Ignorance is not an excuse: license agreements, the end user

  • Published
  • By John Stutts
  • 4th Communications Squadron
Have you ever heard the phrase "ignorance of the law is no excuse?" Believe it or not, it certainly does apply within our legal system today, more than ever. Not to get into a debate about the laws of the land, but let me talk to you about software license agreements and your responsibility as the end user.

It is often difficult to talk about Software License Agreements without taking a serious look at software piracy. Software piracy is the illegal duplication, distribution or use of software without authorization from the copyright owner. It includes downloading unlicensed copies from the internet, making copies or loaning disks to friends, installing one licensed copy on multiple systems, selling or distributing back-up copies, and using unlicensed or counterfeit copies. Peer sharing networks are common on the internet, and make file sharing very simple. It certainly also includes music, movies, and games, but who would be playing games on a government computer?

Why is there such a fuss over piracy and why are these license agreements so important? A software license agreement is a contract between the "licensor" and purchaser of the right to use software. It's important to understand that software is not owned by an end-user. Rather, it's licensed to us through an End-User License Agreement. The EULA contains terms and conditions for using the software. EULA is also referred to as the software license or user license. The license agreement is a legal contract between the manufacturer and the user. It details how the software can and cannot be used, and any restrictions the manufacturer imposes. It also may include instructions on destruction when superseded or no longer needed.

Not all license agreements are the same, some stipulate acceptance simply by opening the shrink-wrapped package, some require mail-in registration and some simply require the user to click on an acceptance form that appears during installation or download. The last method is typical of applications as we've moved more to downloads. Of course, you have the right to refuse the user's agreement, but you then surrender the rights and ability to use the software.

Why should you read and know your license agreement? You may be held liable. Penalties for piracy may be civil or criminal. Federal statutory damages may reach $150,000 per infringement. Criminal piracy, a felony, may have fines up to $250,000, and prison terms up to five years, or both. Not only are you responsible for these violations, but also your peers, your supervision and even the wing commander may be held liable and charged multiple fines. This involves both monetary and psychological damages. A prison record can seriously hamper your career. Knowledge of a violation may be reasonable cause to prosecute. If you know about it, report it.

Software companies often make special agreements with large businesses and government entities that include support contracts and specially drafted warranties. This type agreement is used for the Standard Desktop configuration. All commercial off the shelf software purchases for Seymour Johnson AFB will be coordinated with your unit software license manager. Contact your USLM for unit procedures for processing software requests.

What role do you play? Air Force Instruction 33-114, ACCSUP1 is very specific on the responsibilities of users within our command on the purchase, use and accountability of software on our network. Each small computer user should not install or remove any software application without the specific authorization of the USLM, make any illegal copies of copyrighted software or install personally owned software on their governmenttheir government system. Further, they have a legal obligation to report all unauthorized or illegal software thiertheir system.

You have a responsibility to know what software you have on your computer. You also have a responsibility to know and understand how you can use that software. If you are not familiar with the license agreement for the software you are using, contact your USLM or contact the base software license manager.

And remember, ignorance is not an excuse.