Low End PC

The Importance of the Software License

L Victor Marks - 2001.10.09

When last I wrote in this space (Meeting Your Needs with a Low-end PC), I proposed that you plan your goals for using your low-end PC. I suggested some common goals, such as word processing, email, Internet use, and some server possibilities.

This time, we're going to talk about licensing. It's a nasty subject, fraught with large amounts of confusing legal-speak, but it's important to plan around licensing pitfalls. All of this stems from the notion that you've bought a shiny disc or diskette carrying the software, but in fact you don't own anything other than limited rights to use the software. This is mitigated by some of the free, open source, and public source licenses that allow you much more freedom in how you use the software you've obtained.

Proprietary vs. Free

So, you've scored a nice little 386 or 486 and want to make it useful. Naturally, you'll scrounge a copy of MS Windows 3.11 for Workgroups and a copy of Word 6.0c from some floppies lying about or bought at a garage sale, install both, and go. And of course, if you've already got one machine like this and score another at the garage sale, you'll just use the same disks and set it up, right?


Microsoft licensing is tricky and ever-changing, but a quick summary of it might be: "If you have an OEM copy of a Microsoft product, that copy can only be used legally on the computer it originally shipped with. Period. If you have a purchased copy of a Microsoft product, you may install it on one machine. If you install the product on another computer, you must remove it from the first machine."

In the past, there were occasional allowances for installing on one desktop and one laptop machine and other niceties. Read your license very carefully. These provisions aren't always in place, so you can't assume anything.

"Why does this matter?" you ask, "Aren't we talking about software that's almost ten years old and has no sales or official support anyway?" Yes, we're talking about product from 1992 or '93. It matters. Microsoft made news not too long ago when deciding to harass a charity that refurbishes and distributes older computers with Windows. See PCs for Kids demands free MS OSes in The Register for more information.

Read your license, and make sure you have one you can present if asked - or don't attract too much attention to yourself. I am not responsible if you find yourself in the midst of a software audit.

Free? What is this "free?!"

Outside of the tricky legalistic licenses that dictate exactly how you may use software and that you agree by clicking a button on a screen with text you've never read and wouldn't be able to remember if there was a test, are the Free licenses.

Free means many things in the context of this discussion.

There are many variations on these definitions. The variations usually require that a copy of the license is distributed with the software, so you can read it either before or at the time that you get the software. One of the best papers I've seen written on the topic is from Kim Johnson of Calgary, who wrote this comparison of licenses in Open Source Development.

The most basic summary is this: Microsoft licensing is strict, and they intend to enforce it, even against the little guys of the world. Every other free license will probably be fine for your daily use, provided you aren't a developer. If you're a developer, you owe it to yourself to read every license and become acquainted with the differences between them. While that summary does an injustice to the people who write these licenses, the truth is that the license establishes a few things:

My recommendation: After you've established what your needs are, and what you expect the low-end hardware to do for you (Low End PC, remember? We started this by talking about low-end PCs!) examine the licenses of different software that fits the bill for the tasks you have defined, and choose a license that you can agree with. Whether it's the Gnu Public License (GPL) that requires you to make the source code available if you distribute the software, the BSD license that doesn't ask much of anything from you, or some variation that's in-between, it's important to recognize that choosing software is harder than just finding what works or looks pretty on the screen. It's important to recognize that the licenses we normally click through have some legal ramifications, and that we'd all be a lot better off if we only used software with licenses we can live with.

Correction to last week's article:

Among the goals I mentioned, I suggested that you can use a Windows 3.1 machine to do light Web browsing and email. This is true, but I neglected to mention that you need a TCP/IP stack and dialer. This can also be referred to as a Winsock, for Windows purposes. Some Winsocks are the MS Winsock for Windows 3.x, available from Microsoft (if you can find it on their ever-changing Web site - my bookmark takes me to a broken link), Trumpet Winsock, or the Chameleon NetManage stack; all are fine choices. A review of these stacks is here, although I don't recall having paid $400 for Chameleon NetManage when I used to use it. A quick look at Netmanage.com shows they aren't even selling it any longer, but Trumpet.com still has a stack for Windows 3.1.

For those of you who choose Linux or another free operating system (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc...), a TCP/IP stack is included in the operating system, so you avoid this problem. LEPC

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