I have a Vista laptop that has a damaged hard drive. That's not the problem but the Vista sticker with the serial has worn so badly it can't be read. Is there any way I can access the serial number from the limited access I have to the hard drive or is it not possible to retrieve it?
More about :vista serial number unreadable booting
Try using the Magic jelly bean - ( Download Linkie ) -- It will give you the serial number that is currently in use on the system - then compare that to the sticker to see if it matches. Another option would be to contact the support line of the laptop manufacturer - they will ask you for some info off of the laptop (ie. the readable portion of the sticker and perhaps make\serial number of the laptop etc.) and will usually provide you a new key.
Also many times the key is already included in the recovery disk image that was provided with the system (or hidden partition on the HDD) so resetting it to factory state will normally also copy the key onto the new HDD upon reinstallation from the recovery disk.
That means that the disk used to install Vista is not the same one you are using now. You need to use an OEM Vista disk to use the key you have, or maybe the other way around. You're better off getting a Windows 7 license and using that. Or contact the vendor for a restore disk and ask them if they can get you they key also, it should be in their records.