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Lucy Scribner Library

Scholarly Communication: Software

Copyright - Software

Part VI - Software

Software Licenses
General Guidelines
Scope of Copyright Protection


The extension of copyright law to computer software is evolving rapidly with much disagreement, most of which remains untested in the courts. The following guidelines represent conventional wisdom on software copyright, but it remains unknown whether all of these conditions could survive the rigors of a legal challenge.


Software Licenses

Some vendors require the buyer to sign a license prior to purchasing the software. If so, the license terms overrule any standard copyright conditions. The buyer must abide by all conditions of the signed license. On the other hand, unsigned "shrink wrap" licenses are of dubious legitimacy. The term "shrink wrap" derives from the common practice of printing the license terms on the outside of the envelope that contains the installation disks, accompanied by a statement that opening the envelope constitutes acceptance of the license terms.

Site licenses are almost always governed by explicit signed licenses.

General Guidelines

There is a wide range of licensing rules posted by the various publishers. The most aggressive assert the principle of authorizing only a single copy on a single computer used by a single individual. They typically forbid any transfer of the license to anyone else.

Several experts have criticized this position and argue for a less strict guideline of single user with no restriction on copies or sites. This position forms the basis for these recommendations.

  • When a person purchases a single copy of software, one purchases the right for one person to use that program.
    • Either the purchaser or another user can use it on different machines,
    • BUT it cannot be used by more than one person at a time.
  • Software may be installed on a file server or other computers -- provided that it is NOT used by more than one person at any time. This situation could apply to an infrequently used program within an office or department. When it becomes more broadly used, additional copies must be purchased to match actual usage patterns.
  • The user CANNOT tamper with the software in any way that removes or causes doubt as to the original author and copyright holder. For example, one cannot remove a copyright notice from software nor can one change the name of the copyright holder within that notice.
  • The purchaser may make backup copies of the program and may choose to store those copies in diverse locations. A person may use the backup copy instead of the original, so long as only one copy is in use at any time.
  • If a person upgrades software to a newer edition by purchasing an "upgrade", one still owns only one license and must continue to protect the older edition. If a person upgrades by purchasing a completely new copy, there are now two licenses and they may be treated as separate products.
  • A person may give away or resell the program to someone else ONLY if all other copies are destroyed. Anything else is software piracy.
  • A software bundle which contains a number of individual programs is licensed as a single program. A person can not sell or give away portions of the suite nor allow others to use one portion of the suite while s/he is using another portion of the same suite.
  • The purchaser should maintain proof of ownership for all commercial software. This can take the form of a sales receipt, retaining the master installation disks, or the original documentation. In a legal audit, a person can be required to prove ownership of all software installed on each computer in his/her possession.

Scope of Copyright Protection

  • Copyright protects the expression but not the underlying concepts. When writing software, a person cannot copy someone else's source or machine code, but s/he can copy the author's mathematical algorithms, and broad logic. It remains legally uncertain whether you a person copy the "look and feel" of another product.
  • In some cases, software authors have obtained a patent for their work. Patents carry stricter protection than copyrights and forbid copying of both the idea and its expression.