Who Owns Software?

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In a very significant decision, the 9th circuit Court of Appeals ruled that software developers can legally prevent customers from owning the copies of software that they pay for. Instead, if the software license agreement is properly drafted, the software developer retains ownership in the copies they distribute and the customers merely have a license to use the software.

This is significant for many reasons. The first is that this means the “first sale doctrine” does not apply. Under this doctrine a copyright owners rights are extinguished in a particular copy of the software after an authorized first sale. As a result, the customer can rightfully sell the software if they no longer need/want it. In contrast, with a license that restricts transfer this is not permissible.

This ruling by analogy may be applicable to virtual goods as well. Many terms of service specify that virtual goods are merely licensed and not owned by customers.