What are the Basics of Software Copyright Law?

Anna B. Smith

Software copyright law protects only certain portions of programming code, including original authorship and usage. Programmers interested in obtaining a registered copyright for their material should check with their local government copyright office to learn exactly what is and what is not covered. This type of copyright law is continuously adapting to fit new technology, due to its rapid changes.

Making unauthorized copies of software for friends is a form of copyright piracy.
Making unauthorized copies of software for friends is a form of copyright piracy.

Software is generally defined as any set of written instructions and commands, for a computer, that will cause it to bring about a certain end result. Software instructions are written in different forms of coded language. Some commonly used types of software code are Javascript and C++.

C++ is a commonly used computer programming language.
C++ is a commonly used computer programming language.

Not all aspects of programming are protected by software copyright law. Only certain portions of the programming may be considered new material that is viable for protection. The general ideas and concepts involved in a new program, as well as that program's logic, algorithms, and systems, are not suitable for copyright. Once a computer program has been established as a finished, original work, however, it cannot be copied or distributed without the author's permission.

Computer software may be built upon programs and platforms already in existence. The new software may still be copyrighted, but credit must also be given for the material used that was created by other authors. This information is referred to as excluded material or previous versions.

A software copyright may belong to one individual or to a company. Some individuals create their own programming and then sell its use to a distributing company. In such an instance, the author may retain the original copyright while giving permission to others to use the programming. A company may also hire an individual to create a program for it. In that case, the company holds the copyright to the software developed while that individual was in its employ and working under its specifications.

Computer programs that create specified screen displays are a source of debate in software copyright law. These types of programs are commonly used by video game manufacturers, in which software is coded to create detailed, visual images. Certain countries may require program developers to register their software separately from the screen displays it creates, while others do not. Programmers should check with their local government copyright office prior to completing any necessary paperwork to register video game software.

Software copyright law can protect trade secret material, as well as published material. Most copyright information, once registered, is made available to the general public. Programmers who believe that the source code that defines their software contains information that should be kept secret can inform their local copyright office of the existence of this material. The office will typically request a letter stating this fact, in addition to some portion of the software programming code that can be made available to the public.

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