What intellectual property rights should I be concerned about when licensing my software?

Intellectual property includes any creation of the mind, from physical inventions to artwork to software. As such, software is subject to certain intellectual property rights, but only if it is adequately protected. Intellectual property rights include the following:

  • Patents
  • Copyrights
  • Trademarks
  • Trade secrets
  • Know-how
  • Proprietary data
  • Registered designs
  • Customer or potential customer information

A license transfers some or all of these rights to another person or entity for their personal use. When you provide a license, you are essentially waiving some of your intellectual property rights to allow another person to use your idea or product. It allows the original owner to keep the majority of his or her rights, and can be an easier process to reverse compared to an outright transfer if a dispute arises.

Technically, a license could affect any and all intellectual property rights that an owner has. The software license agreement will explicitly set out which rights are and are not affected by the agreement. Most often, however, software licenses will correspond with trademark, patents, and copyright laws that protect the software.

Patents prohibit others from using, selling, or making a particular invention for a period of time, while copyrights protect certain material from being published. Trademarks may be affected in situations where the licensee wants to use a particular brand name in connection with a larger product, such as where the software is a piece of a larger package or product.

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