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A software license is a legal instrument (usually by way of
contract law A contract is a legally binding agreement that defines and governs the rights and duties between or among its parties Image:'Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen', by Peder Severin Krøyer (1888) Demisted with DXO PhotoLab Clearview ...
, with or without printed material) governing the use or redistribution of software. Under United States copyright law, all
software Software is a collection of instructions Instruction or instructions may refer to: Computing * Instruction, one operation of a processor within a computer architecture instruction set * Computer program, a collection of instructions Music * I ...

software
is
copyright Copyright is a type of intellectual property Intellectual property (IP) is a category of property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. ...

copyright
protected, in both
source code In computing Computing is any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computing machinery. It includes the study and experimentation of algorithmic processes and development of both computer hardware , hardware and ...

source code
and
object code In computing Computing is any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computing machinery. It includes the study and experimentation of algorithmic processes and development of both computer hardware , hardware and sof ...
forms, unless that software was developed by the United States Government, in which case it cannot be copyrighted. Authors of copyrighted software can donate their software to the
public domain The public domain consists of all the creative work A creative work is a manifestation of creativity, creative effort including Work of art, fine artwork (sculpture, paintings, drawing, Sketch (drawing), sketching, performance art), dance, wr ...
, in which case it is also not covered by copyright and, as a result, cannot be licensed. A typical software license grants the
licensee A licensee can mean the holder of a license A license (American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to t ...
, typically an
end-user In product development, an end user (sometimes end-user) is a person who ultimately uses or is intended to ultimately use a product. The end user stands in contrast to users who support or maintain the product, such as sysop A sysop (; an abbre ...
, permission to use one or more copies of software in ways where such a use would otherwise potentially constitute copyright infringement of the software owner's
exclusive rights In Anglo-Saxon law, an exclusive right, or exclusivity, is a de facto, non-tangible prerogative existing in law (that is, the power Power typically refers to: * Power (physics) In physics, power is the amount of energy transferred or convert ...
under copyright.


Software licenses and copyright law

Most distributed software can be categorized according to its license type (see table). Two common categories for software under copyright law, and therefore with licenses which grant the
licensee A licensee can mean the holder of a license A license (American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to t ...
specific rights, are
proprietary software Proprietary software, also known as non-free software or closed-source software, is computer software for which the software's publisher or another person reserves some rights from licenses to use, modify, share modifications, or share the softwa ...
and
free and open-source software Free and open-source software (FOSS) is software Software is a collection of Instruction (computer science), instructions that tell a computer how to work. This is in contrast to Computer hardware, hardware, from which the system is built ...
(FOSS). The distinct conceptual difference between the two is the granting of rights to modify and re-use a
software product Software is a collection of Instruction (computer science), instructions and data (computing), data that tell a computer how to work. This is in contrast to Computer hardware, physical hardware, from which the system is built and actually perfo ...
obtained by a customer: FOSS software licenses both rights to the customer and therefore
bundles Bundle or Bundling may refer to: * Bundling (packaging), the process of using straps to bundle up items Marketing * Product bundling, a marketing strategy that involves offering several products for sale as one combined product Politics * Bundlin ...
the modifiable
source code In computing Computing is any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computing machinery. It includes the study and experimentation of algorithmic processes and development of both computer hardware , hardware and ...

source code
with the software ("
open-source Open source is source code that is made freely available for possible modification and redistribution. Products include permission to use the source code, design documents, or content of the product. The open-source model is a decentralized softwar ...
"), while proprietary software typically does not license these rights and therefore keeps the source code hidden ("
closed source Proprietary software, also known as non-free software or closed-source software, is computer software for which the software's publisher or another person reserves some rights from licenses to use, modify, share modifications, or share the softwa ...
"). In addition to granting rights and imposing restrictions on the use of copyrighted software, software licenses typically contain provisions which allocate liability and responsibility between the parties entering into the license agreement. In enterprise and commercial software transactions, these terms often include limitations of liability, warranties and warranty disclaimers, and indemnity if the software infringes intellectual property rights of anyone. Unlicensed software outside the scope of copyright protection is either
public domain software Public-domain software is software Software is a collection of Instruction (computer science), instructions and data (computing), data that tell a computer how to work. This is in contrast to Computer hardware, physical hardware, from which the ...
(PD) or software which is non-distributed, non-licensed and handled as internal business
trade secret Trade secrets are a type of intellectual property that comprise formulas, best practice, practices, business process, processes, designs, legal instrument, instruments, patterns, or compilations of information that have inherent economic value be ...
. Contrary to popular belief, distributed unlicensed software (not in the public domain) is fully copyright protected, and therefore legally unusable (as no usage rights at all are granted by a license) until it passes into public domain after the
copyright term The copyright term is the length of time copyright subsists in a work before it passes into the public domain. In most of the world, this length of time is the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years. Length of copyright Copyright subsists fo ...
has expired. Examples of this are unauthorized software leaks or software projects which are placed on public software repositories like
GitHub __FORCETOC__ GitHub, Inc. is a provider of Internet hosting service, Internet hosting for software development and version control using Git. It offers the distributed version control and source code management (SCM) functionality of Git, plus ...

GitHub
without a specified license. As voluntarily handing software into the public domain (before reaching the copyright term) is problematic in some jurisdictions (for instance the
law of Germany The law of Germany (german: das Recht Deutschlands), that being the modern German legal system (german: Deutsches Rechtssystem), is a system of civil law Civil law may refer to: * Civil law (common law) Civil law is a major branch of the law.G ...
), there are also licenses granting PD-like rights, for instance the
CC0 A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright license A public license or public copyright licenses is a license by which a copyright holder as licensor can grant additional copyright permissions to any and all person ...

CC0
or
WTFPL WTFPL is a permissive{{about, , the 1970 British film, Permissive (film), the grammatical mode, Permissive mood, the flavor of software license, permissive free software licence A permissive cell or host is one that allows a virus A viru ...
.


Ownership vs. licensing

Many
proprietary {{Short pages monitor