Copyright is defined as the rights possessed by the author of a work. These rights include copying, reselling, leasing, lending, renting and/or distributing the material, publicly displaying or performing the work, and transferring the copyright. Having a copyright prohibits others from exercising these rights without permission. Copyright not only covers works by an author, artist, or composer, but also a computer programmer. When software was first being developed, copyright law did not protect these programs.

Before software fell under copyright laws, the contents of copyrighted works were apparent either directly (like a book) or indirectly (like sound recordings when played). Software hides the contents of the program and users only see the execution of the program. Revealing the program requires reverse-engineering (decompiling) which is not necessary for other copyrighted material. New laws have been enforced to protect software programmers.

The copyright law currently in effect is the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 2000. While some provisions of this law are controversial and may be changed after being tested in court, most of the law has been solidly accepted by the legal community. The statements in this section are based on the accepted parts of the DMCA.

Any software or data created with a computer is owned by its creator and is automatically copyrighted as soon as it's in any tangible form. "Tangible" means it's recorded somehow. That is, you can't copyright a thought, but if you write it down the writing is automatically copyrighted without doing anything else. It is important to note that when a corporate employer hires someone to develop a program for the company, this is known as "work made for hire." Under this legal doctrine the employer (the corporation) owns the copyright and the employee forfeits all rights. This is not controversial in the corporate sector, but in the education sector it is possible to have a shared copyright between the school, instructors and developers. (Of course, this is up to the school.)

Many software developers have adopted the convention of showing copyright ownership by including the copyright symbol, ©, with the first year of publication and author's name on the 1) packaging, 2) disk or CD-ROM on which the software is distributed, 3) source and object code, and 4) execution of program. Developers usually file with the Copyright Office making ownership easier to prove. It is important to repeat that neither of these is required to "own" the copyright. Some people think it's legal to copy software that doesn't have a copyright notice or © symbol or otherwise, but that's not true. It's OK to copy software only with the owner's explicit permission. This means that, unless there's notice specifically granting permission to copy, software cannot be legally copied. Software owners generally make their wishes known in documents called license agreements.

SCENARIO: Jill just purchased a new game for her computer. Bill loves the game and wants a copy, but he cannot afford it. Bill asks Jill if he can borrow the CD and load the game on his computer. Is this all right under current copyright laws?

SOLUTION: Copyright allows the owner of the copyright to "distribute or lend" the program. Jill does not own the copyright; she owns a copy of the program, or a license to use the program, sold to her by the copyright owner. She cannot lend it to Bill to load on his machine. If Jill would read her “License Agreement,” she would know exactly what is right and wrong regarding copying the software. This is not to say that you cannot lend or sell a book or a music CD that you have purchased to a friend or used book store. The First Sale Doctrine allows the purchaser of copyrighted material to resell the original purchased item. Software is often is a gray area where software companies claim that their software is licensed, not sold.