Friday, June 11, 2010

Do You Own Your Software or Just "License" It?

It's one of those insults to our intelligence: you go to a computer store, plunk down 30 or 40 or 200 bucks for a software package, take it home and use it for two years, and then take it to a used book store, trying to recoup a little of your expense when you're done with it, only to find out that said used book store won't resell the software. Why? Because, unbeknownst to you, you never owned the software. You just bought a license to use it. So rather than continuing a useful life as a secondary sale, your (now unwanted) software can either (a) go in the trash or (b) make new coasters for soft drinks.

This is the heart of a case before the Ninth Circuit: when do you own software and when do you merely license its use?

Most of us figure that buying software is no different from buying a book, but the software industry (successfully) argues there are big differences. For one thing, once you download software to your computer, it continues to be useable, even after the disks are long gone, unlike your copy of a book which does not. OTOH, most consumers use software much like they would use a book--until they are done with it.

There are several cases along this same line making their way through the courts, and I can't wait to hear how the Supreme Court will answer these questions, particularly as software and books merge in items like Kindles, or music and iPods.