Who owns your software?
Photo: Viktor Hanacek. Source: Picjumbo
It’s an important question. Because under Federal copyright law, software is like any piece of writing. The author of a line of code is the owner of the copyright to that code. The person who physically types out the words and symbols is the “author” and enjoys the same rights as most other authors – the right to copy the code, distribute it, post it, and modify it to create derivative works.
This makes some logical sense. I can’t just add a printer-driver to Windows and sell it as my creation. In a digital world, intellectual property can be copied and distributed for almost nothing. Our laws have to protect software developers and their employers. If a developer works for a software company, the company owns the copyright. When consumers buy software, they typically don’t buy the rights – any more than we buy the rights to a book when we buy the book. We license the software, through those 10-page 10-point-type end user license agreements we click through when we install something.
All this is logical and necessary in our new, digital economy. But it can create some problems. Farmers now must take their tractors to an approved dealer to repair sensors and other parts because these are controlled by company-owned software. States have introduced “right-to-repair” legislation, but the companies fear that rogue farmers will hack the software to get around emissions requirements – not that outlandish a claim. Copycat firms could glean trade secrets. The farmers claim that they ought to be able to fix anything they need to when they need to, just as they always have. That’s how farming works: stuff breaks, and you fix it.
Photo: Victor Hanacek. Source: Pixabay
The stakes are high. Ten years ago, Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 because they learned that someone was selling an unlicensed copy. Too bad for the consumers who thought they owned it. Surprise! All their notes and highlights were gone. Amazon couldn’t have picked a more apt title to manage, re-defining words like “purchase” and “ownership” that we thought we understood – digital “newspeak.” Amazon acknowledged at the time that they made a mistake.
The stakes are high because getting this issue – the issue of intellectual property – right is key to having an innovative, productive economy. This isn’t about whether we can take home those little bottles of shampoo from the hotel. It’s about who wins and loses in an increasingly global, software-driven economy.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA