What Is Computer Software Protected By?

Tyler Yates

Computer software is an integral part of our lives in today’s digital age. It’s used in various fields, from personal computers and smartphones to industrial machinery and medical equipment.

However, the creation of software involves a lot of time, money, and effort. Naturally, software developers want to protect their work from being copied or stolen. In this article, we’ll explore what computer software is protected by.

What is Computer Software?

Before diving into the protection aspect, it’s essential to understand what computer software is. Simply put, computer software refers to a set of instructions that tell a computer what to do.

It’s a program that can operate on its own or with the help of other programs. There are two types of software: system software and application software.

System software serves as the foundation for running other programs and managing hardware resources like memory and CPU utilization. Examples include operating systems like Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Application software refers to programs that are designed for specific tasks or purposes like word processors, image editors, spreadsheet applications, video players, games, etc.

How is Computer Software Protected?

Now that we know what computer software is let’s explore how it’s protected against unauthorized use or distribution.

Copyright Protection

In most countries worldwide including the US and EU countries, computer software is protected by copyright law. Copyright grants exclusive rights to the creator/owner of the work for a limited period (typically 50-70 years) to reproduce or distribute the work in any form they wish.

Software copyright protection covers both source code (the actual programming language used to develop the program) and object code (the compiled version that runs on computers). As soon as someone creates original software code in tangible form (writing it down or storing it on a computer), they own the copyright automatically under most copyright laws.

However, just because someone owns the copyright doesn’t mean they can prevent anyone else from creating similar software that performs the same function. Copyright only protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. For instance, Microsoft Word is protected by copyright, but that doesn’t stop other companies from creating word processors with similar features and functionalities.

Patent Protection

Software patents are another way to protect computer software. A patent grants exclusive rights to an inventor for a limited period (typically 20 years) to prevent others from making, using, or selling their invention without permission.

Software patents cover specific algorithms, processes, or methods used to achieve a particular outcome. For instance, Amazon has a patent on its one-click purchasing system that allows customers to buy items with just one click instead of going through a lengthy checkout process.

However, software patents are controversial because they can stifle innovation and lead to monopolies in certain industries. Critics argue that software is a purely intellectual creation and shouldn’t be subject to patent protection.

Trade Secret Protection

Trade secret protection is another way to protect computer software. A trade secret is any confidential information used in business operations that provides a competitive advantage over others who do not know it. Trade secrets can include formulas, designs, patterns, processes, or any other confidential information.

Trade secrets are protected by keeping them confidential and only disclosing them on a need-to-know basis within the company. Once trade secrets become public knowledge (through reverse engineering or other means), they lose their protection under trade secret law.

Open-source Software Protection

Open-source software is another type of computer software that’s protected differently than proprietary software. Open-source software refers to programs whose source code is freely available for anyone to modify and distribute as long as they comply with specific rules set forth by the license agreement.

Open-source licenses like GNU General Public License (GPL) protect open-source software by ensuring that anyone who modifies or distributes it does so under the same license terms. This ensures that open-source software remains freely available and cannot be turned into proprietary software by any single person or company.


In conclusion, computer software is protected by various legal means such as copyright, patent, trade secret, and open-source licenses. Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages and is suited for different types of software. As technology advances, it’s essential to have robust protection mechanisms in place to encourage innovation while still protecting the rights of creators/owners.