Who owns software?

Software ownership has always been a hot topic of discussion from the advent of the personal computer in the 80s till today. A common misconception lies between the actual concepts of ownership. Do the programmers own the software or the clients? When a client for instance purchases software he/she may think they own the software and believe they have ultimate right over the software like the car for instance. This is due to the client's misunderstanding and an incorrect definition of ownership. Such idea causes software giant's lose billion in revenue. There has been legalisation such as the "Copyright Act of 1976 doctrine",[1] specifying who owns the software to clear up the entire dilemma faced by many.

If we consider a hairdresser as the client, were a program is needed to store all her customer detail, and sends an auto text remainder to her customers for the appointments. She will need a programmer to create software. Once the software has been created for her she will pay the programmer an X amount of sum without understanding copyright ownership. As she has paid for the software which is tailored to her needs, she starts advertising the software to other hair dressers. The programmer finds out and claims that he is the owner and has the sole right to reproduce and distribute his program. The client argues the software is owned by her as its tailor made for her. If the programmer followed the professional code of conduct "Duty to employers and Clients"[2] stringently he should have made her aware of copyright ownership.

This dilemma can be easily resolved if practical steps were taken. Under the copyright law whoever produces the software is referred as the author[3]. There is an exception called 'work for hire'[4] if this is satisfied the owner will be the client. A number of conditioned have to be fulfilled such as the programmer has to be an employee of the client. In our case the programmer is a contractor. The "work of hire" still can apply if other requirements are met such as the work must be specially ordered.[5] An agreement must take place prior to the work that the program is a 'work of hire'. In the hairdressers case this didn't happen. The work must fall under one of the nine categories[6] of the copyright act such as translation or motion picture etc. Sometimes it is difficult to categorise a program into the copyright category. The client should draft an agreement with the programmer stating that if the program is not classified in the "work of hire" doctrine at court the author will be the client unconditionally. In conclusions, there has to be a better understanding of the copyright law for the clients. The programmer being a professional should have explained the conditions of his software.

  1. http://www.developerdotstar.com/mag/articles/daniels_softwarecopyright.html
  2. http://www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.6030
  3. The essence of professional Issues in computing page 91
  4. http://www.bitlaw.com/copyright/ownership.html
  5. http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ09.pdf
  6. http://www.keytlaw.com/Copyrights/wfhire.htm

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