Software Licensing

Welcome readers, Today I’m going to talk about Software Licensing.

A software license is an agreement between the customer and the owner of a software program that allows the customer to do certain things that would otherwise be an infringement of copyright law. The software license usually answers questions such as Where and how and how often the software can be installed, Can the software be copied, modified, or redistributed, Can the customer inspect the underlying source code etc. The price of the software and the licensing fees, if any, is sometimes discussed in the license agreement, but usually it’s described elsewhere.

Types of Software Licenses

Mainly there are five types of common software license models which are,

Public domain. This is the most open type of software license. If the software is in the public domain, anyone can make changes to the software and use it without restrictions. However, before using public domain software one should make sure it is secure. It should also be noted that codes without an explicit license do not automatically fall into the Public domain.

Permissive. Permissive licenses which are also known as “Apache-style” or “BSD style” contains minimal requirements about how the software can be modified or redistributed. This type of software license is probably the most used license in free and open-source software. Apart from Apache License and the BSD License, another common variant is the MIT License.

LGPL. The GNU Lesser General Public License allows the use of open source libraries in software. If the software is simply compiled or linked to an LGPL-licensed library, then it can be released under any license, even a proprietary license. But if the library is modified or parts of it are copied into the code of the software, then it has to be released under similar terms as the LGPL.

Copyleft. Copyleft licenses are also known as reciprocal licenses or restrictive licenses. The most well-known example of copyleft or reciprocal license is the GPL. These licenses allow the modification of the licensed code and distribution of new works based on it, as long as they are distributed under the same software license. For example, a component’s license might say the work is free to use and distribute for personal use only. So any derivative created would also be limited to personal use only.

Proprietary. Of all types of software licenses, this is the most restrictive. The idea behind it is that all rights are reserved. It’s generally used for proprietary software where the work may not be modified or redistributed.

Copyright vs Patent

Copyright law and patent law provide different types of protection. Copyright protection extends only to expressions, and not to ideas, procedures, methods of operation or mathematical concepts as such, whereas a patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides a new way of doing something or offers a new technical solution to a problem.

Copyright protection is formality-free in countries party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (the Berne Convention), which means that protection does not depend on compliance with any formalities such as registration or deposit of copies.

A patent is generally granted after completing an examination procedure by a government agency. Copyright protection of computer software is established in most countries and harmonized by international treaties to that effect.

The law relating to the patentability of software is still not harmonized internationally, but some countries have embraced the patentability of computer software and others have adopted approaches that recognize inventions assisted by computer software.

Copyright Laws for software

Historically, computer programs were not protected by copyright because until 1974 computer programs were not viewed as fixed, tangible objects. However, in 1983 traditional copyright law was extended to include machine-readable software and the Copyright Act awarded computer programs the same copyright status as literary works. While many of the same legal principles and policies apply, many distinct issues arise with software copyright.

When a program is running on a computer it is often impossible to avoid copying some of the code as there is normally some automatic copying of the program that takes place within the computer’s memory in order to enable the software to function. Also uniquely with software, copyright is not only infringed by taking a direct copy of the original work, but also by adapting versions of the original.

So for example, if the code (source code or compiled code) is re-written or otherwise converted into another computer language, this is also deemed an infringement of software copyright law as it is a ‘derivative’ work, and an appropriate licence is required to do this.

Software copyright can also be infringed without even taking a copy of the code. For example, using an original computer program for “inspiration”, to create the same functionality in a new program. Even if none of the original code is actually used, the copyright in the original program may in some cases be infringed.

Software copyright is a complex and evolving area of law and unlike other artistic works, software copies are sold with specific terms attached, in order to highlight what constitutes acceptable usage.

Copyright infringement also referred to as piracy is the use of works protected by copyright law without permission for a usage where such permission is required. Copyright infringement disputes are usually resolved through direct negotiation, a notice and takedown process, or litigation in civil court. Egregious or large-scale commercial infringement, especially when it involves counterfeiting, is sometimes prosecuted via the criminal justice system.

Ownership vs Licensing

When software is purchased, the customer receives a copy of the software and a license to use it. But they don’t actually own the software, ownership rights belong to the software company, and the customer is still limited by the terms and conditions of the license.

Even free software, otherwise known as freeware, might come with a license that dictates its use. This is generally in order to prevent a user from altering the software in an attempt to resell it.

The Copyright Act expressly permits copies of a work to be made in some circumstances, even without the authorization of the copyright holder. In particular, “owners of copies” may make additional copies for archival purposes, or maintenance purposes. Furthermore, “owners of copies” have the right to resell their copies. But these rights only apply to “owners of copies” therefore most software vendors claim that their products are “licensed, not sold”.


AllBusiness Editors. (2020). The Difference Between Buying and Licensing Software. Retrieved from All Business:

Synopsys Editorial Team. (2020, 04 07). 5 types of software licenses you need to understand. Retrieved from Software Integrity Blog:

World Intellectual Property Organization. (2020). Copyright Protection of Computer Software. Retrieved from World Intellectual Property Organization:

Thank you for Reading




Software Engineering Undergraduate of University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.

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Mahela Dissanayake

Mahela Dissanayake

Software Engineering Undergraduate of University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.

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