Editor's Note: This article was adapted from an article authored by Chris Peters in March 2009.
Take the complexity of technology and stir in the jargon of the legal system and what do you get? Software licenses! Software licensing is a complicated topic, but knowing a little about software licensing can help you make sense of all that fine print.
This article is a general introduction to software licensing. To learn about specific Microsoft server and client licensing scenarios, see An Introduction to Microsoft Server and Client Licensing.
A software license is an agreement between you and the owner of a software program that allows you to do certain things that would otherwise be an infringement of copyright law. The software license usually answers questions such as:
The price of the software and the licensing fees, if any, is sometimes discussed in the license agreement, but usually it's described elsewhere.
We'll cover these terms in greater detail below, but these are some basic things you should know about software licenses:
The process for installing software varies from product to product. You'll need to read the specific instructions you receive in order to properly install and (for some products) activate your software.
A few terms it will be helpful to know:
Most major vendors offer some type of bulk purchasing and volume licensing option for software. The terms vary, but if you order enough software to qualify, volume licensing can be cheaper and more convenient for your organization. Nonprofits sometimes qualify for volume licensing with very small initial purchases. Also, volume licensing often provides you with a central place to manage all your licenses for a particular product or group of products. Some volume licensing options can also help make installation easier with a single, organization-wide activation code for a particular product.
Learn more about volume licensing options from:
Site Licensing may be another option. A site license allows an organization to make multiple copies of a software package to use on multiple computers.
As mentioned earlier, if the software is proprietary or closed-source, the license agreement will usually limit the ways you can use the software, copy it, alter it, and redistribute it. Also, you usually won't have access to the underlying source code.
In everyday conversation, there's not much difference between "free software" and "free and open-source software" (FOSS). However, the official definitions and underlying philosophies do differ. See how the official definition of free software differs from the official definition of open-source software. For a short description of the difference, read Live and Let License.
For a longer discussion from the "free software" perspective, read Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software. For the "open-source" perspective, read Why Free Software is Too Ambiguous. Categories of Free and Non-Free Software covers topics like copyleft and public domain software.
Other commonly used terms include:
Image: Software purchase agreement, Shutterstock
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