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Front Page » June 13, 2006 » Tech Tips » Software Licenses, Part 1
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Software Licenses, Part 1

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Computers are no longer just for technology gurus. They can be found in nearly every American household these days. They're versatile capable, and accurate - very useful machines. Amidst their tremendous popularity, one thing many people tend to forget about is software licenses that accompany the software installed on the computer.

Software programs are released under various licenses, which define what one can and cannot do with the software. In effect, licenses set forth the software usage rights of the consumer (often called the "end user") and those of the creator or manufacturer. Licenses may protect the creator's intellectual property or prohibit unauthorized copying or distribution of the software, for example. Because these licenses define legal use of the software, understanding them is very important, especially since violation of these licenses can equate to legal action, from civil lawsuits to criminal charges.

Licenses largely define what general type of software the program is - freeware, shareware, etc. However, such terms are not entirely definitive and don't always mean the same thing. For example, the license for one freeware program might say "free for all" where a license for another freeware program might say "free for non-commercial use only."

Licenses are usually displayed when the software is installed. Typically, one must agree to the terms and conditions of the license before the software is installed. In other occasions, the license is saved in a file bundled with the program - in the installation folder, on the installation media, or inside the zipped archive, depending on how the software was distributed. Either way, licenses are usually distributed with the software in a file, which might be called eula.txt, readme.txt or license.txt,, although some are named or distributed differently.

Some software packages are distributed with printed media that reiterate the End User Licensing Agreement ("EULA"), to avoid any misunderstanding or confusion about software use. It is important to read these conditions so that they are understood. Ignorance won't be accepted as an excuse when legal action is taken towards you. If the license is unacceptable to you, then you shouldn't use the software.

Commercial programs (often called commercialware) are not free, and require the user to pay for the software. Often, these are distributed on a compact disc, floppy disk, or another type of removable media. These programs often require a serial number or activation code provided by the manufacturer before the software will function.

Licenses for such programs often restrict distribution or copying of the software, and limit the amount of computers the software can be (simultaneously) installed on. For example, the license may require that the software be uninstalled from one computer before it is installed on another computer.

Shareware is also a very common type of software, and offers potential buyers a free "taste" of a commercial program. Think of shareware as a "demo." Some shareware programs are fully functional within a limited time frame (30 days, for example). Others are only partially functional (where some major features are disabled). In any case, shareware is supposed to allow potential buyers to "sample" the software and convince them to buy it.

Free software (i.e. "freeware") comes in many flavors. Some freeware licenses allow unrestricted use of the software, whereas other licenses limit use to non-commercial use only. Some licenses may allow unrestricted use of the software itself, but may restrict or prohibit distribution or duplication.

Open-source programs take freeware to another level by requiring current and continued openness, usability and availability. For example, the highly popular Internet browser, Mozilla Firefox, and its email companion, Mozilla Thunderbird are open-source programs. The office productivity suite is also open-source. Various open-source licenses exist (like the General Product License, or GPL), and each varies in rights and restrictions from one to the other.

As these licenses vary from program to program, it is important to understand what they mean, so that you (the "end user") are not found in violation of its terms and conditions. It can be a daunting task, but the risks involved in breaking licensing terms more than justify the means of compliance.

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