Software License Compliance

Iowa State University students, faculty, and staff are responsible for using computer software legally and may be required to demonstrate that the software on their computers is appropriately licensed.


Softlifting is making illegal copies of software. Common reasons people give for softlifting are to make extra copies to use on other machines in the office, to take home, or to give to another person. For most software licenses, one purchased license is required for each installed copy. Since software is protected under the Copyright Act of the US Code, unauthorized duplication of software is a Federal offense.

Software Categories

Commercial, shareware, freeware, and public domain are categories of software distinguished by different rules about how the software may be distributed, copied, used, and modified.


The purchaser of commercial software does not own the software, but rather has acquired a license from the copyright holder to use the software. Conditions and restrictions of license agreements vary so you should read the agreement carefully. The Copyright Act gives the purchaser the right to copy the software onto a single computer and to make another copy for archival purposes only.


The copyright holders for shareware allow purchasers to make and distribute copies of the software, but require that, if after testing the software you adopt it for use, you must pay for it.


The reproduction and distribution of freeware is allowed and encouraged as long as it is not for profit and with the condition that derivative works must also be designated as freeware. That means that you cannot take freeware, modify or extend it, and then sell it as commercial or shareware software.

Public Domain

Public domain software comes into being when the original copyright holder explicitly relinquishes all rights to the software. Since under current copyright law, all copyrighted works (including software) are protected as soon as they are committed to a medium, for something to be public domain it must be clearly marked as such.

Responsibilities of Iowa State Faculty, Staff, and Students

Faculty, staff, and students must be aware of the copyright and licensing requirements of the software they use and must be able to show licensing documentation for software installed on their machines. These responsibilities include:

  • Retaining documentation of proof of purchase or other authorization of all software residing on computers under their control. This includes license agreements and documentation of shareware, freeware, and public domain approval. Some documentation may be held by an administrative unit for site licenses and bulk purchases, but software license compliance is the responsibility of the staff and organizational unit where the computer resides.
  • Purchasing a license for each installed software copy. This includes the appropriate number of copies to support the simultaneous users in a networked environment. Iowa State University has special site licenses and bulk purchases to reduce the cost of certain software. This software is still subject to copyright and license restrictions including reproduction and distribution limitations.
  • Removing software from old computers when that licensed software is installed on replacement computers.
  • Removing demonstration copies of software when not purchased for use.
  • Not using unauthorized copies of software.
  • Not making unauthorized copies of software for their own use or distribution.
  • Not making available software masters for others to use for unauthorized copies.

Disciplinary Action

Illegal and ethical violations as documented in the Code of Computer Ethics and Acceptable Use are processed through the university's judicial system. Violators also may be prosecuted under the U.S. Copyright Act and Chapter 716A, Computer Crime, of the Iowa Code.