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The Technological Arms Race of Software Licensing

Open Source Technology
Open Source Technology or Technologies as Abstract

Software licensing exists in the space between digital services and the real world. Often, a license will denote the number of active users permitted to use the software, as well as their ability to manipulate the source code given. As such, it is a contract often enforced by the software itself, with checks to ensure that certain parameters are met and that the license agreement has not been broken. For example, logging in and using a service may log other users out, or prevent login entirely if logged in elsewhere. It is not all-encompassing, though. Services like Spotify allow the user to listen to music on their personal device but do not grant them the right to use those songs in a commercial setting. A case like this would be difficult to enforce on the software level since the device wouldn’t know if it was playing for an individual or playing the music for a store. 

That’s not to say that the contract is never broken, or that there isn’t a large market for illegally pirated software. Similar to how physical, brick-and-mortar stores invest in asset protection, companies that offer digital goods are also investing in their own asset protection. Programs like LimeWire were popularized for their peer-to-peer file-sharing ability that allowed users to freely send and receive illegal copies of copyrighted content including music and software. Between the original and the copy, there is no substantial difference in the actual files themselves. 

DRM and SaaS

Digital Rights Management is a popular method of ensuring that only allowed users are accessing content. By having a song or movie encrypted, sending that file to someone else won’t allow them to play it without the key that allows it to be decrypted. This would certainly work against a peer-to-peer sharing service in its encrypted state, but encryption can be cracked. It is an arms race between those that are using more and more powerful computers to encrypt and those who are benefitting from decoding that encryption method. 

Companies today that offer software will employ a variety of different methods to protect their software and prevent its usage by unauthorized users. Software as a Service is a licensing method that is gaining popularity as cloud computing and internet speeds increase. SaaS ensures that the company has total control over the software and that it is only accessible by those that the centrally-hosted software allows. This method is popular with software licensing that requires a subscription, as the bulk of the service is hosted by the company on their servers. Similarly, the company can actively enforce its software licensing agreement and revoke access to those that break the terms of the agreement. for those without stable internet connections or for networks that are not connected to the internet, such as various security or government systems, this would not be ideal.  

Issues arise with software in a protected, central location. The continued use of that software relies on the company that hosts it continuing to exist into the future and that they will continue to support that software. While Google still exists as a leader in technology, a number of its services are no longer available and the data is no longer hosted on its servers. Google Health was a service that hosted the health records of users but was discontinued after four years.

Creating Software Subscriptions and Monetizing ‘MeatSpace’

The future of software licensing and anti-piracy measures seems to be heading in a more centralized, restricted direction. While there are many open-source programs being developed, other companies such as Adobe have put all of their products into a SaaS format and require a login, as well as a subscription. Computer capabilities are increasing, meaning that the complexity of server-side software can increase alongside it. Where we end up in 10 years may look drastically different from where we are now; the blending of the digital and physical space has shown itself to be a complicated endeavor, and with companies like Tesla diving headfirst to capitalize on that, we may see other companies follow suit on creating subscriptions where you’d least expect them.