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What is a Software Copyright?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A software copyright is a form of copyright protection provided for the programmers and makers of software programs. These rights were initially established by courts drawing a parallel between the source code of a program and the executable program itself, and blueprints for architectural structures and the structure itself. Since architecture can be protected under copyright law, it was a logical extension of copyright laws at the time to provide similar protection for source code and computer software as well. A software copyright is now typically considered equivalent to literary copyrights, with the code existing similar to written words in a piece of literature.

Much like any other type of copyright, a software copyright is established when a software program is written and created by one or more programmers. The owner of a software copyright can be one individual, a group of people, or a company that has hired others to develop a program. There are certain aspects of software programs, however, that make these copyrights a bit more complicated than some other forms of copyright, and software copyright law is still a developing field of legal study.

One of the biggest issues pertaining to software copyright law is the nature of what, precisely, is protected by a copyright with regard to software. Similar to works of literature, the source code that makes up a computer program consists of ideas that have been given shape and form through lines of code rather than sentences and paragraphs. Software copyrights will typically protect the ways in which these ideas are specifically expressed through the code, but like any other copyright, the idea itself is not protected by the software copyright.

This is why similar computer programs may have visual and audio aspects that seem fairly similar in nature and design. The idea itself behind the layout of an operating system (OS) or video editing program is not protected by a copyright and so other programmers can utilize a similar concept. Specific code used to realize that concept, however, is protected by such laws and this distinction can be difficult to clearly define.

Like many other types of copyrighted creations, such as books, movies, and music, the exact nature of the copyright protection on a software program is clearly stated for customers to read and understand. This typically takes the form of the End User License Agreement (EULA), which indicates who holds the copyright on a program and how users may utilize the program. Such statements are often more complicated than the brief copyright notices included with books and movies, however, so casual understanding of software copyright protections can be fairly limited.

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