Thursday, June 28, 2012

Software Copyright

1. Introduction

Software copyright law is something that affects anyone who uses a computer, and most particularly businesses - it is not uncommon for a business to face civil or even criminal proceedings for software copyright infringement. Yet at the same time, it is a complex area of law that is not widely understood.

The purpose of this briefing paper is to provide an explanation of the law that is comprehensible to a non-lawyer and non-programmer. It should be noted that this briefing paper should be taken only as general guidance: it is impossible to explain all the technicalities of the law, or to cover every possible set of circumstances, in a document of this kind. In any case, the details of the law can vary from country to country.

If you are in any doubt as to your legal rights, you should consult a specialist lawyer.


This briefing paper concentrates on the law of software copyright in the European Union, with particular reference to theCommunity Directive 2009/24/EC. It does not cover the laws of countries outside the European Union.

Also, it does not deal with intellectual property rights in things other than software. If, for example, there is a computer program that allows you to access a database, then the computer program will be subject to software copyright (covered here), while the database will be subject to the different legal provisions governing databases (not covered here).

This briefing paper contains a general introduction to software copyright law: there is other briefing paper, entitledSoftware Copyright and the Computer Programmer , that cover more specialised aspects of the subject.

Please note that this briefing paper does not cover so-called "moral rights". These are certain special rights retained by each individual computer programmer. Although an intrinsic part of copyright law, the law of moral rights is not likely to be relevant to ordinary users of software, but only to programmers and their employers. This topic is therefore considered in section H of the briefing paper entitled Software Copyright and the Computer Programmer .


Before proceeding any further, it is important to ask: what exactly do we mean by "software"?

For a computer to work, it has to be programmed, i.e. given a set of instructions in a language that computers understand. These programs are referred to as "software", to distinguish them from "hardware" (the physical objects that make up a computer system, such as microchips, processors, the keyboard, etc.).

In this briefing paper, the terms "software" and "computer program" will be treated as synonyms.

Here are some examples of software:

  • Operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, and Linux. The operating system is the computer program that organises all of the other computer programs.
  • Software for general, everyday use, such Web browsers, word processors, spreadsheets, software for making presentations, etc.
  • More specialised software, such as computer-aided design software, software for statisticians, software for accountants, etc.
  • The software that makes the Internet work, such as Web server software (which sends Web pages to your Web browser on demand)-
In order to understand the law of software copyright, it is necessary to understand two technical terms: "source code" and "object code".

Source code" is a computer program in the form written by a programmer (in a language such as Perl or C).

Object code" is a computer program converted into the form in which a computer would run it (in "machine language", i.e. ones and zeros). To convert source code into object code, you use a special computer program called a "compiler".

Note that a computer program will (generally speaking) exist in two forms: the source code form (the form in which it was written by human beings), and the object code form (the form in which a computer runs it). These are two different forms of one and the same computer program. So far as copyright law is concerned, both of these forms are covered by the definition of "computer program". Furthermore, the two forms are regarded as equivalent, in the sense that whoever owns the copyright in the source code will automatically own the copyright in the object code.

The Directive also states that a computer program incorporated into the design of a silicon chip is nonetheless considered to be software for legal purposes. This makes sense: any computer program could theoretically be build into the design of a silicon chip, and it seems only reasonable that doing this has no effect on copyright.

Note that computer languages are not themselves pieces of software. For example, no one owns a copyright in the computer language C, or in the individual words that make up that language.

Also note that the manuals, etc., that document a piece of software do not themselves count as software. Such manuals will copyrighted, but the rules may not be exactly the same as for software copyright (for example, in relation to employees' rights).

2. What is software copyright?

Software copyright is not essentially different from any other sort of copyright. However, there are certain aspects of copyright law that are specific to software, because there are practical differences between software and other things that can be copyrighted (books, poems, drawings, sculptures, etc.).

Copyright law gives a programmer (or in the case of an employed programmer, that programmer's employer) a high degree of control over the program that he or she creates.

Specifically, it is (with a few very limited exceptions) unlawful for anyone other than the owner of the rights to run the program, copy the program, modify the program or distribute the program, except with the permission of the rights owner. 

Let us consider this point by point:

  • The permission of the rights owner is necessary if you want to run the program (although this rule is qualified by the exceptions to software copyright - see subsection C.3 of this briefing paper for details).
  • The permission of the rights owner is necessary if you want to make a copy of the program for any reason. (There is an exception for the making of a "back-up" copy - that is, a spare copy, in case the original is erased or damaged by accident. See subsection C.3 of this briefing paper for details.)

    Even copying the program from a disk into your computer's memory is considered as "copying", and requires permission.
  • Converting a computer program from source code to object code (" compiling" the program) counts as copying, and requires permission. The same applies to converting a computer program from object code to source code (" decompiling" the program). In practice, this is not important for ordinary computer users, but only for programmers.
  • The permission of the rights owner is necessary if you want to modify the program. Once again, this is not important for ordinary computer users, but only for programmers.
  • The permission of the rights owner is necessary if you want to distribute the program. This would include, for example, distributing the program over the Internet.
  • However, copyright law does permit certain very limited exceptions, such as the exception for back-up copies described above. (See subsection C.3 of this briefing paper for more details of the exceptions to copyright.)
It should be noted that (as under general copyright law) no registration, copyright notice, or other such formality is needed to establish copyright. Copyright protection is automatic.

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