Who Owns Your Software?

Microsoft, undaunted by a decade long antitrust case which culminated in an unqualified ruling against them, has filed an objection in the Kmart bankruptcy. Specifically, Microsoft argues that the licenses on its software are non-transferable. That means that if another company wishes to buy up divisions of the flailing retailer, the Microsoft software installed on the computers doesn't come with the deal.

Though the details of the objection haven't been made public, ostensibly, the licenses being referred to are the end user license agreements (EULAs), those pesky little screens that pop up when you're trying to install software, forcing you to click the "I Agree" button before you can proceed. Well, theoretically, that's a contract. Whether you read it or not, you and your company are legally bound by that contract. Now, how legally binding those contacts really are may be decided in this case.

If the court rules in favor of Microsoft, the consequences could be drastic. Imagine a company with 10 employees and a computer for each employee running Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office on each computer. Windows costs at least $100. Office costs at least $600. That's $7,000 worth of software the company doesn't really own, $7,000 that can't be counted towards the value of the company, $7,000 that must be replaced when the company changes hands.

Though that number itself is probably fairly insignificant in reality, it reinforces the concept that we are merely renting the software we are using. It's not just Microsoft software. Almost every piece of software you install reads the same. The EULA is almost boiler plate at this point.

Worse yet, every upgrade, fix and patch seems to come with its own EULA. So, though you may have owned the original copy of Microsoft Office five years ago, the most recent upgrade downgraded you. We've all gone from home owners to a tenants with the click of a button -- "I Agree."

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