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Software Licensing and Piracy

Software pirates :-)

The subject of software piracy or computing software theft is a very important issue that has serious implications for individuals and their employers. Computer software is protected by the same rules that govern other intellectual property, such as records, books and films. Illegal copying is an offence under the Computer Misuse Act. The following may be helpful in clarifying the position.

Public Domain Software

The is no copyright owner for this type of software and it may be used without restriction. Most public software is released on the understanding that users will not sell it on to other people pretending it is owned by them.


The copyright is owned and therefore there are restrictions to use. Usually the software is distributed freely on a 'try it and see' basis. After evaluation the user is expected to send a fee to the author of the software or destroy the copy if it is not found to be useful. The fee enables the author to continue development of the software and being a registered user usually brings other benefits such as manuals, updates etc. Shareware is developed by both individuals as well as companies - popular programs such as WinZip and Paint Shop Pro have both been released as shareware.

Some Shareware is released without a fee being required if the user finds it useful - this software is referred to as Freeware.

Proprietary Software

The usual software packages that are used in the University for word processing, databases, spreadsheets, statistical analysis, etc. are usually sold on a one license, one machine basis. It follows that copying the program onto another machine is illegal and constitutes theft. Usually a license will allow an archival (back-up) copy to be made which will be used to restore files in the event of disk problems. However some licenses may allow installation on another machine, say a portable, if the software is only to be used on one machine or the other at one time. For example, if you have Microsoft software loaded on a computer and you use that computer >80% of the time, then you may make a second copy for use on a remote/laptop system used while away from the main machine. Do not install more than one copy if in doubt.

Site Licenses

Here the University buys the right to use a particular package on campus. The package may be freely installed and used within the University but there will be severe restrictions on copying elsewhere and probably will not be allowed at all.

The only way to be safely within the law is to read the license relating to your software and ensure that you fully comply. As usual with the law, ignorance is no defence.

If you are offered software without a license then it is probably stolen. Suspect software is often the vehicle for viruses, and illegal software will not be supported in any way by the Computing Service.

The Federation Against Software Theft is an organisation that is taking action to ensure compliance with the Computer Misuse Act

For further information or help contact your departmental user representative or the Computing Service.


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