Intellectual property law probably isn’t the first thing most programmers think of when they start learning to code. But the ways software is used, designed, sold, and marketed, all create copyright issues for software developers to deal with as they work.
What Is Software Copyright?
Software copyright is the legal protection for code meant to be read by a machine. It is used by software developers and owners to keep people from copying their intellectual property without permission or from using it in any way they haven’t agreed to.
When protecting software, the first question should be: is software trademarked or copyrighted? The answer begins with a basic overview of copyright law. This area of law covers intellectual property – when the idea is the product. For example, the copyright for a book is about the words, not about the paper, ink, and binding. A patent, on the other hand, is for an idea that needs to be manufactured to have value and a trademark is for something that represents a brand, but isn’t the product itself. Of course, software is a relatively recent concept and which category it belonged in wasn’t immediately clear.
Originally, US law looked at software source code as the equivalent of blueprints. But in 1974, a commission was appointed to rethink it. Following updated software copyright law definitions in 1980 and some ensuing court cases, software was eventually classified as a literary work, finally answering the question “can software be copyrighted?”
Software Copyright Issues: an IP Puzzle
Even now we’re still asking: what does software copyright mean? It is the legal right to decide who gets to copy and distribute software and the right to prosecute anyone who uses the software in an unauthorized way. However, it’s still not its own category of intellectual property and certain software copyright issues aren’t shared with other types of intellectual property like books, music, or images.
For example, most software includes other types of media, such as text, images, and sound. It’s also made to be adapted. Updates and new versions are published regularly and pieces of source code can be taken from other places or repurposed. This kind of adaptation, including converting the code into another programming language, can be infringement depending on the copyright software license. Most of all though, some amount of copying the code into computer memory is a normal part of how software functions. This creates unique copyright issues for software developers.
Copyright Protection: a Force for Antipiracy
You don’t want competitors copying your code. You put time and effort into it and you need to make a return on that investment. You’ll have a much harder time competing with people if you’re doing the work for them.
However, when it comes to software copyright issues, the concern is just as much about piracy as it is about plagiarism. Software piracy includes anything from a customer continuing to use your software when their subscription has expired, to hackers selling and distributing counterfeit versions. In whatever format, these are all examples of software copyright infringement. For developers, this type of software copyright infringement carries a few different risks.
First of all, unauthorized copies of your software equal lost revenue. In addition to the missed opportunity though, these may actually cost you money. You could be providing service for copies of your software that were never paid for. Counterfeit or outdated versions may not be up to your standards of quality and could be damaging your brands’ reputation. In the worst cases, piracy can lead to severe data security breaches.
There are a lot of steps you can take, but the legal mechanism that underlies them is your software copyright. Copyright protection is a force for antipiracy. It’s what lets you prosecute software copyright infringement examples. Registering your copyright before you publish your software will make it easier to collect higher damages, and therefore will deter piracy.
Understanding Copyright Software Licensing
You’ve protected your software from being stolen, but you still want it to be used and shared. That’s where copyright software licensing comes in. Licensing is the way you allow your software to be used without copyright violations. The exception is software in the public domain. A developer can choose to leave their software un-copyrighted completely and open to the public.
Public domain shouldn’t be confused with open-source or private unlicensed software. These categories do have software copyrights but can still be free to use. Depending on the particular type of open-source license, they may include restrictions on how the code can be modified, credited, or put to work.
In most cases though, when we talk about copyright software licenses, we’re referring to proprietary software and paid licensing. For these software copyright examples, there are a wide variety of licensing models based on number of users, temporary subscriptions, consumption, and more.
If you’re offering your software for sale, the copyright is automatic. But you’ll still be left with software copyright issues like where to mark the copyright and how to license it. This decision depends on your business model, how the software is used, the kind of security it needs, and more.
How to Get a Software Copyright
Copyright issues for software developers aren’t as simple as they seem. The simple part: in the US at least, published software is automatically copyrighted. You can slap the © symbol on your software and it’s officially illegal to copy it. However, you won’t be able to prosecute anyone until you’ve done the work to register the copyright.
The copyright registration process works differently around the world. For example, in the US it involves a single form. Most of the requested information is straightforward: the software’s title and author, publication date, who will own the copyright, and contact information.
Since software often includes audio files, images, or text from other sources, you’ll be asked to specify what exactly the copyright includes and to list the elements that have been licensed from other places. Then you’ll have to choose a category. In most cases, software is registered as a literary work, since it’s technically written in letters and numbers, but you can also choose visual arts or even performing arts if you feel like images or animation are primary in your product.
Preventing Piracy and Fighting Infringement
Software copyright infringement examples include everything from a customer making extra copies so they can work from their home computer to pirates altering the software and selling it to the public. Having the copyright can help deter some of these problems but several other solutions can also work to prevent them and to help catch and prosecute violations.
Making it easy to buy your software, renew subscriptions, and update accounts can be enough to prevent the majority of unauthorized use of your software. Setting pricing models and packages that fit your customers’ budgets and the way they use your software can also make a difference. Most people are happy to pay for what they use, they just don’t want to pay for a lot of copies or features they don’t use and they don’t want to have to chase you down to do it.
Keep the Code Secret
The first step here is making sure your employees know some basic rules. Limit who can access the code and give those people an overview of confidentiality protocols. The more technical aspect of this is ensuring that all your data is encrypted so that even if it gets out, it can’t be used.
Some companies include small unnecessary components into their code. If someone is copying your code, the redundant code makes it easy to prove that a copyright violation has taken place.
Licensing Management Solutions
Licensing management helps you and your customers keep track of how many copies are licensed and with what type of subscriptions. In most cases, licensing management software, including Thales Sentinel solutions, will also help you use protection keys. These are codes that are kept separate from the software but required in order to access it. These can be stored on USBs, as downloadable software, or in the Cloud where they can be retrieved when the software is in use and then returned to the remote server.
Protecting Your Software Copyright with Thales Sentinel Solutions
No matter how you choose to protect your software copyright, Thales Sentinel can help. Learn more about how customizable license management, protection keys, and software security solutions help protect your software IP.
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