choose your new computer.

Take a look at the vast array of new PCs on the market. Does the one you like come with an option to leave out Microsoft Windows? Unless it’s a tiny netbook, probably not. Even if you do strike lucky, chances are it costs the same (or even more in some cases) than the equivalent with Windows. So you are probably kinda stuck with buying a copy of Windows you don’t want.

3. Test Linux to make sure it works

You can do this on your new computer without starting Windows: just put your newly-burned CD or USB stick into your computer before you switch on. Not everything might work perfectly first time. If you’re smart, you’ll test your Linux CD in-store before you buy. If you’re me, however, you’ll be far too cocky for that.

For example, on my Dell Studio 1555, the sound didn’t work. Remember how Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu? So I just googled “Dell Studio 1555 Ubuntu Sound” and found step-by-step instructions which permanently fixed things straight away.

(Update: this issue was fixed in Linux Mint about 3 months later: the newer version of Linux Mint installs with sound working exactly right first time)

4. Don’t start Windows!

You can only reject your software license if you do not use it. In the old days, there was a “reject” option on the Windows licence, so if you were really thorough, you could photograph yourself in the process of saying “no”. But now, you only get an option to “Accept”. Go figure.

5. Reject your software license
You might have agreed to a Microsoft Windows End User License Agreement, especially if you have ever bought a new computer. But have you ever actually read the Microsoft Windows End User License Agreement? It’s pretty scary what you commit yourself to. If you buy Dell, then as soon as you start Windows then you agree to a second set of scary software terms. So reject them. Email is probably the best way: unlike support phone lines it’s free, you can make your case concisely, and if your vendor makes an offer you have proof right in your inbox, so they can’t go back on their word. Don’t delay - for example, Dell like you to do this within 7 days.

Here’s what I wrote:

"I do not agree to the terms of the Dell Software Licensing Agreement or the Microsoft Windows End User License Agreement.

"I confirm that I have not used any of the software, have not opened or broken the seal on any software packet and have deleted all preloaded or embedded software from my Dell.

"1. How may I promptly return the disks and other software items to you?

"2. How will you refund the cost of the software? I note that Windows Vista Home Premium retails at £133.96, Microsoft Works at £39.99 and Cyberlink PowerDVD at £39.99 today, which means a total refund of £213.94 is due.

"best regards"

6. Argue the case
I was all fired up for this bit. The article at http://www.linux.com/archive/articles/59381 covers your bases really well: I recommend looking there if your vendor tries to reject your request the first few times.

So, I was all ready for a pitched battle with Dell when they replied within 48 hours offering this:

"The software Cd’s can be returned to Dell.

"However, the refund for Cyberlink PowerDVD cannot be arranged as this software is already preinstalled on the system.

"The amount that would be refunded for  Vista Home Premium is £57.82+vat
and for Microsoft Works is £3.86+vat”

Brilliant! With tax, that adds up to about £70 (US$115), enough for me to overlook their nonsense about the DVD software. I made sure never to say “I accept your offer”, instead preferring “thank you for your offer. You may collect the CDs on [date].” Then, if they screw me around later, I can take them to court for full retail.

7. Gently persevere

So then comes the interesting bit. Dell arranged to collect the software from me but their collection agent didn’t show. Why would they? That’s going to cost them £70 ($115). They had me over a barrel, asking me to wait at home for a whole extra day. So I upped the “firm” factor with a message:

"On 27th August 2009, I wrote to you rejecting your software license terms. You wrote back on 31st August saying I could have a refund if I returned the software CDs.

"You offered to collect the CDs on 11th September. I lost a day’s work waiting at home for you to collect the CDs but you did not collect them. You have acknowledged this but not offered me an explanation.

"You now say I may not have a refund unless we arrange for you to collect the software CDs another time. I cannot afford to take another day off work, so I offered to post them to you. You declined my offer.

"I would like to give you another chance to make amends. Please grant me a refund now. If you are unable to do this, please send me a copy of Dell’s formal complaints procedure so that I may raise my complaint at the appropriate level."

Dell knows that if I refuse a reasonable request by them then a small claims court will throw out any legal claim I make. So I played nice until they realised they would have to let me use regular post to send the CDs.

So eventually I got my refund. It took me two months and 14 email exchanges in total, and Dell probably didn’t bother to get a refund from Microsoft for the license. But I suspect that every time someone secures a license refund, it has a more than proportionate effect on the PC manufacturers’ next round of negotiations with Microsoft, gently loosening their tight monopoly grip on the operating system market.

8. Donate your refund to Linux Mint

Because you’re one of the good guys. Or just because you get a nice squidgy feeling from the idea that the money you got back from your unwanted Microsoft software is keeping free, open-source software ahead of the game. Pat yourself on the back!