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Note: Information on this page is no longer being updated and may not reflect current law or policy.


A license is a right, usually conferred by contract, which grants a person or entity permission to do something legally that it could not do absent the permission included in the license. When a license is involved, the licensor (the person or entity who grants the license) retains ownership over the items it licenses to the licensee (the person or entity to whom a license has been granted).

Usually, a person who buys a legally produced copyrighted work owns that work and may "sell or otherwise dispose" of the work pursuant to the Copyright Act's first sale doctrine, which is outlined in Section 109(a). In other words, if you legally buy a book or compact disc, the first sale doctrine gives you the right to loan that book or disc to your friend. Libraries heavily depend on the first sale doctrine to lend books and other items to patrons. With digitally-created works, however, many people who "buy" such works (such as online databases) never own those works; instead the owners subject the work to a license. In these instances, the license terms — not copyright law — govern how the work can be used.

Licensing issues are intertwined with first sale issues. For more information on the first sale doctrine, please see the first sale section of our web site.

Read more:

  • "Negotiating Licenses" : Discusses what licenses are, how they affect copyright law, and outlines print resources and seminars that educate librarians about the license negotiation process.
  • Licenses Explained: Choosing a License: Presents alternatives to traditional content licenses without surrendering copyright protection.
  • Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA): Approved by the Uniform Law Commission (then known as the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws) in 1999, UCITA standardizes the licensing of digitally created works, including computer software and online databases. AALL helped to found Americans for Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions (AFFECT), a broad coalition of businesses and organizations that actively opposed UCITA in the early 2000s because it would allow software companies to have an unfair advantage in determining the terms of a license agreement. Only Maryland and Virginia have enacted UCITA.
  • 12 Principles for Fair Commerce in Software and Other Digital Products: Developed by AFFECT, the Principles are designed to help sellers, users of digital products, and policymakers work together to develop fair laws to govern purchases of off-the-shelf software and digital products.