Be a Savvy Consumer: Software Licenses Explained

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the Monitis blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at their monitoring services for your important stuff in production.

If you share my worldview, the subject of software licenses will bore you to the very fiber of your being.  Seriously.  I got into the world of software because I like to build stuff.  So, when the building finishes and the time comes to argue about who is allowed to copy what, when, and where, I prefer to let the bureaucrats sort it out.

Unfortunately, however, I can’t always do that.  From time to time it matters to me in a business context, advising clients.  Likewise, if I start slapping things on Github (or selling them), at some point, I have to think about licensing.  But today, I want to talk about arguably the most common way to encounter licensing: as a consumer.

Software seems to run on pretty much everything these days, so the question of who owns what can get murky.  You might find yourself in possession of a piece of software that you shouldn’t have, whether you realize it or not.  Or, you might download something free to use, as a developer, only to smack into legalese preventing you from redistributing it.  As you consume software, it behooves you to understand a bit about it.

Now, I cannot possibly explain every licensing model in a single post.  That topic presents such complexity that folks built an entire website dedicated to helping you sort it out.  What I’ll do instead is offer a quick primer.  I’m going to give you a breakdown of software licenses in terms of copyright implications.  Copyright governs a content producer’s rights to reproduce, publish, and sell that content.  In our case, we’re talking about source code and the resultant software.

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