You might think, quite reasonably, that since you’ve been to the store, handed over some hard earned money and come home with a nice new plastic wrapped box, that you had just bought some software. It says software on the outside. It contains a disc with the software on it. It is on my desk. It is mine. I bought it.
Nope you are wrong.
What you actually bought is a license. Even though you physically have the disc in your hand what you really have is a license and a copy of the software which you are only allowed to use according to the terms of the license. You did read the small print before parting with those bills I hope.
I guess the nearest thing to actually owning software might be owning the IPR in the source code but even that is often not clear cut. Several parties may have contributed. In fact this is quite commonly the case especially for any larger system. It can get very messy, very expensive and if all you want to do is use the software then it is probably very little use. You really don’t actually want to own the software – you just want to be able to use it whenever you want – kind of like owning it.
Let’s get back to the store. The crux of all of this is not legal ownership so much as allowing you to do what you want to do with the thing you have paid for. So you buy a license which lets you take it home and use it. Feels a bit like I bought it and there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference so is that the end of it?
Well no – I wouldn’t be blogging about it if it were that simple (ok - I might, but in this case I’m not).
Software is very different to most things you buy. By comparison to, say, a puppy dog, it makes less poo (usually), it does not age and it is easy to copy. In some ways it is a bit like music and shares some of the music problems:
If I buy this CD can I use it in all my CD players?
Yes, of course (^_^)
Can I rip it and copy it to all my MP3 devices?
Errr… not so sure (-_-)
Can I copy it to all my friends and use it for my vids?
Try that we’ll be round to shoot the puppy (>_<)
Actually software has even more problems. If your favorite singer hits a bum note then you might not expect to get an upgrade to the album with it fixed (although this can actually happen). However you would, quite righteously, expect buggy software to be fixed (although this often doesn’t happen). Then there is all the business about upgrades and new features. What about support when you can’t work out how to use it? Finally there is the service aspect. Most modern software comes with some sort of internet based functionality whereby information is provided as a service. So how do you make a license for this lot? Well there are many ways and this is where it starts to get difficult – not just for you but for the company making the software as well. I did really mean it earlier about the small print. You haven’t bought the software so what on earth have you bought?
What does a license cover?
Here are some commonly occurring elements in software licenses:
Use of the software.
This is a fairly simple consideration and also the most important so it is what is usually focused on. These conditions will usually apply to a specific version of the software.
· The software can be used for a limited time. Often called a subscription.
· The software can be used indefinitely.
What is going to happen when (not ‘if’) bugs are found in the code? There are several common approaches including:
· Unlucky – learn to live with it.
· A fix will be released for this version. This may only be made available to people who bought it recently or who have paid extra.
· This will be fixed in the next version which also includes new cool features so we are going to charge for it.
It is not guaranteed but most software will continue to develop after the initial release. So what does the license say about upgrades?
· No such thing. Each new release is treated as a brand new software product.
· Ok, there is such a thing as an upgrade so we will charge a reduced price to existing customers.
· It is version specific. So the girlfriend 2.0 license might allow upgrades to girlfriend 2.1 but not to girlfriend 3.0 (with the impressive new features).
· Unlimited. The license allows all upgrades to the software as they become available.
You cannot make the tachyon emitter operate at full power and you have no idea whether to reverse polarize the matter stream. How can you get some help? Just what is actually meant by support covers a wide range of notions. Here are a few:
· None. Just Google it if you have an issue.
· Some information on a website. Bit static but you may find something useful if you are lucky.
· A forum, chat room or notice board. Bit more interactive but can have a poor signal to noise ratio. Useful to chat in a more general sense but less good if you have a specific problem which is stopping you working.
· Support by phone or email for a limited period of time. This is another type of subscription but it is actual real support though – you can ask a direct question and get a response. Might not be a very good one but that’s not the point since we are looking at license models.
· Pay per use support. There are various ways to extract your money such as a premium rate line or a requiring a credit card. This type of support can lead to lovely scenarios where you end up paying a company to tell them that there is a bug in their software.
This is often associated with some of the provisions above so for example software upgrades and support issues may be dealt with through a website that you need to log on to and this is part of the subscription.
Sometimes the service maybe for the provision of data, such as a global database of puppy names and what they mean.
· Always available. If you can run the software you can access the service.
· Part of the subscription. You can access the service while ever the subscription is up to date.
· Pay as you go. You pay for what you use when you use it.
So here is the quick and easy checklist for a software license. Go on… have a look at the small print. This is what really defines what you are buying - not the picture on the box.
How long can you use the software for?
How many computers can you install it on?
Are there any other restrictions on use?
What is the provision for patches?
How long are patches going to be available?
How do you report a bug?
What upgrades are likely to be available for this version?
Support and Service
How much can I get before I have to start paying?