Copyright Law and Computer Software

The 1976 copyright law was deliberately vague about copyright protection for computer software until a congressional committee could complete a study. The law was amended on December 12, 1980 following the receipt of the committee report. The amendment defines computer software as a literary work, which gives software copyright protection immediately upon creation. The amendment also permitted making one archival or back-up copy of each program.

The International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE) issues a "Suggested Policy Statement on Duplicating and Using Computer Software in Academic Settings." The latest edition of that statement appears in Appendix D and is summarized here.

Back-up Copy 

The Copyright Act allows the purchaser of software to:

  • Make one copy of software for archival purposes in case the original is destroyed or damaged through mechanical failure of a computer. However, if the original is sold or given away, the archival copy must be destroyed.
  • Make necessary adaptations to use the program.
  • Add features to the program for specific applications. These improvements may not be sold or given away without the copyright owner's permission.

Computer Laboratories 

In computer laboratories where students and teachers have access to software, the institution should establish procedures that prevent illegal copying of software. Appropriate warning notices should be posted at the supervisor's desk or the sign-in station. A suggested warning notice follows.

  • Software Copying Warning

    • Software is protected by the copyright law and may not be copied without the copyright owner's permission. You are liable for damages resulting from illegal duplication of software.
    • (A short warning notice also should appear on all sign-in or check-out forms.)
  • Computer User Agreement Form

    • As a condition of using the institution's computer equipment, I agree not to use the equipment to duplicate copyrighted software, whether it is my personal copy or is owned by the institution. I assume liability for any copyright infringements caused by me.
    • (Form should be signed and dated by user.)

Multiple Loading 

It is convenient to load one program disk into several computers for simultaneous use of the program. It is unclear if this is legal, but the ICCE Software Guidelines suggest that this should not be allowed. Licenses authorizing multiple loading are available from some publishers.


Many educational institutions have local-area networks (LAN) or wide-area networks (WAN) which enable large computers to serve many smaller computers or terminals within the institution. Licenses are required to use software on networks.

Database Downloading 

Downloading involves copying a data transmission from database utility to a user's computer. This shortens the "connect time," which is the basis for most user fees. It also enables the searcher to clean up the data before printing a copy. Databases are copyrightable and copying from a database to a computer appears to be a copyright infringement. The copyright owners generally accept temporary downloading as a fair use as long as only one report is printed and the data is erased after printing the report. The problem centers on long-term retention of data to reuse or to combine to create a local database. Long-term retention for any purpose requires a downloading license. These licenses are offered by most database utilities.

Page Updated 01/23/02