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Copyright refers to the legal right granted to an author to exclusive production, sale or distribution of his work. In contrary with copyleft (which is used by free software, allowing any kind of use by anyone demanding that possible derivatives of the work remain free) it restricts use and/or distribution of software only by persons authorized by the creator, also disallowing further editing of the original work.


Software copyright is used by proprietary software companies, in order to preserve their rights for unauthorized copying of their software. With a few limited exceptions, copyright determines that it is unlawful for anyone other than the owner of the rights to run, copy, modify or distribute the program, except with the permission of the rightful owner.


When someone creates some kind of software, it is protected by default by copyright. The programmer owns the rights to the software (or the programmer’s employer), which disallows making copies, modifying and distributing it or even running it without permission of the owner. Copyright also protects the software’s source code. It doesn’t protect the original idea for the software though, allowing someone to create similar software for the exact same purpose with the original.


The European Directive on software copyright

The European Directive is a complicated legal document about software copyright and the most important provisions are explained below.


What does software copyright protect?


The Directive begins by declaring that software is protected by copyright throughout the E.U. However, copyright protects only the computer program itself, and not the ideas behind the program. That is to say, it is perfectly permissible to take a computer program written by someone else, and write another that does the same thing.


Who owns the rights?


Generally speaking, the programmer who writes the program owns the rights. Where there is more that one programmer, the Directive provides for co-ownership.


There is one major exception: where the programmer creates the program in the course of employment, the employer owns the rights, unless there is a contrary agreement between the programmer and the employer. (The programmer will nonetheless retain the so-called "moral rights").


An important case to consider is where a programmer modifies a program written by another programmer. Such modification requires the permission of the rights owner and it is not a simple issue to determine who owns the rights in the program as modified: to be on the safe side, it is best to assume that both the author of the original program (or his/her employer) and the author of the modification (or his/her employer) own separate copyrights in the modified program - so permission needs to be sought from both.


Exceptions to software copyright


There are certain exceptions to software copyright. The Directive states that if you have acquired a computer program lawfully (i.e. with the rights owner's permission), then:
  • You are entitled to use it for its intended purpose.
  • You are allowed to correct errors in the program. (However, if you only possess the object code of the program, you must make corrections while the program remains in that form - you are not permitted to decompile it, i.e. convert it into source code form, in order to make error correction easier.)
  • You are allowed to make a back-up copy of the program - that is to say, a spare copy, in case the original is erased or damaged by accident.
  • You are entitled to study and test the program in order to discover how it works.
  • You may also exercise the "decompilation right" - however, this somewhat complex provision of the Directive is only relevant to computer programmers, and so it is not discussed in detail.

What happens if there are terms in a software licence agreement under which the consumer renounces these rights? Would such licence terms be valid, or not?


Unfortunately, the law is unclear. The best view is that some restrictions are valid, while others are not. So, for example, a licence agreement restricting use of the software to a single machine (a common form of licence in practice) is perfectly valid. On the other hand, a term forbidding you from making a back-up copy would usually be invalid.



 DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) is the American equal to the European Directive on Copyright. DMCA implements the two following rules regarding copyright:


Firstly, it creates a safe harbor for online service providers against copyright liability if the adhere to and qualify for certain prescribed guidelines and block access to infringing material (or remove such material) if they receive a notification from a copyright holder or the copyright owner. It also includes a counter-notification provision that offers OSPs a safe harbor from liability to their users, if the material upon notice from such users claiming that the material in question is not, in fact, infringing.


Secondly, there are anti-circumvention provisions. According to them, production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services that are used to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works (like DRM used in digital copies of music) is considered to be a crime.


Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is when you run, copy, modify or distribute a computer program, other than:

  • where you yourself are the rights owner for that program;
  • where you have the licence (permission) of the rights owner, whatever form that licence may take; or
  • where your conduct falls within one of the very narrow exceptions to copyright.
If someone commits copyright infringement, he could face a civil action, and under some circumstances criminal penalties.



In practical terms, a computer user will have to ensure that the software was lawfully obtained and abide by the license agreement. In case of downloading software from a Web site, the computer user must examine the license whether it is proprietary or copyleft license.


Copyleft compared to Copyright

Copyleft is actually a form of copyright. It requires though any derivative software to be available under similar terms with the original. Thus, if a specific program is free any work created using it as a base must remain free too. The terms might though include standard copyright restrictions, making it non-free software.


Copyright References:






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